To rephrase an old proverb, “Necessity is the mother of innovation.”
For an industry with productivity gains lagging behind others for decades, that could not be truer than for construction in 2020.
The year has been ripe with innovation, from developments in materials to advances in modularization. However, 2020 will most likely be remembered as a turning point, a year when construction technology in particular accelerated from a nice-to-have concept to a must-have management tool.
For some, the transition towards technology has been a toe dipped in the water, for others a shotgun marriage. COVID-19 hit construction hard in late February, with many sites interrupted or shut down for weeks. Even when work resumed, it was clearly not business-as-usual. Processes had to change.
Owners, designers and builders have all felt the effects, particularly in terms of communication. For example, video conferencing has become the accepted method of bringing project partners together to discuss planning and progress.
However, there’s more to it. Construction technology is now increasingly recognized not simply as an end to itself but as a solution to business problems.
For example, the industry’s recognition of Building Information Modeling (BIM) as a collaborative tool has gained significant traction. The development and sharing of design drawings among all parties, right down to the subtrades, has not only proven effective but has added new levels of creativity, even potential cost savings, by allowing all partners to visualize how the project will come together in detail.
Architects are often the meat in the project sandwich. On one side, they are now more dependent than ever on 3D computer modelling to present their designs to their clients. On the other, their increased use of digital twinning offers the potential to bring all worksite partners together to simulate the actual build.
The pandemic has also revealed the inefficiency of traditional site visits. Now, self-powering, wireless digital cameras and aerial drones, often integrated into BIM platforms, deliver high resolution 3D views of the structure, both in real time and in subsequent stages of completion using augmented and artificial reality. These technologies allow supervisors and management to safely view work progress from head office and develop time-stamped visual documentation for future reference.
These technological advances have become available to all project partners on a 24/7 mobile basis by blending advanced software with new powerful handheld and portable devices, coupled with data stored in the cloud.
Construction technology was becoming more sophisticated over the past several years, the pandemic notwithstanding. However, the construction industry’s traditional hesitancy to adapt and change has held many companies back from its adoption. Major concerns include how to strategize the internal process changeover and training employees to the required level of competency.
The truth is management today faces an overwhelming choice of technologies. Vendors offer integrated solutions for every purpose, from the back office to the worksite. However, there is good news too. Similar to today’s highly developed video-based communication and collaboration processes between project partners, most software and digital platform service providers offer webinars that not only promote their products but are being used to educate and train staff.
There’s more innovation to come. Exoskeletons in various forms may one day dominate the worksite, although we’re not close to that stage yet. In the near term, however, humans will continue to make most key decisions, in some cases using data gathered by A.I. co-bots and other programmable devices that can roam, scan and photograph worksites. This will further advance efficient and effective interactions between project partners.
Owners and developers will also need to cast their eyes to the future. The technology shift accelerated by COVID-19 has altered the demands of the workspace across the entire economy. How much new commercial space should be built? Should existing buildings be extensively repurposed for housing? What will be the expectations of future multi-unit residential occupants? The decisions made over the next 12 months will ripple through the construction industry for years to come.
John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont.-based freelance writer. Send comments and Inside Innovation column ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.