Modern technology is set to drive a step change in construction productivity as more and more projects adopt drones, sensors and the Internet of Things.
More from: Civils 4.0 | Future Present
Last October, a report produced by contractor Mace made waves by suggesting that 600,000 construction jobs could be replaced by technology in the next two decades. The report argues that the figures – although only projections – give a sense of the talent pool that will have to be reskilled to allow the construction sector to move to “Industry 4.0” and embrace productivity-improving technologies.
Industry 4.0 is the collective term for a range of technologies such as cloud computing, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles and sensors that many believe represent a fourth industrial revolution. The gains, Mace calculated, could be an extra £25bn a year for the UK economy. So, one year on, what progress has been made?
New tech benefit
One of those leading the charge to these new ways of working is Maggie Brown who is innovation manager on Hinkley Point C for project promoter EDF. She says a number of workstreams are underway to ensure the high profile new nuclear power station benefits from emerging technology.
“We’re looking at a virtual reality project to support design validation of the control room, particularly from a human factors perspective,” she says. “This helps us anticipate the impact of design on the interaction of people with the building in a more precise way.
“We’ve also experimented with augmented reality using Microsoft HoloLens to look at construction sequencing. The more we can de-risk the installation plan in advance the better.”
EDF is also trialling a high-tech system that flags up differences between site progress and design models.
The ability to become more productive using technology has disrupted existing business models
“We are installing crane cameras and footage from these will be combined with drone footage to get a combined overview of what the site looks like on an hourly basis,” says Brown. “That is linked to tracking progress against plan in an automated way that is a lot more engaging and simple to understand than a drawing.”
Brown says the maturity of various technologies, and the testing of their application in construction, will radically alter the face of the industry.
“The construction sector has to change or the usual suspects won’t be around,” she says bluntly. “The likes of Costain, Skanska and Laing O’Rourke will need to compete with companies coming at delivery of construction from a different angle.
“The ability to become more productive using technology has disrupted existing business models. Construction has a choice to either move with the times and make best use of new technology – or be disrupted by externals.”
Brown uses the example of Sidewalk Labs, which was set up by Google with the vision of combining people-centred urban design with cutting-edge technology to achieve new standards of sustainability, affordability, mobility, and economic opportunity.
“Sidewalk Labs is effectively moving into infrastructure,” says Brown. “Everything it does will be driven and enabled by technology.”
Evolving technology and its use by new entrants to the market will make construction projects very different entities in future, says Brown.
“If we are moving towards driverless cars, why does machinery on a construction site need to be operated by people? Why do any repetitive tasks need to be done by people? There will be a massive shift towards automation.
“There will also be more offsite manufacturing – there is no need to pour concrete on site.”
If we are moving towards driverless cars, why does machinery on a construction site need to be operated by people?
Rolls Royce director of global manufacturing Hamid Mughal says the changes coming to the sector will have a greater impact than Henry Ford’s moving assembly line production system.
“We are on the threshold of something unbelievable,” he says. “Something that will transform industry at a rate and pace that will be mind boggling.”
Rolls Royce is working to take advantage of the revolution.
“Our potential future factory will have self-correcting processes; real time decision-making capability; intelligent automation; decentralised man-machine interfaces; virtualisation through a digital trail; interoperability; and digital verification of products and processes using photonics, removing the need for final inspections.
“Basically the factories will be as close to waste-free as possible and the supply chain will be a logical extension of these factories. There will be seamless partnering based on digital collaboration.”
The difference will be so profound as to create new business models, predicts Mughal.
“It will be business as usual but on steroids. The benefits will be huge, you will be able to guarantee quality 100% of the time; meet delivery requirements absolutely; be lowest cost; there will be design freedom and a digital thread all the way to consumer service.
“We will create greater functionality, adding value, delivering closer to the specification the customer gives. So the market will increase. Demand will rise.”
Evolution of technology to take care of day-today operations will free up management time to concentrate on even more innovation, he says.
Changing company culture
“Company culture will change, companies will compete on innovation. This appeals to the DNA of the UK. Innovation will beget more innovation.
“The nation can exploit this providing it is serious and does it with a real desire.”
The construction industry will create structures in a different way and enable them to be used and maintained more efficiently, Mughal says.
“Construction will use manufacturing techniques – printing material on site to exact requirements. Robots will build stuff. There will be automation. Modular structures. There are so many things the industry will use from digitisation.
“My projection is that construction will reduce cost and lead time using technology. Everything from bridges to homes will be modular built, and customised by configuration of modules.”
Meanwhile the Internet of Things will give owners more information on the condition of their assets – allowing contractors to maintain structures more efficiently and proactively.
“Sensors can measure temperatures to operate air conditioning but also look at the vitality of the building. Is there any ingress of water, for example? Brown agrees that sensors and the Internet of Things will also play a big role in the future industry.
“A lot of construction components already have sensors on them, so it’s not a stretch to think that there will be further information generated by a larger number of mechanisms on assets on site.”
This will inform a much smarter approach – predictive maintenance rather than traditional planning regimes for example.
“There should be more certainty on site and better control of programme if technology is implemented correctly.”
Someone who is heavily invested in using technology to create more programme certainty is Dev Amratia, chief executive of start-up firm nPlan.
Turning human planning into an algorithm
“Experience is executing a plan, seeing a deviation and taking forward revised assumptions. We think we can emulate the human planning process into a machine learning algorithm.”
Amratia and his team of specialist mathematicians, artificial intelligence experts and even a neuroscientist claim to have an algorithm that can read complex construction schedules and understand them – and begin to learn from them.
After signing contracts with 17 companies from around the world – including Costain, Bam Nuttall and Morgan Sindall – nPlan fed the algorithm with 250,000 schedules as well as monthly progress reports from the same projects.
“The algorithm learns where problems usually occur,” says Amratia.
The system designed by nPlan is being deployed on two High Speed 2 (HS2) packages, highlighting key risks to programme and aiding the process of sequencing.