Drones, augmented reality, wearable tech, modular construction, cloud and mobile technology: the construction site of tomorrow is certainly going to look different. Startups armed with powerful tech are changing what is possible in and around the modern construction site.
Take 3DR, who make drone aerial analytics software for the construction site. Or PlanGrid, recently acquired by Autodesk, who are taking coordination and reporting on construction projects to a whole new level. Or Katerra, who are disrupting the industry by delivering projects through modular components and innovative processes.
These are but some of the global startups who are gunning to transform an industry that is, quite frankly, in desperate need of a shake-up. Industries all over the world have been transformed by tech, but the construction site continues to use legacy processes and outdated practices. Let’s take a deeper look at what today’s construction site will look like tomorrow.
What we’re working with.
Although these new technologies are showing promise in the construction industry, much of today’s onsite tools, methods and practices date back to the previous century. The development of computer-aided design (CAD) previously revolutionized the design process. New building materials, construction equipment, and innovative project management made construction more efficient – unlocking technologies that lead to higher skyscrapers, undersea tunnels, longer bridges, and mega projects that changed the face of the Earth.
However, this sort of industry progress and innovation did not keep pace with other industries at the turn of the millennium. In fact, while other industries completely redevelop on the back of technological advancement, the construction site continues processes from those 20th-century heydays, and significantly lags behind in productivity.
Massive potential, little uptake.
There is no escaping the fact that construction is one of the least digitized sectors in the world. According to a digitization index by MGI, the industry lags behind its contemporaries in tech uptake, with construction coming in second last and last place respectively in the U.S. and European lists.
Consider the retail industry for comparison. Imagine if this sector continued to operate with mom-and-pop stores, where each store served a specific need and sold a specific product? It simply would not work on a global scale. Today, retail is dominated by international giants with powerful supply chains and increasingly digitized distribution systems. They know everything about their customer (thanks, big data) and have the ability to customize every part of the business for efficiency.
It is a missed opportunity that construction has not been flexible to technological disruption. Historically, the sector has tended to focus on making incremental improvements, in part because many believe that it is not possible to scale up new ideas, and that each project is unique which makes embracing new technologies impractical.
Global labour productivity growth in construction has averaged one percent per year over the past two decades. Consider this number in tandem with the growth of the total world economy (2.8 percent) and the manufacturing sector (3.6 percent) over the same period. The industry has lagged – and continues to lag – behind other industry benchmarks. The good news is that this can change with an overhaul of processes and commitment to efficiencies. If productivity within construction caught up to that of the total world economy, that would equate to an additional $1.6 trillion. So, how do we do it?
A fresh perspective.
At the end of the day, progress will come down to the desire for change. The construction industry needs global companies and decision makers to encourage and highlight the benefits of new tech. And one look at potential solutions to the industry should make that case clear.
There are signs of hope as companies take on innovative technologies. Katerra is one such company using drone technology in its construction projects. PCL, a top ranked contractor, also recently signed a deal with 3DR for drone usage on site. Plangrid and Building Connected have made headway penetrating the market, and their recent acquisitions by Autodesk means they will be taken more mainstream with such a strong backer. Even the World Economic Forum is now working with global partners for the development of construction.
These platforms and high-tech tools have the potential to completely transform every aspect of the building process. Better tools equal more efficient processes, which means faster project completions, and improved productivity.
However, there continues to be trepidation to such change in the majority of the industry, and the reality differs across verticals and regions. Construction leaders reported in a survey that they do feel ready for disruption related to the physical product, such as electrification and autonomous systems, but less when it comes to newer offerings arising from shifting customer preferences, digital business models and IoT.
Further, these executives acknowledged that organization transformation will be critical to navigating such disruptions successfully. Yet, they felt their readiness with respect to creating an agile organization was not in line with the likely impact of these disruptions.
Nonetheless, the choice between progress and not must be embraced by construction companies all over the world. It will take certain companies, project owners and decision makers to push for change, but change is easier to enact when the result equates to faster, better and cheaper construction projects.
Ramzi Jreidini is the CEO of Handiss, a freelance platform connecting quality architects and engineers with employers. Ramzi is a tech startup entrepreneur and civil engineer who is working to enable construction companies to outsource engineering services more effectively using SaaS and marketplace tech.