According to The Future of Jobs 2016 report by the World Economic Forum, we are in the midst of a fourth phase of industrial revolution, with technology rapidly developing in areas like 3D printing, robotics and artificial intelligence. In this four part series, we’ll explore the history of the industrial revolution so far and take a look at how what’s being developed now will change the way we work and live.
Overcoming challenges through technology
The future workforce
According to a survey conducted by Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the lack of skilled workers is the second biggest problem the UK construction industry is facing, with two-thirds of the reporting surveyors citing it as a major factor hindering building works. The survey, which is in its fifth year, has typically seen 40% of businesses reporting that a skilled worker shortage has caused a business problem. However, this year that number rose to 62%, a significant increase. With Brexit looming, the problem is only going to get worse.
We are also facing the challenges of an aging population. In What construction jobs will look like when robots can build things, George Quezada states that by 2034/35, 6.2 million Australians (20%) are projected to be over the age of 65. Here in the UK, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reports that 18% of our population is currently over age 65, and that number is expected to reach just under 24% by 2036.
Quezada also reports that the number of Australian construction workers aged 55 and over has increased from 8% in 1992 to 14.2% in 2014, while the ONS reports that from 2013–2023, 19% of the UK construction workforce is set to retire. That places approximately 406,000 of the British construction workforce at the age of 55 and over. Of course, with retirement age going up and pensions going down, some of those may not be able to leave work when expected. Certainly our younger workers will see themselves putting off retirement – working well into their 70s or even 80s. This older and smaller workforce will require supporting technologies that will aid with the physical requirements of a job and bring together people from a variety of working environments (homes, offices, cities, and countries) to work collaboratively on a single project.
Tomorrow’s built environment
In addition to adapting to a changing workforce dynamic, we must also look at the predicted future of the built environment and how concepts like the Internet of Things, Smart Cities, and the Circular Economy are already affecting the way we design and build things. While some of this we are about to explore may feel futuristic and therefore easily dismissed, the truth is that we cannot afford to ignore it. Advancements are being made faster than ever. It wasn’t that long ago when a computer was a luxury item that few individuals could afford; now, most of us carry far more powerful computing devices in our pockets and/or wear them on our wrists.
The impact of future technologies on SMEs
While much of this is still “pie in the sky” for SMEs, it’s important to stay abreast of the changes because the future of construction is going to prove challenging for smaller business. With the implementation of robotics and artificial intelligence technologies to the industry, we will see a time when anything that moves will also collect data; the more data gathered, the better the accuracy. Unless SMEs become a part of the greater whole through joint venture, collaborative software and a shared database system, they won’t be able to generate enough data on their own to compete.
With all of that in mind, let’s look at a few of the technologies that will potentially have the biggest impact on the AEC environment.
Key technologies that will impact construction
Currently, 3D printing applications for the construction industry are in their early stages of development, with applications mostly limited to prototypes and theory testing. Even though the technology is readily being applied in manufacturing, our industry has a few more hurdles to overcome, not least of which is ensuring that 3D elements can provide a sound, safe and dependable result.
There is also the regulation and standards element. Our current regulations surrounding the built environment have been developed and tested over decades, and 3D printed elements simply do not have any history to support wide use suitability. Still, the potential is there, and many within the industry see 3D printing as a very real part of future construction.
One of the key construction applications for 3D printing is in making components. If an element doesn’t have to be aesthetically creative, then a 3D printer can provide a cheaper, faster solution. Numerous components can be printed simultaneously using a variety of colours and materials. For harder, more expensive to print materials, a mould can be printed and used multiple times.
Eventually, 3D printing may become a feasible way to print entire buildings. The advancements being made with BIM facilitate that idea, with BIM methodology being perfectly set to provide most of the information needed to make it viable. Once the technology reaches a useable stage, not only will 3D printing be a workable solution to the skill shortage, it will also facilitate faster, accurate construction, reduce the amount of waste produced, and even support construction efforts in harsh and unfriendly environments.
Over the years, automation and robotics have completely changed the way factories work, allowing manufacturers to create new products at speeds and efficiencies impossible with an all-human workforce. However, in the construction industry, until recently robotics have been impractical due to their static nature. Much of the work in construction takes place in an amorphous environment: the workforce, tools, and materials move around; elements and structures differ from day to day as the work progresses; no matter how similar in design every project is still bespoke, with varied site conditions and customer needs, diverse building codes and regulations to observe, with differing supply chains, materials used and weather conditions. There are also design changes, substitutions and unforeseen factors to contend with. All of these things make it difficult to automate much of the process. However, recent advancements are changing that. Automation technology is becoming more dynamic. Even without the addition of artificial intelligence, robotic advancements are shaping the technology in a way that is advantageous to our industry.
In a recent article for theNBS.com, Richard McPartland explored the use of robotic exoskeletons to aid site workers with high-impact, strenuous and repetitive tasks. Given the reduced and aging workforce, whilst it feels like something from Total Recall or Aliens, exoskeletons provide a practical solution to both productivity and health and safety issues.
Because a construction site is so dynamic, it’s hard to put a machine in place and leave it there to ‘get to it’. However, new robots are being introduced that solve that problem. In fact, one company is already offering a robotic solution to bricklaying. US-based company Construction Robotics has developed SAM100, the first commercially available bricklaying robot. According to SAM’s makers, the robot can work collaboratively with a mason, provide data to improve production, and increase productivity by up to five times whilst reducing the need for lifting by 80%.
