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Construction Plays Catch-Up with Disruptive Technology, Innovation

One industry consultant boldly predicts the construction industry is on the verge of a sea change, driven by the need for better productivity and supported by a wave of emerging technologies such as robots, drones, and smart equipment.

“It’s not exaggerating to say that we’re on the edge of a revolution in engineering and construction,” read a new study developed by global consultant KPMG. Theirs was just the latest voice heralding the rise of “disruptive” technologies with the potential to vastly improve how things get done in the construction sphere.

The opportunity afforded by this disruption is simply huge. The construction industry has annual revenue of $10 trillion globally, according to Boston Consulting Group and the World Economic Forum. That’s 6 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP) — higher in developing countries. Industry revenue is expected to grow to $15 trillion by 2025. Construction employs some 100 million people worldwide. Technologies that improve productivity, cut costs and boost quality can make a major difference.

Much of the activity can be broadly categorized into six areas:

  • 3D Printing (Additive Manufacturing)
  • Drones
  • Mobile Apps & Platforms
  • Robotics & Automated Technology
  • Equipment Connectivity & Tracking
  • Building Information Modeling

The emerging trends put incredible tools at the disposal of contractors and business owners. Equipment fleets can be monitored for location, operating status, fuel consumption, idle time, engine diagnostics and more. Haul trucks at some mines operate autonomously, programmed for safety and productivity. Equipment like dozers and motor graders use GPS technology to grade and spread material with micro-precision. Robots are used to lay bricks on commercial construction jobs. Researchers aim to create remote-control excavators for work in toxic or high-risk environments.

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Commercial unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly called drones, monitor construction progress, inspect structures, map locations, estimate damage for insurance, and even calculate volumes of aggregates and other materials at quarries and job sites. Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags are placed on assets and supplies at job sites, allowing them to be tracked and monitored during any project. The list grows daily.

Industry observers say these technologies are not fads, but real game-changers that will boost productivity, safety, transparency and profitability for companies that use them.

“What is really exciting in this space is the ability to perform construction remotely and unmanned,” wrote Mike Kavis, vice president of Cloud Technology Partners, in a recent issue of Forbes magazine. “Innovative companies have built solutions that allow smart robots to work synchronously to construct complex objects. All this can be done under the watchful eye of a technician from across the world over the web.”

Kavis said the companies behind some of these technologies foresee their use for construction of buildings on Mars. Perhaps one day, he wrote, thousands of robots will work together to build structures in space with minimal direction from earth. “As machines get smarter and more capable each year, the vision of building on Mars becomes less of a fantasy and closer to a reality,” he wrote.

Digital technology inspired by Mars will also play an increasing role in the manufacture of heavy equipment. The 2017 ConExpo-Con/Agg trade show in Las Vegas will feature an excavator made with 3D “printing” technology. The Additive Manufactured Excavator (AME, pronounced “Amy”) is a joint project of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Minnesota, the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM), National Fluid Power Association, Center for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power and the National Science Foundation.

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“3D printers simply use such basic materials as metallic powder, melted carbon pellets and bamboo fibers instead of ink,” the Knoxville News Sentinel reported. “Just a few years ago, 3D printers took an entire day to produce a single coffee mug. Today’s 3D printers can make an Army jeep in eight hours.”

The project originated with a dream by Oak Ridge engineers who envisioned sending a 3D printer to Mars and having it make a mini-excavator that would start construction for a human colony on the red planet. The AME project “marks the first large-scale use of steel in 3D printing,” the Knoxville News Sentinel wrote. Officials at Oak Ridge believe 3D printing technology will make construction equipment manufacturing portable and eliminate or lessen costs like long-distance shipping from foreign markets.

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Technology promises to pervade across the construction landscape. IronDirect.com, a new online platform that allows users to purchase, manage and resell construction equipment, has made technology a central focus of its business. This includes selling new and used construction equipment, attachments and parts via e-commerce, and using DirecTrac machine telematics, QR codes, a DirectAssist mobile app, online parts ordering and more.

“Customers need the purchase, management and resale of their construction assets to catch up to this century,” said Tim Frank, president of IronDirect. “It’s all about speed, visibility, transparency, and channel cost reduction to make machines more profitable to own.”

Construction has lagged on technology, but now has tremendous opportunity.

“In an industry where practices have barely changed for decades, the building site of the future promises comprehensive online modeling, drones as surveyors and virtual-reality images of everything from building sites to commercial real estate,” The Wall Street Journal reported.

Construction lags other industry sectors in research and development, devoting only 1 percent of revenue to information technology. That compares to 3.5 percent in the auto industry and 4.5 percent in aerospace, the Journal said.

Citing a study by Boston Consulting Group, the Journal said full-scale digitization could lead to savings of up to 21 percent in the cost of design, engineering, and construction phases of non-residential construction. That’s an estimated $21 billion per year globally.

The engineering and construction sector “is the largest consumer of raw materials and other resources, using about 50 percent of global steel production and more than 3 billion tonnes of raw materials,” said John M. Beck, executive chairman of Aecon Group, Canada, in a foreword to the BCG study. “Any improvement in productivity and successful adoption of modern innovative practices will have a major impact. For example, a 1 percent rise in productivity worldwide could save $100 billion a year.”

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One labor-saving use of technology cited by the Wall Street Journal is a robotic bricklayer from Construction Robotics. It can pick up bricks, apply mortar and lay them with quality and precision. The robot is guided by a human who types in instructions via a tablet app. The Semi-Automated Mason (SAM) 100 relies on humans to load it with bricks, but otherwise does the work itself. The company has five of the units for rent.

Despite the uptick in technology use in the construction realm, the industry is making up for a long history of playing from behind. KPMG surveyed nearly 220 senior executives at engineering and construction companies, project owners and government agencies. It found that construction struggles to make sense of emerging technology resources.

“When applied effectively, technology can significantly boost a sector that for many years failed to improve productivity,” said the KPMG study, “Building a Technology Advantage.” “Yet, despite substantial investments in innovation, the construction industry is struggling to reap the full benefits of advanced data and analytics, drones, automation and robotics.”

Based on the survey, KPMG said only 8 percent of the companies rate as a “cutting-edge visionary” in adoption of technology. About one-quarter are “industry leaders,” while almost 70 percent are “industry followers” or “behind the curve.” The smallest companies tended to be the most behind in technology, although there were deficits in all size ranges. The largest companies ($20 billion and over in annual revenue) were at least twice as likely to be industry leaders as their smaller counterparts.

Just over one-fifth of respondents said they are aggressively disrupting their business models, KPMG said. More than 40 percent of contractors and business owners said they are “innovating in a few areas with positive results.” Only about 20 percent said they have a single, integrated project management information system.

Despite this, the survey reported at least noticeable usage across six types of technology:

  • 42 percent use drones to monitor construction status
  • 30 percent use robotics or automated technology
  • 65 percent use remote monitoring on job sites
  • 30 percent use RFID to track equipment and materials
  • 61 percent use building information modeling (BIM)
  • 17 percent use smart sensors to track people on job sites.

One senior executive responding to the KPMG survey said much has to change with the challenges and opportunities posed by technology. “Little innovation has happened in engineering and construction firms over the past 15 years,” he said. “This has to change and they need to drive the innovation in order to stay competitive.”

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