Technology has an ever increasing influence on the way we live and interact both in our work and personal lives. After attending a recent British Chamber of Commerce event presented by Google: “Artificial Intelligence - Rise of The Machine”, it’s evident to me that new technology is changing the way we interact in the work environment, and this is no more evident than within the construction industry. One such recent example of a new technology to be widely adopted within the construction industry is Building Information Modelling (BIM). It represents the use of digital models in construction and has rapidly become a major trend in the industry.
There’s a certain buzz these days about drones, 3D printing and robots. Often these new technologies are labelled as fads or luxuries, however in most cases these new technologies applied in the right way can help streamline existing processes and provide new ways to help save both time and money. As each emerging technologies continue to evolve we may one day live in a world where structures can be built autonomously and unmanned. However this is still a number of years away, so until this day arrives let’s take a look how current technologies are used to help benefit the construction industry today.
Building at Speed
Building large complex structures is usually a very expensive and time-consuming process. However, a Chinese construction company is claiming to be the world’s fastest builder after recently erecting a 57-storey skyscraper in 19 working days in central China.
Broad Sustainable Building, a prefab construction firm, put up the rectangular, glass and steel Mini Sky City, assembling three floors a day using a modular method. Modular methods have been used for high-rise apartment blocks elsewhere, including in Britain and the US.
So how are companies achieving these remarkable construction speeds? They are combining multiple emerging technologies to gather data, automate processes and build structures with more precision, accuracy and speed. These technologies also enable investors to see value from their large investments much sooner than in the past.
Inspections play a key role in the construction process. Before a single piece of foundation is built the construction site goes through a series of inspections. These inspections provide key data on various aspects of the construction site including soil, drainage, vegetation, surface space and much more.
Once the construction process starts more inspections will be necessary to ensure worker safety, compliance, quality and progress. These inspections can be costly, time-consuming and sometimes dangerous to execute. Drones are now being deployed to expedite these inspections. They can cover a wide area in short time spans. They have very advanced lenses that can capture detailed, close up images, and send data in real time to computer systems and intelligent machines which can react in real time to the data received.
One of the many advantages to collecting digital data from drones is that the data lets builders perform pre-construction simulations, allowing them to test various concepts and designs and lower the risk of error before construction begins. A further benefit is the ability to perform construction tasks remotely and unmanned.
The use of 3D printing to produce scale models within architecture and construction has steadily increased in popularity as the cost of 3D printers has reduced. This has enabled faster turnaround of scale models and allowed a steady increase in the speed of production and the complexity of the objects being produced.
Construction 3D printing, the application of 3D printing to fabricate construction components or entire buildings has been in development since the mid-1990s, development of new technologies has steadily gained pace since 2012 and the sub-sector of 3D printing is beginning to mature. 3D printing has also transformed the way complex structures are being built through printing concrete structures at high speed. Examples of this include an unmanned robot 3D printing an entire bridge.
3D printing is also being used to print complex, curved, layered and artistic structures and objects that make up modern buildings. Creating these complex objects by hand and at scale is a massive undertaking, but with 3D printing the task becomes much more efficient. Automated robots are also being used to construct beams, lay bricks, drill, dig, paint and perform almost any task required to build structures. In the future this could allow for construction to be controlled remotely and unmanned.
Google’s Project Tango
The building industry can be relatively slow when it comes to adopting new technological solutions. There seems to be a distrust of technology within the construction sector, which is affecting the adoption rate compared to other sectors. However, Google’s Project Tango could be about to change that with its self-3D mapping software. Project Tango’s basic premise is to understand space and motion within a defined space/room/building.
The kit required is best described as a small device that is equipped with an infrared camera, emitter, and a wide-angle lens. This allows for the technology to map out a room in 3D. When taking things a step further, an augmented reality app called could potentially allow a user to hold up his/her device inside any room of a building and be able to see where pipes and electrical wires are positioned.
Unfortunately the most exciting opportunities will not reveal themselves until the third-party developers learn how to unlock its true potential. Progress like this will take time, and although we will have to wait a few years until we realize the true potential, the pace of change is accelerating quickly.
Energy bills represent a significant proportion of the costs involved when building and operating large data centres. Keeping the servers cool as they crunch numbers is such a challenge that Facebook even built one of its facilities on the edge of the Arctic Circle.
Google’s solution to this problem is to put its DeepMind artificial intelligence unit in charge, using AI to manage power usage. This resulted in a 40% reduction in the amount of electricity needed for cooling. This reduction will translate into savings of hundreds of millions over the life cycle of these buildings. The AI worked out the most efficient methods of cooling by analyzing data from sensors among the server racks, including information on things like temperatures and pump speeds. Long term this technology could be used in the other areas to help reduce energy costs on construction sites and the life cycle of projects.
A major UK contractor has become the first to use the latest in smart health & safety technology. Skanska is one the countries early adopters of the DAQRI Smart Helmet, a cross between Google Glass-style technology and a hard hat, this is latest in wearable Augmented Reality (AR) technology for the construction industry.
Helmet users are provided with data and information overlaid in their line of sight. The hope is that technology like this will help the construction industry become more efficient, delivering projects quickly while reducing costs.
Key features of the Smart Helmet include:
- Ability for a member of staff to remotely connect to the helmet and see through the eyes of the user – enabling them to provide guided instructions on potential issues within the construction site.
- Thermal vision, allowing users to identify potentially dangerous temperatures while monitoring plant equipment and machinery
- 3D reconstructions of buildings, enabling workers to see the world around them as it is and as it will be as a construction project progress through to completion
Drones, AI, 3D printing and robotics are some of the key technological trends disrupting the construction industry. The rates of innovation in these technologies have enabled construction industry pioneers to use technology to radically change business models and processes for erecting large buildings and structures. As machines get smarter and more capable each year, the vision of robot led construction sites become closer to a reality.
Construction industry companies can be somewhat reluctant to embrace new technologies, but we are now moving into an ever increasing digital age, and it’s now time to realize that digital tools can be more powerful than a hard hat and toolbox.
Senior Recruitment Consultant – Hong Kong & Asia