Since the latter half of the 20th century the world has seen an unprecedented acceleration in the scale and speed of technological advancements. When humans first walked on the moon in 1969 nobody could have imagined that a few decades later most of us would own handheld devices with processing capabilities far beyond that found in the computer technology used to transport the Apollo 11 crew to our nearest astronomical neighbour.
Also, in a little over two decades, the internet has utterly changed how we live our everyday lives from the way we work, communicate, watch TV and movies, listen to music, shop and everything else besides.
These examples serve to show the incredible pace at which global technological advancements are moving. In construction however, the speed at which new technologies and innovative processes are embraced is far slower than most other global industries. The industry is one of the oldest and largest in the world and is now standing on the brink of a technological sea change not seen since the industrial revolution over two hundred years ago. In order for it to move into this new era, it is vital to understand the opportunities, benefits, drivers and challenges associated with technological advancement and innovation in the industry.
Technologies – Physical:
Equipment, machinery and materials in the construction industry are constantly evolving. This has been a slow and steady process and has brought with it the benefits of certain efficiencies and savings from both time and cost perspectives.
The development of new physical technologies such as 3D printing offer the promise of enormous benefits in terms of process efficiency and flexibility, waste reduction and cost savings. This technology is still in its infancy but has already been used to excellent effect in sectors such as car manufacturing, aerospace and medical devices.
In addition, process automation through robotics has advanced to a point where it can offer enormous benefits to construction projects through increased productivity, quality, accuracy and safety whilst also reducing construction costs.
Technologies – Digital:
Perhaps the greatest developments in construction will come through the application of digital technologies. Building Information Modelling (“BIM”) is still relatively novel but is finding a foothold in many new projects. Through the production and development of digital models representing the various elements of a project, designers, contractors and owners are afforded greater flexibility and control over all phases of a project from design and construction through to operation. If implemented correctly BIM will bring with it benefits of improved efficiencies and reduced costs.
BIM will play its part in a wider “internet of things” in construction projects which will see the generation and exchange of data amongst users and electronic devices. This in turn will lead to the use of “big data” and analytics to improve efficiencies, flexibility and cost control. Again, this will not be limited to the design and construction phases but beyond into the operational phase of projects.
Whilst technological advances represent the most significant potential innovations in the construction industry, there are other areas where innovation can be applied.
The traditional “build only” and “design and build” contracting models are tried and trusted but not always the most efficient or cost effective. Contracting models which see the contractor involved at an early stage in the process allowing greater integration of the design development and construction processes and can at the same time provide cost certainty by allowing either target pricing or guaranteed maximum pricing.
Alliance contracting encourages greater co-ordination between project owners, individual design team members and contractors through a shared risk structure. This contracting structure is a radical departure from most other structures which can be adversarial and blame based.
Also, the application of ‘lean’ methods to construction is not widely seen but careful project planning and management can improve the alignment of resources and information, work progress and a reduction in waste materials.
Challenges and Barriers:
From an objective standpoint, the ever increasing array of new technologies coming to the market should constitute a once in a lifetime opportunity. However, in reality, this is not the case as a number of obstacles stand in the way of their uptake.
As already mentioned, compared to other global industries, construction has traditionally been slower to evolve and embrace innovation and new technologies. The industry is rooted in a conservative corporate culture and most construction projects are traditionally linear in nature (i.e. design, construct, test, certify, remedy defects, operate and maintain). The alliance of these two factors creates an environment where radical change is difficult to implement.
Further, on the client/employer side of projects, the overriding objective is to see the contracted work delivered on time and within budget. Clients quite rightly desire tried and trusted methods, materials and a contractor in whom they have confidence to deliver their project.
Whilst advances in technology bring with them enormous potential benefits, they also pose fresh challenges. In order to apply a greater level of digitisation to projects employers, designers and contractors will need to acquire the required skills to use such technology. The construction industry is not one that has attracted young digital talent which in itself is a barrier to advancing new software based technologies.
A higher level of digitisation also brings with it issues of data ownership and possible data protection issues. The recent UK case of Trant Engineering Ltd v Mott MacDonald demonstrates the care that must be taken in relation to the control of BIM models for instance.
Projects may also face cyber security issues if they become more software driven and the measures required to reduce these threats will come with an associated cost.
Drivers and Incentives:
It is beyond question that climate change must be the single most powerful driver behind innovation and technological advancements in construction. The World Economic Forum’s 2016 report on Shaping the Future of Construction noted that the construction industry is the largest global consumer of raw materials and constructed objects account for 25 – 45% of the world’s total carbon emissions. The report further highlighted that 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to buildings – this, coupled with the fact that the population of the world’s urban areas is increasing by 200,000 people per day, underlines the importance of ensuring the construction process is as energy efficient and lean as possible and the subsequent built environment is sustainable.
The desire to bring this change must come from all elements of the construction sector, that is, clients/end users, designers, contractors, manufacturers and suppliers. The fragmented nature of the industry does not however lend itself naturally to a cohesive approach in this respect.
Government (both at a national and wider level) must therefore play a greater role in incentivising industry players to embrace technology and bring construction into the 21st century. This can be done through incentives (e.g. tax breaks, grant funding etc.) or via penal means through increased building and environmental regulation.
It is ironic that the remarkable technological advancements discussed above has largely been brought about through the, innovative and progressive thinking of engineers yet engineers make up the bulk of a construction industry that is slow in embracing those same technologies.
The opportunities to improve the industry in terms of process efficiencies, flexibility, safety, climate and the environment and ultimately in terms of cost are not future concepts but are in the here and now. To embrace these changes will benefit everyone on this planet – so what are we waiting for?