Why technology hasn’t transformed construction – BBC News

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption, Construction is still largely manual work

  • Author, Emma Woollacott
  • Role, Technology reporter

According to Sam O’Gorman, if you took a worker from a 1920s construction site to a contemporary project, they wouldn’t be all that surprised by what they saw.

“On the whole, stuff in Europe and the US is still built in a pretty manual way – not much different from the way it would have been built a hundred years ago,” said Mr Gorman, associate partner in the consultancy firm’s real estate practice McKinsey. .

In 2017, the McKinsey Global Institute concluded that the construction industry could improve productivity by 50 to 60% and increase the global value of the sector by $1.6 trillion (£1.3 trillion) per year.

Since then, McKinsey says, improved manufacturing processes and the use of new software and apps have improved efficiency, but not to the extent you might have hoped.

“The construction sector is lagging a bit behind in digital compared to many other sectors. The adoption of digital in the broadest sense of the word has been slow,” says Mr O’Gorman.

In recent years, several technologies have been touted as having the potential to transform the industry. One of these is 3D printing, which extrudes concrete or other materials to build the walls of a house.

The University of Maine has been working on such a project, developing the largest 3D printer in the world.

Using a mix of wood fibers and vegetable resin, the printer formed a 55 square meter house.

“The first prototype home, BioHome3D, performed very well over two winters in Maine, and we are now turning our attention to printing a neighborhood consisting of nine of these homes,” said Dr. Habib Dagher, executive director of the Advanced Structures from the University of Maine. and Composite Center.

However, 3D printing of houses remains more of a demonstration project than a practical proposal. 3D printed houses are often expensive, have extremely thick walls, and are difficult to build on anything other than an open, flat site.

While there have been a number of critically acclaimed 3D printed construction projects, the number of homes actually built this way remains small.

Image source, University of Maine

Image caption, BioHome3D was printed with sustainable materials in a project at the University of Maine

Mr O’Gorman and Dr Dagher say another technique, modular construction, could make building more efficient.

It involves manufacturing parts of the building in a factory, transporting them to site and lifting them into place.

“I am convinced that this is the future, the quality of construction is so much better. On a construction site you get so many little mistakes,” says Dr. Dagher.

“The more you can do in a factory, the better. The quality control is obviously much better, and so is the quality of workmanship.”

But this technology has also failed to take off, says Neil Jefferson, director of the UK Home Builders Federation.

“The problem with manufacturing homes is that you book your stuff into the factory to build those homes, and the materials arrive and you have to stick to the plan,” he says.

“But at the moment projects in this country are experiencing delays because of the government’s approach to planning policy. And that just doesn’t work, you need a more flexible approach.”

Developers need a degree of confidence that they can sell their homes quickly when they are completed, and often need to change plans as a project progresses and the market changes. This is less of a problem in projects for municipalities or housing associations, but it can be a problem for private developers.

Image caption, Mollie Claypool’s start-up AUAR promises cheaper and faster home construction

One company looking to sidestep some of these issues is Bristol-based Automated Architecture, or AUAR, which plans to license microfactories to build wooden houses using robots.

These microfactories will create buildings of up to six floors that are assembled from standard parts, either in the factory itself or on site.

The idea is that larger construction companies can license a microfactory with an initial cost of around £250,000 and an ongoing monthly fee.

“AUAR’s partners do not have to invest millions in setting up large factories, as modular home construction companies do, but can immediately offer their customers innovative, high-quality, energy-efficient homes at market rates,” said Mollie Claypool, co-founder and chief executive.

According to her, automation ensures higher margins for developers, along with faster construction times and less risk and waste. She says labor costs per project can be between 20% and 60% lower than when traditional construction methods are used.

The company already has four customers lined up, she says, and aims to increase that number to 140 by 2030, building more than 30,000 energy-efficient homes annually.

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While the residential construction sector has not undergone the same major transformation as other sectors, many of the smaller, less visible parts of the process are being digitized.

“The part that gets the most news and interest is the actual construction part. It’s quite analogue and hasn’t changed much. If you look at the rest of the chain, it’s actually digitalising quite a bit,” says Mr O’ Gorman. .

“People are using digital tools to identify land, using AI to predict future values ​​and using a whole range of different metrics. The design process has gone quite digital in the last decade.”

And it’s these kinds of behind-the-scenes improvements that will likely do the most to streamline the homebuilding process, says Karoliina Torttila, director of AI at industrial technology company Trimble.

Work that was once captured in paperwork and filing cabinets is now digitized. Quantity testing, health and safety procedures, commissioning and handover work and CO2 emissions management can therefore all be carried out via apps and computer software.

However, more can be done.

“A major challenge is that the construction industry is highly fragmented, making it difficult to implement uniform technological advances,” says Ms. Torttila.

The main contractor manages many subcontractors: mechanical, electrical, plumbing, finishing works, earthworks and more. Each team is influenced by the other teams’ plans and how they are put into practice, with mistakes made in the field often having a dramatic impact on costs in the later stages.

But technology can help alleviate these problems. On a major construction project, creating a 3D model of the building or other components that everyone can share can help spot any discrepancies before they become a bigger problem, Ms. Torttila says.

“Such actionable data not only promotes communication between teams on construction and back-office activities, but also provides a basis for forecasting, planning and purchasing decisions,” she says.

“This contributes to a smoother process, even though the sector remains fragmented.”

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