In addition to bricklaying, other onsite jobs – particularly those of a repetitive nature – lend themselves to robotics. The shortlist includes dispensing concrete, welding, and demolition.
Another robotic technology that readily lends itself to construction is the aerial drone. Drones can perform visual inspections, recording everything that they find for human analysis. This is especially useful on larger work sites and projects where buildings are several stories high. A drone can get to hard-to-reach and hazardous areas more easily than a human. Fitted with specialised technology, a drone can provide infrared inspection to detect gas leaks, structural weaknesses and other potential issues. Data provided by a drone can prove invaluable, greatly reducing human risk and the associated costs.
As a practical illustration, we can look at Komatsu. In addition to their intelligent machines, their smart construction methodologies rely on drones to survey construction sites, create 3D maps, extract blueprints and simulate construction plans.
In the future, it is expected that drone technology will advance enough so that aerial drones can even aid with the actual construction. This potential was explored a few years ago by Gramazio Kohler Research – a Swiss firm that collaborated on a large-scale art installation in France where a team of up to 50 drones built a structurally stable, six-foot tower using 1,500 Styrofoam blocks.
Whereas robotics is all about the hardware, artificial intelligence (AI) deals with software. The two terms are sometimes considered interchangeable, but they are not. Robotics can include AI, but not all robots are “intelligent”. In the same way, AI can be used in robotics, but it also has other applications. For the construction industry, potential areas for application of artificial intelligence run the gambit: design workforce, equipment, administration, methodology, post construction, and facilities management.
AI is also another area that is benefitted by BIM and vice versa. When combined with BIM technology, AI can be used to identify inconsistencies and missing elements. It can sort through thousands of BIM objects and create a shortlist of the ones best suited to a particular project. Our knowledge will become AI knowledge and, as it is applied, that knowledge can grow exponentially being stored and made accessible via a shared database. In this way, we can apply AI to quality control, surveying and analysing structures and materials in order to optimise their development. The result will be safer construction sites, improved workflows, a reduction in errors and omissions, and more completions that are on time and within budget.
As with robotics, the construction environment isn’t structured enough to take advantage of what’s currently available on the market. However, there is a definite need to “watch this space”.
Augmented, virtual and mixed realities
When it comes to immersive technologies, we’ve got three ‘reality’ contenders – all playing an important part in changing the way we work and play. While each one delivers information, the way they deliver that information is what sets them apart.
Augmented reality (AR)
Augmented reality combines information with real world stimulus. With this technology, information can be added to points within the real world and projected as a 3D object that you can walk around and view from all angles. This is useful for projecting full sized elements within a built environment. Another practical use for AR is to place those same markers inside a 2D directory image that allows the user to see the product as a small-scale 3D image. While certain AR applications require special glasses, augmented elements could also be viewed using the camera on your mobile. The camera captures the scene and then places the virtual objects in it, providing a real-time preview of what something will look like.
With augmented reality, the mechanism being used to view the data is not connected in any way to its surroundings. It is solely driven by markers; there is no awareness. This is different with enhanced augmented or mixed reality, which we’ll talk about momentarily.
Virtual reality (VR)
Most of us are familiar with the concept of virtual reality through films and futuristic gaming applications. With VR, you place yourself in a completely virtual world that is visually disconnected from the outside. There are no markers; you are immersed in whatever environment is being projected by the VR device. With this type of technology, you could take a walking tour of a construction site from your office or explore the in situ elements of a building in Manchester during a meeting at the customer’s office in London.
Mixed reality (MR)
Mixed reality (also known as enhanced AR) combines VR and AR to provide virtual objects that are “aware” of their surroundings and can be anchored to the real world without the use of markers. Once placed, an MR object will remain in that position and be permanently visible via an MR device.
Techradar reports that analyst firm CCS Insight predicts a big push next year for both regular and mixed reality (enhanced AR) devices. According to their forecast, over 8.6 million AR devices will be shipped worldwide by 2021, with just under 50% tagged for business use. CCS also predict that the combined total for shipments of AR and VR devices in 2021 will reach 99 million at a cost of £9 million.
When it comes to construction applications, all three reality technologies bring something to the table. Currently, VR is at the most advanced stage of development so, for the time being, it appears to be the most practical. Creating 360-degree content is becoming easier, and tools like HoloBuilder allow users to create their own virtual walkthroughs enriched with valuable information. Sharing and collaborating on that content is also getting easier.
With AR, the applications are still limited. Because an AR device doesn’t connect with its environment, using it on a dynamic construction site may prove tricky. However, it could still prove useful for tasks such as checking design document details. As for MR, the technology is still a bit too raw to be practically applied to construction jobs. However, in time, mixed reality devices could become a regular tool of the trade, overlaying actual construction sites with their virtual counterparts in order to detect errors and eliminate costly mistakes.
BIM, smart cities, cloud-based services, circular economy thinking; all of these things are already changing much about the way we work in our industry; however, the construction site has remained relatively the same. With the adoption of 3D printing, robotics, artificial intelligence and virtual reality, even that is set to change. Tomorrow’s buildings will combine 3D printed elements and human crafted parts. Tomorrow’s workforce will be a mixture of human and robotics. Tomorrow’s employee will find strapping on an exoskeleton as natural as donning a hardhat. As with every phase of the industrial revolution since the harnessing of steam, these newest innovations will alter the way we live and work forever.