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Balfour Beatty offers bold take on innovation in 2050

Don Wall
Balfour Beatty offers bold take on innovation in 2050

A recent report on innovation by U.K.-based infrastructure group Balfour Beatty offers a glimpse at the construction sector in 2050 in which robots perform all the repetitive tasks on a jobsite, builds are executed much faster due to 3-D printing and firms that are slow to change will be left in the dust of the innovators.

The report, released in June and titled Innovation 2050 — A Digital Future for the Infrastructure Industry, says digital technology will be a major catalyst for change. It argues in many respects the future is already here, as 3-D Building Information Modeling (BIM) of projects advances to include scheduling, costing and other elements of the construction process, and drones allow project supervisors to not only track progress but undertake projects more safely and efficiently.

"We are experiencing a digital revolution, redefining how we as an industry operate; becoming faster, better and more agile," said Leo Quinn, Balfour Beatty Group chief executive, in a statement. "We have to ensure our industry trains our current and future employees with the skills to exploit the use of new technology, new materials and new methods of working."

Automation and robotics will address one major problem today’s employers face, the report notes — the lack of skilled workers.

"Continued investment in new technologies will help address these skills shortages, by helping to change outdated perceptions of the industry, enabling us to attract a more diverse, skilled labour force," the report comments. "Increasing use of robots and automation will also mean that the industry becomes more productive, creating new roles for skilled workers in cutting-edge areas, while reducing the need for those undertaking repetitive, manual tasks such as bricklaying, lessening long-term health risks."

"Similarly, moving to offsite construction techniques such as precasting, prefabricating and preassembly has the potential to address the shortage of skilled labour while also maximizing efficiency, consistency and precision and improving health and safety."

But even with more automation, educational systems will still play a lead role in teaching adaptability, so that future workers are able to solve problems that won’t even arise for a long time.

Stimulating the appetite for change, Balfour Beatty argues, is the growth in large and increasingly complex infrastructure projects. The demand for new infrastructure to stimulate economies and cater to new populations in an increasingly urbanized society will require game-changing innovation.

"In the future, the Internet of Things will power smart buildings built with new, self-healing, energy-generating or breathable materials, in smart cities that are able to model the future and adapt instantly to changing circumstances," says the report.

Balfour Beatty makes 10 predictions for 2050 and offers 10 recommendations.

Among the predictions:

The shape and offer of the infrastructure industry will change significantly, with new business models, products and services.

Infrastructure will move on from concrete and steel to include new materials that respond to their surroundings.

New jobs and industries will be created, and some will disappear, especially low or zero skill roles and those relying on repetition of tasks.

Thinking only about design and construction will become an outdated concept as infrastructure becomes multi-functional.

New, disruptive ideas will emerge, for making mass transit faster, safer and less damaging to the environment.

Workers will increasingly use wearable technology such as exoskeletons, and direct neural control over devices and vehicles will be possible.

Among the recommendations, Balfour Beatty says the construction and infrastructure industry must become more agile — contractors will need to become disruptors and take advantage of pan-industry partnerships with such technology players as Amazon, Google and Microsoft.

The report also says cyber risk must be taken seriously and programmed in. The Wanna Cry cyber attack of May 2017 proved how important that is, points out Balfour Beatty.

The increased use of digital technology and storage of data will tend to require significant usage of energy, the report notes, and so it recommends, "Infrastructure owners and designers, regulators and policy-makers will need to ensure energy systems are ready for the digital revolution."

Meanwhile, privacy and storage capacity will emerge as key concerns as the onslaught of data presents increasing challenges to the industry.

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