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Emerging Technologies in Construction (Part 1 of 3)

The Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) industry across the globe, including in Nigeria, is going through transformative times. This transformation is long overdue, as the industry has traditionally been dubbed as slow to change, due to the bespoke nature of construction projects and the specific technical challenges experienced in the industry. Accordingly, there has been a major push in recent years to adopt and incorporate new technologies in the industry, with the overall aim of increasing productivity and improving efficiency.

Given the breadth of these technological changes, we’ll be exploring them in a 3-part series addressing; Digital technologies, Innovative Materials and Transformative Processes. For obvious reasons, we kick off with digital technologies. Enjoy the read.

Digital Technologies

According to a recent Mckinsey study, construction is amongst the least digitised industries, only coming ahead of Agriculture & Hunting in an assessment of 22 industry sectors including Finance, Oil & Gas, Retail among others.

Nevertheless, from B.I.M (Building Information Modelling) to site productivity applications, digital technologies are permeating every stage of the construction process and supply chain. We take a look at some of the most exciting ones, assessing them as they relate to key stakeholders within the industry’s supply chain.

1.Building Information Modelling (BIM):

Arguably the most significant technology in construction presently, BIM is proving to be truly revolutionary. In its simplest form, BIM is the collaborative digital modelling of buildings, spanning the entire lifecycle; from Design to Construction and Decommissioning.

A key emphasis of BIM is ‘collaboration’. As all parties work on a single model, transparency in project delivery is increased and potential errors are minimised. Furthermore, cost and scheduling information can also be incorporated into digital models, thus further improving transparency and efficiency in project execution.

This technology directly affects: Clients, designers, consultants, contractors, facility managers and manufacturers.

Image Source: mdx.ac.uk

2.Integrated Marketplaces:

Improved internet access and the subsequent growth of the e-commerce industry is resulting in a boom in online marketplaces for construction products and services. These marketplaces will play a key role in the near future, in bringing solutions from product manufacturers and service providers closer to their intended markets.

Some key bottlenecks will need to be addressed however, before their full potential can be reached. These include: local logistics challenges and a change in customer buying behaviours from physical product inspection and relationship based buying, to ‘specification based’ decision making.

Integrated marketplaces are expected to most impact on manufacturers, distributors, clients and professionals.

3.Virtual and Augmented Reality:

As Virtual and Augmented Reality technologies begin to mature, their uptake into other industries beyond video gaming continue to grow significantly. The construction industry is one industry expecting to see extensive use of these technologies, from the design stage through to construction, operation and decommissioning.

Virtual Reality technology takes users into a simulated computer generated environment. Combined with BIM, Virtual Reality is transforming how projects are executed, as design teams are now able to both create projects in virtual environments, as well as conduct physical ‘walk – through(s)’ of entire projects with clients and contractors even before breaking ground. Potential savings from reduced errors and time wastage is expected to be in the billions of dollars.

Image Source: Wired.com

Although similar to VR, Augmented Reality superimposes additional information on a user’s current reality. Often deployed using sensors and wearable devices (e.g. Smart Glasses and Smart Helmets), AR helps put design models in their proper context and provides users with the ability to physically interact with and manipulate otherwise invisible information, with the aim of improving decision making on construction projects. Examples of this invisible information includes: execution schedules, location temperature, embedded carbon and much more.

Once online, VR and AR are expected to be most applicable to Designers, Consultants, Contractors, Clients and Facility Managers.

4.Wearable Tech:

Similar to VR and AR technologies, wearable devices are also expected to permeate the industry in the coming years. Interestingly (and as mentioned above), wearables are oftentimes the delivery mechanisms for VR and AR technologies. Beyond the VR and AR applications of wearables, we look at other examples and use cases below:

a. Smart Glasses & Helmets: Offering a variety of uses including; providing live onsite video feeds for remote support, communication of work instructions to workers in the field amongst others.

b. Bionic Suits: Coming straight out of science fiction movies, bionic suits provide users with a wearable exoskeleton for improved safety and reduced effort for physically demanding tasks. They are essentially power enhancers allowing construction workers to lift or operate heavy objects and machinery on construction sites.

Image Source: Designboom.com

c. Health Trackers: Already a success in the fitness industry, health trackers are preparing to make an entrance in construction. These devices typically in the form of armbands/ watches provide real-time monitoring of user conditions. Linked to the cloud, they are able to monitor and record workers’ health conditions in the field from a control centre, potentially improving Health and Safety on construction sites.

Wearable tech in construction is expected to be of particular interest to Contractors looking to up their game.

Image Source: listedfit.com

5.Field Management and Productivity Tools:

With potential gains of up to $1.6 Trillion globally from improvements in construction productivity, the emergence of field management and productivity tools targeting the industry is not surprising. Further driving the adoption of these tools are the mass penetration of smartphones and the growth in cloud computing. As such, field management and productivity tech are appearing in the form of mobile first, cloud based applications.

Among other areas, these tools typically cover:

  • Crew tracking
  • Task scheduling
  • Performance monitoring and
  • Progress tracking on construction projects.

As with wearables, these technology solutions are primarily targeted at Contractors and Sub - Contractors, as well as Project Managers.

6.Autonomous Vehicles:

Both Unmanned Arial Vehicles (UAV’s or Drones) and Autonomous Construction Vehicles are expected to find broader applications within the AEC industry in the coming years.

With drones already in use for land surveying, they are expected to potentially take on wider roles, especially in the area of onsite safety and security.

As construction sites are largely closed and controlled environments, they provide an ideal use case for the fast developing Autonomous Vehicles industry. To that effect, the use of autonomous vehicles has been gradually growing, with one example being a Rio Tinto project in Australia, currently making use of over 70 autonomous vehicles.

As with all new technologies, there are pros and cons. In this case the pros being the expected increases in safety and efficiency, but important to take note of however, are the job implications on the industry’s current workforce.

Image Credit: Komatsu.com

7.The Internet of Things (IOT):

Defined as a network of physical devices communicating over the, IOT has arguably been in existence since the 80’s. The current rapid rise in its popularity and applications though is driven by 3 major factors;

  • Maturity of cloud services
  • Rapid improvement in sensor technologies, especially Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)
  • Machine Learning and Big Data analytics.

As the importance of data grows in every aspect of human life, within the Engineering and Construction industry in particular, data obtained from IOT will ultimately be viewed as the building material of the future. Presently however, some of the IOT applications include:

  • Energy efficiency monitoring and management
  • Asset monitoring and tracking
  • Inventory Management and much more.

Furthermore, with the promotion of Smart City initiatives across the globe, the internet of things is expected to scale rapidly in the coming years, and the construction industry is poised to be in the middle of what many expect to be the next industrial revolution.

As digital technologies continue to emerge, it will be interesting to see the roles they will eventually play in the future of construction.

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