Where is the technological frontier in Construction?
The fourth industrial revolution has already affected the construction industry through demand for structures for renewable energy and buildings like data centres, warehouses, ‘dark’ kitchens and supermarkets for online delivery services. Some of these buildings and structures already use forms of applied AI in their management and operation.
The construction industry is wide and diverse, and the various parts of the digital construction production system are in various stages of development. Over time the development of AI and associated digital fabrication and production technologies will reshape the existing industry, led by fundamental changes in demand (the function, type and number of buildings), design (the opportunities new materials offer), and delivery (through project management). However, these developments are now starting to affect the industry.
Automation technology is at the point where intelligent machines are moving from operating comfortably in controlled environments, in manufacturing or social media, to unpredictable environments, like driving a car or truck. In many cases, like remotely controlled and autonomous trucks and trains on mining sites, the operations are run as a partnership between humans and machines, or as Brynjolfsson and McAfee put it “running with the machines not against them”. These innovations might reasonably be expected to affect site processes and project organization, as concrete and steam power did in the past. Table 1 has examples of where the technological frontier was in 2020 for plant and equipment and construction materials, as an indication of the range and extent of this wave of innovations. Missing from these lists is smart contracts using blockchain.
Invention and innovation based around BIM, digital twins, digital fabrication and advanced manufacturing technology is starting to fundamentally affect the construction production system through economies of scale. Over time this will alter the balance between on-site and off-site production of building modules and components, and how they are handled, assembled and integrated. Because there are many different types of building in many places, production methods vary widely across the industry, so the use of these new materials and technologies will be varied.
Transport costs have always been important, but the option of site production has been limited due to standardization of mass produced components. The combination of BIM, online design databases and digital fabrication allows on-site production of some building components. Combining robotic and automated machinery with digital fabrication and standardized parts opens up many possibilities.
Past technological changes in construction operated over the three dimensions of industrialization of production, mechanization of work, and organization of projects. Automation and AI can also be expected to work along these dimensions as the fourth industrial revolution reconfigures them by linking data through the life of a project. The role of AI enhanced cloud-based platforms that integrate design, production and delivery of components and materials with digital production technologies that allow mass customisation will be significant in the production of components and materials.
Table 1. Examples of the construction technological frontier in 2020
1.1 Plant and equipment
Autodesk BUILD Space – Boston
UK construction manufacturing hub
Exoskeletons – Esko, HULK
Remote control equipment – CAT, Komatsu
Drone monitoring – Skycatch, Icon, Vinci
Smart helmets – Trimble Hololens, Daqri
Platforms – Katerra Apollo, Project Frog
Build autonomous skidsteer
FBR Robotics ‘Wall as a service’
Otis ‘Elevator as a service’
Sensor fitted cranes
Automated engineered wood factories
3D concrete printing with boom system – ICON, Aris, 3D Constructor
3D concrete printing with gantry suspended nozzle – D-Shape, BIG, US Marines
Onsite metal printing – GE, MX3D, Aurora
3D printing of combined steel and concrete
Roller press printing of smart fabrics
4D printing of shape memory materials
Molecular engineering of materials
Improved concrete additives and sealants
Components with cloud-linked sensors
Cloud-based fixtures and fittings
For mechanization, the characteristic changeability of construction sites is challenging for automated and robotic systems, and it might take decades of investment for machines able to do site work or for humanoid robots to do human tasks. In some case a human supervisor operating a team of robots or several pieces of equipment, each with limited autonomy, might work better. A worker with a smart helmet could monitor these machines both on the project and in the site model. Beyond site preparation however, there may not be many tasks left if site processes are restructured around components and modules that are designed to be assembled in a particular way, and machines to assemble those components and modules can be fabricated for that purpose. For an industry with an aging workforce there is the potential of exoskeletons for site work, a form of human augmentation that combines human skill with machine strength.
For organization of projects digital platforms providing building design, component and module specification, fabrication, logistics and delivery can be expected to become widely used. Platforms provide outsourced business processes, usually cheaply because they are standardized, and are available to large and small firms. Also, platforms use forms of AI to monitor and manage the data they produce, the function of intelligent machines. Examples are Linkedin (matching jobs and people), Skype (simultaneous translation of video calls), AWS and other cloud-computing providers, and marketing, legal and accounting software systems. Cheap, outsourced, cloud-based business processes can lower fixed costs and thus firm size, because firms can focus on their core competency and purchases services as necessary as they scale, leading to more entry and more innovation. If these digitised business processes are cost-effective and become widely used, they can provide much of the data needed to train machines as project information managers.
The BIM model of the project links the design and fabrication stages to the site and the project[i]. Digital fabrication produces components and modules designed to be integrated with on-site preparatory work and assembled to meet strict tolerances. Project management would be more focused on information management, and the primary role of a construction contractor might evolve into managing a new combination of site preparation work and integration of the building or structure with components and modules, some of which may be produced on-site in a Fab if economies of scale permit.
In this case, the industry would, perhaps slowly, reorganise around firms that best manage on-site and off-site integration of digitally fabricated parts. With outsourced business processes and standardized site and structural work, that would be a key competitive advantage of a construction firm. Firms would become more vertically integrated if they become fabricators as well, reinventing a business model from the past when large general contractors often had their own carpentry workshops, brick pits or glass works and so on.
While firms involved in construction of the built environment are facing technological advances that will affect many aspects of the technological system, this is a process that happens over years and decades. It takes 30 to 50 years between invention of a major new technology like cars or computers and its use becoming widespread, examples are discovering the double-helix and biotechnology, the dynamo and electricity, and the first electronic computers in the 1940s.
How long a transition to a new production system largely built on automation and digital fabrication coordinated by AI takes might take is unknown. While machines can replicate individual tasks, integrating different capabilities and getting everything to work together is another matter. Combining a range of technologies is needed for workplace automation, but solving problems involves specific technical and organizational challenges, and once the technical feasibility has been resolved and the technologies become commercially available it can take many years before they are adopted.
This suggests there will be many new roles emerging in construction over coming years, for project information managers, BIM supervisors, integration specialists and other fourth industrial revolution workers. Because these jobs will be primarily on new projects, they will not quickly replace the many existing jobs in the industry that maintain the built environment.
Nevertheless, the technological frontier is moving again, and new construction projects will generally utilise the most cost-effective technology. Current AI technology provides services such as GPS navigation and trip planning, spam filters, language recognition and translation, credit checks and fraud alerts, book and music recommendations, and energy management systems. It is being used in law, transport, education, healthcare and security, and for engineering, economic and scientific modelling. Advanced manufacturing is almost entirely automated.
In the various forms that AI and digital fabrication takes on their way to the construction site, they will become central to many of the tasks and activities involved. In this, building and construction may no different from other industries and activities, however the path of AI in construction will be distinct and different from the path taken in other industries. This path dependence can vary not just from industry to industry, but from firm to firm as well.
[i] In 2019 the International Standard 19650 was released, providing a framework for creating, managing and sharing digital data on built assets. https://www.iso.org/obp/ui/#iso:std:iso:19650:-1:ed-1:v1:en