14-16 May 2019

Tech heads: the construction industry’s technology revolution

It’s a sector that turns over $10 trillion globally, but for the construction industry, productivity concerns are a harbinger of doom.

A 2017 report by Mckinsey reveals the construction sector is a little worse for wear. It boasts one of the lowest industry productivity gains despite being a career path filled with experts.

This slow growth is due, in part, to the industry’s slight lag behind others to implement new and unproven technologies.

However, as these technologies become more affordable and practical to implement, the sector is expected to be overwhelmed by their infiltration.

Artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR), and 3D printing — to name a few — aren’t just useful for the consumer-facing side of construction, but rather will have a drastic impact on internal industry processes.

So, what can we expect in the next wave of technological advancements, set to enhance efficiency, mitigate risk and disrupt the construction industry?

Artificial intelligence

In terms of project design and planning, artificial neural networks (ANNs) are poised to make a huge impact.

Otherwise known as connectionist systems, ANNs are adept at taking highly complex information (that would take weeks, if not be impossible, for a human being to deconstruct) and dividing the ‘layers of detail’ into simple forms.

In construction, this means that there are endless possibilities — from initial design modelling, to project planning and performance diagnostics. In fact, the technology is already taking on many tasks previously considered too nuanced and dependent on human intuition for machines to handle.

There are countless studies in this space, but a 2017 study in the Journal of Soft Computing in Civil Engineering provides some of the most recent market trials.

The study reviews application of ANNs in construction activities related to prediction of costs, risk and safety, tender bids, as well as labour and equipment productivity. The review suggests that the ANN’s were successful, even when humans didn’t accurately input the information.

With this positive move forward, the process of designing a building may see a shift in the architecture industry. Designers may now incorporate reliance on algorithms over hand drawn models.

New building materials

Turning to a more physical matter, building materials still remain the cornerstone of the industry.

Building materials often account for more than half the cost of projects. Conventional materials, particularly concrete make up the majority of company demand.

In the last decade, innovative building materials have been adopted to enhance efficiencies and environmental considerations. Some of the most commonly utilised ones include:

  • Self-healing concrete: A concept developed by a dutch microbiologist, this is normal concrete that contains bacteria. Upon cracking, the bacteria is released to its food source and begins a process of spreading up through the cracks and sealing over them. There are few downsides (apart from the spotty look) to this new tech, including significantly high costs of $236 AUD per cubic metre, as opposed to $118 AUD for normal concrete.
  • Digestive smart bricks: A project out of Newcastle University, the bricks again have a form of bacteria in them that are able to extract resources from sunlight, waste, water and air, and in turn, ‘feed itself’ to plug a hole in the wall. This concept still remains relatively untested, but is set to be a big idea for the industry.
  • Aerogel insulation: Considering some of the recent problems around cladding Aerogel is the next best thing. Aerogels Australia is leading the way with three forms: Cryogel (protection from freezing), Spaceloft (protection from mid-range temperatures), and Pyrogel (protection from extreme heat).

3D printing

With ANNs on the rise, and new building materials in the pipeline, imagine a world where materials for skyscrapers were printed on-site, instead of mass delivered.

Unlike regular printing that takes a block of material and subtracts till you reach the shape, 3D printing adds, and produces the exact model layer on layer via a controlled nozzle in either plastic or metal.

While the industry isn’t quite ready for large-scale production, 3D printing in construction is looking like a game changer.

In 2014, Chinese construction company WinSun Global revealed their first 3D printed houses, created with a 22-foot-tall industrial printer.

To begin with, they printed single rooms and then put them together. Since then, the company has built entire structures. The company is so confident in their printing capabilities that they have recently announced they would be happy to build Donald Trump’s wall.

Back home, a host of other companies are experimenting with 3D printed houses, including the Grand Designs ‘5×4’ feature on Melbourne’s Hayes Lane properties.

These are just a snippet of the emerging tech, with many others on the horizon. The construction industry must embrace these emerging techs to stand any chance at alleviating their productivity and personnel deficit.

Technology at DesignBUILD

DesignBUILD is looking to expand our representation of smart building materials and technology. If you have a smart product that you are looking to showcase to a captive audience of building and construction specifiers, contact the team today to discuss opportunities.

About the Author: Tim Buttery

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