Construction is often seen as the industry most resistant to adopting new technology. This is put down to the fact that many companies work to very tight margins which limit their ability to invest in training and development with new tech
However, there is a growing appetite to bring the industry and construction workers into a new age. For example, the industry is the largest adopter of drone tech in the UK. Demand for drones increased by 239% last year as businesses large and small started to see the benefits in bringing a drone on site.
The rise in automation on the building site has so much exciting potential, from its ability to build structures in much less time to the way it can relieve physical strain on the bodies of those working manual jobs their whole lives. However, many fear that with rapid adoption of artificial intelligence and automated building, those whose jobs can be filled by machines will be left with nothing and no capability to retrain.
The following explores new forms of technology while also considering how humans are still vital to construction and how finding a good balance should be the best route for the future.
The potential of 3D printing to revolutionise building, particularly in prefab construction, is being eagerly discussed across the world. Russian company Apis Cor were able to 3D print a house in 20 hours and the overall concrete 3D printing market is expected to reach $56.4m by 2021.
3D printing solutions still rely on human input though, as concrete houses printed directly on site must then be insulated, wired and fitted with windows and doors. This shows how 3D printing can help reduce the time constraints of large-scale building while synergising with the manual skills of construction workers.
Brazilian company Urban3D are prefabricating parts of buildings then assembling them on site in an attempt to combat Brazil’s housing crisis. This method requires human workers to assemble the buildings but also shows how the techniques of 3D printing can be used to quickly and efficiently support the needs of society.
VR in planning
Many architects in the UK have already begun using virtual reality software in their planning, which has led to an unexpected new workforce. Those who previously worked in video game design have found a new calling in architecture thanks to advance visualisation software which enables them to build in a medium they understand. These designers have a more unconventional understanding of construction which could foster creativity.
Also lending from gaming, VR headsets are cropping up on building sites in the UK. Site managers are using VR headsets mid-construction to help visualise where pipes and cables will be fitted in real time to avoid obstruction. While VR tech is still quite rudimentary, this application promotes efficiency and can help site managers keep projects on time.
Balfour Beatty’s Innovation 2050 whitepaper states that, by 2050, the building site will be free of people except for those operating mechanical exoskeletons. While this seems ambitious even at the rate technology is advancing, a more believable projection in the paper is that VR will allow us to envision buildings before ground has even been broken.
Balfour Beatty claims that VR headsets will be used to take stakeholders and potential clients on a tour of the site in a virtual world, which could help construction companies to secure investment and fill homes faster.
One of the most interesting things about the potential for machine learning applications in construction is the ability to build databases which can be referred to at every step of the building process.
Architects can input the details of past projects to use during planning. When the program assesses a new brief, it can use previous jobs to suggest similar designs, identifying past pain points to allow for more realistic timeframes to be used in pitches.
When monitoring current projects, AI programs could receive all the data of day-to-day activity so that when an issue presents itself, the program is able to use a database of past projects to identify similar issues. The program could then suggest ways to solve the problem based on how they were addressed in the past.
This would require human interaction to help it learn when to suggest what solutions. This ensures that human architects and surveyors do not become obsolete but actually use this new technology to augment their process. In this way, issues could be identified and resolved faster, majorly improving health and safety as well as project times and costs.
Future of construction
On the whole, increasing the presence of technology will have a positive effect on the industry. Designers are already making use of VR and AI when planning projects, allowing them to save huge amounts of time while keeping the creativity of human invention.
New technologies will eventually be a necessary tool when it comes to manufacturing and installation. This is due to the level of accuracy that can be achieved through technology which is almost impossible to reach with human power alone.
While AI and VR will likely soon become vital parts of any construction site, the most important thing for construction over the next decade will without a doubt be the balance between emerging tech and tradespeople. Leading industry voices claim that soon the building site will be fully automated but the intervention of human intelligence and skill is undoubtedly an important aspect of construction.
This article was written by Damon Culbert from Lift Mini Cranes Ltd, provider of mini and spider cranes across the UK.