Technological innovations have moved rapidly and construction has been along for the ride.
In the last decade, we’ve seen massive advances in terms of software and tools that help different construction sectors transform how they do their work. From the jobsite, to the office, to working remotely, technology has filtered into almost all aspects of the industry.
Here are five game-changing innovations:
1. Cloud-based construction software
The construction industry is often seen as very “traditional” in terms of how it operates. In a sense, this holds true in many areas. But just like other industries, construction has been undergoing something of a digital revolution.
Cloud-based construction software is one area in which construction has seen considerable innovations. Connected technologies are allowing electrical estimators and all others within the construction sector to collaborate in real time, coordinate their teams, connect data from different sources and operate at new levels of efficiency.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen cloud-based software really come into its own for construction, allowing many to continue working remotely. Cloud-based software has enabled a collaborative environment, even where people can’t be co-located in an office. Importantly, it doesn’t require complicated IT protocols or for users to install heavy programs onto hard drives. Cloud software is managed by the provider on external servers, and user data is protected with strict security protocols.
In construction, cloud-based software includes tools such as: automated takeoff software (for estimating), construction project management software and cloud tools for the office such as accounting and communications.
2. Artificial intelligence
Artificial Intelligence (AI) was more the stuff of movie screens a decade ago, but rapid developments have seen it make its way into everyday use in construction. At its heart, AI utilises “machine learning” - where an intelligent program “learns” by observing and identifying patterns, connecting data and making predictions or recommendations based on what it has learned.
For example, large-scale construction projects can run into all sorts of headaches with scheduling, particularly as there are so many moving parts. Sometimes it’s difficult for the humans to keep track of every task, delay or change. AI for scheduling is one thing that can help. It can spot both patterns and anomalies, and alert the human operators early.
Some other AI examples include:
- Monitoring and prioritising risk
- Monitoring designs from BIM and alerting to any design clashes
- Self-driving or self-operating construction machinery
- Off-site pre-build construction, performed by robots
- Building monitoring after construction is complete.
3. Construction tech apps
With mobile technology becoming more and more accessible over the last decade, construction tech apps have become ubiquitous in many areas. These are used for a range of tasks either directly related to the job or for managing the “paperwork” side of things.
A key goal of most construction tech apps is productivity. They exist to make some task quicker and/or easier to complete. The app space is one area that has exploded quickly in the last decade. Construction companies are now spoilt for choice as there tend to be multiple possible options for anything they might need.
Apps also play an important role in enabling remote work and creating new efficiencies for construction firms. For example, apps can reduce the need for physical paperwork (such as timesheets) and can reduce any need for travel between an office and a job site. Some examples of apps include:
- Time tracking for workers (like Hubstaff)
- Specialised calculators (DEWALT Mobile Pro is a good example)
- Apps that help you “keep drawings in your pocket” (Plangrid allows you to look at construction drawings on your phone)
- Apps for creating or editing drawings (FingerCAD is an example)
- Apps for measuring or finding level (for example, virLaser Level)
4. 3D printing
3D printing has been around in construction since the 1980s, but it has developed to new levels over the last decade. It was initially used to create prototypes and architectural models, but as the technology has developed, it is being used in much more ambitious ways in construction.
- An entire 3D-printed mansion was completed in China in 2016
- Concrete bridges are being printed by a company in the Netherlands
- Steel fabrication for structural strength.
3D printing is still under heavy research and development, with the hopes that it could bring even more efficiencies to the industry. For example, by reducing the timelines needed to complete building projects. It has advantages such as speed, reduction of construction waste, the ability to handle complex designs and the ability to reduce human error.
It’s not without criticisms, however. Here is a quick summary from Designing Buildings UK: “All of these innovations require complex equipment, and whilst it is possible to envisage using some simplified version to manufacture specialist components on a more industrial scale, it is questionable whether this will replace bricks and mortar.”
On the whole, construction businesses aren’t seeing 3D printing as a replacement for what humans do, but more as an additional helping hand.
Robotics is a natural step from AI and machine learning. While most experts predict that manual human labour will always be a key component of construction, robots are already here to take care of some tasks, especially those that are repetitive and require following a set technique each time.
What are the robots contributing? Here are a few examples:
- Bricklaying. There’s a HadrianX bricklaying machine being used in Australia to construct large walls. The robot can also sense any changes in its environment as it operates, such as a change in wind speed or direction. This helps it to make adjustments to ensure it remains precise.
- Imaging. Smart robots can assess the construction site and scan for progress. The information gathered is used to analyse and detect potential errors or problems early. Doxel is a good example of this.
- Remote controlled robotics. Improved connectivity technology has made it possible to remotely control construction robots. For example, drones that can be used to paint areas that would be awkward for humans.
- Autonomous (self-driving) equipment. Similar to innovations being made in the automobile industry, autonomous vehicles are also under development for construction. The Volvo HX2 is one example, capable of carrying heavy loads without needing a driver.
Robotics is an area that is still under considerable development, so we expect to see more innovations over the next few years for construction. Will the robots replace people? We don’t think so, but perhaps some tasks currently performed by humans will be transitioned.
Historically, the construction industry has always been one of the slowest to catch on to digital technologies, but we’re actually moving forward in leaps and bounds. Recent surveys show that many companies are prioritising technology investments in the hopes of achieving new efficiencies for their businesses.
Over the last decade, we’ve seen large advances in the five areas we outlined here. While most companies in the industry are now moving into using cloud-based software and apps, some of the more expensive technologies are less widespread.
Perhaps we will see AI, robotics and 3D printing used more as the technology develops and prices potentially come down. It’s worth keeping an eye on what’s happening - how will new innovations affect your business?