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Future Proofing Buildings & Construction Sector through Digital Transformation
By Ravi Krishnaswamy, SVP – Energy, Environment & Buildings Practice, Frost & Sullivan
Global construction market turnover is estimated to reach US$10.10 trillion in 2021 and Asia will account for nearly half of that value. Given the fact that the industry accounts for six to eight percent of the global GDP, the pace of technology adoption has been rather slow, thus hampering economic and productivity gains. However, the combination of new mega trends like urbanization, connectivity, and convergence, smart is the new Green, Artificial Intelligence and social trends are driving transformational changes in the construction industry.
Poor planning, lack of automation, inadequate risk management, and unsophisticated supply chain practices are major factors hampering productivity and resulting in significant budget overruns and time delays in all types of construction projects.
Construction process still uses a lot of paper, even though digital tools are adopted in various stages of design, detailed engineering, planning, onsite construction and supply chain. Moreover, the sector depends on multiple layers of subcontracting thus resulting in inconsistency of skills and technology levels of contractors. Lack of standardization and varying levels of sophistication among these contractors adds to the difficulty of workforce development.
An end to end paperless process through digital collaboration allows for automated construction permits, real-time sharing of information, and timely progress and risk assessment. Despite increasing availability of digital solutions, industry has to overcome the challenge of rolling out technology across multiple sites, subsectors and stakeholders. The way forward will be a platform that promotes interoperability.
Digital transformation in the construction industry focuses on three key areas—Asset Digitization, Construction Automation and Design Automation. Asset digitization will enhance design and operational benefits, while construction automation will improve productivity, safety and cost. However, design automation is revolutionary and has the potential to change the underlying concepts behind built environment.
1. Asset Digitization
Three technologies are at the forefront of asset digitization in the context of construction industry:
a. 7D BIM - “Design for Maintainability” is the key theme behind next generation building information modelling (BIM) system. The seventh dimensional (7D) BIM focuses on asset life cycle management and integration with facility management systems. It facilitates seamless access to information such as component specifications, operating manuals, equipment warranty details etc. from the building model.
b. Artificial intelligence (AI) - AI finds a variety of use case in construction including automatic, clash-free and efficient routing of mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems, predictive building modelling, improving efficiency of building air-conditioning systems using machine learning, helping to ascertain building stability in event of an earthquake etc.
Design Automation Is Revolutionary And Has The Potential To Change The Underlying Concepts Behind Built Environment
a. 3D Printing: The ambition of 3D printing pioneers in the construction industry, like Chinese firm Winsun or Italian company WASP, is to create a supersized printer capable of printing entire buildings. However, as with other technology applications, the beginning is small, focused on printing of bespoke components or parts. The 3D printing industry is also witnessing some unintended, but positive developments:
i. Sustainable Materials – Development of 3D printers that use of locally available and sustainable construction materials like wood, straw, clay, ceramics etc. is generating lot of interest. WASP was the first to pioneer this concept and is advancing the concept of “zero-mile” homes, which only use materials available locally for 3D printing
ii. Prefabricated Construction – Current construction processes have a very high concentration of on-site activities thus leading to logistics, safety, and coordination issues. Moving heavy lifting off-site, to factories through pre-fabrication, is already being practiced, but not very widely though. 3D printing robots is well suited for mass production of prefabricated walls, roofs, and floors, thus reducing site work.
b. Robotics: Replacing construction labour with robots is a scenario that gets played out often in the minds of technologists, economists and social scientists alike. While this may be a reality one day, it needs to overcome obstacles in terms of regulation, certification, codes and interaction with other construction equipment. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed a mobile robot called Digital Construction Platform, which they are hoping can be quickly integrated into an existing construction site, as it uses material and process that fit into the existing construction codes. The other practical application is the development of a bricklaying robot, developed by US based Construction Robotics’, which is six times as fast as a human worker. Use of robots in hazardous and inhospitable environments, construction, refurbishment or disaster management could potentially be the next big opportunity.
c. Drones - Drones are already used in large construction projects for carrying out site survey, progress monitoring, construction planning, safety inspections, and hazardous area monitoring. Drone technology advancements will help the industry take a giant leap in terms of cost, time, quality, and safety. The market for commercial drones used by construction industry globally is likely to reach US$10 billion by 2022. Drones will also be increasingly used to manage existing buildings and infrastructure assets.
3. Design Automation – Generative design
This most nascent field of building engineering uses complex computer algorithms to automatically generate various design combinations, based on functional requirements and other key input parameters like material choice, weather etc. Advancements in the future will include building’s structural and utility systems mimicking the construction in human or animal bodies; for example water flowing through veins integrated into walls, rather than through a separate pipework. Animal bone like structures using carbon fibre could enable the construction of large spaces without the need for columns.
The powerful combination of these digital trends will propel the construction industry to a new paradigm and perhaps result in more disruption and change in the next decade, than what the industry has seen in the last one hundred years.
Frost & Sullivan’s Buildings research team is working on a visionary report titled “Impact of Digital Transformation in the Buildings and Construction Sector”.