The Future of Construction Innovation

July 14, 2017 Pete Billante

Interested in what’s in store for construction innovation? So are we!

The advent of exciting new technologies, like 3D printing, infinite computing, robotics, drones, big data, the Internet of Things (IoT) and machine learning, is driving a massive change in how we build things.

As disruptive technologies, they will break and remake business models, reshape definitions of value in markets, create new forms of competition as well as new competitors.

The implications of the construction industry’s success -- which must include mastery of relevant new technologies and approaches to increase productivity and competitiveness -- will have a major impact on all other industries. This is because, fundamentally, construction is the progenitor to every other industry; it delivers the residential, social, and economic infrastructure that underwrites so many aspects of our daily lives.

Great. So where are the opportunities?

Industry thought leader at Autodesk, Dominic Thasarathar, recently published a report called Construction with the Power of Digital, outlining how technology is fundamentally transforming how we design, build, and operate buildings and infrastructure. Following is an excerpt of the challenges and changes that are transforming how we build things, and how emerging and future technologies can address those changes.

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Dominic Thasarathar discusses Autodesk's vision for the future of construction innovation and the opportunities it presents.


Current and Future Challenges of Construction Innovation

Today, one of the construction industry’s biggest challenges remains its level of labor productivity—if the workforce is 10% less efficient than expected, profits are reduced by a minimum of 5%. As other sectors of the economy have seen significant gains in productivity over the last few decades, construction productivity has remained stubbornly low and flat.

This must now change--dramatically. With demand for construction output forecast to grow by 85% by 2030, the impact of scaling such poor productivity on our environment and economies, and the missed opportunities to add value to our built environments will be unacceptable.

Collaborative procurement, integrated supply chains, and progressive legislation are certainly steps in the right direction, but will they be enough?

Contractors must also consider the productivity of the assets that they creating. For example, how frequently do they fully deliver the outcomes for which they were conceived? Does the toll road deliver the expected levels of revenue? Has the social housing development improved the quality of life of local residents?

Technology can help them to make better decisions about what assets to build, and the mix and nature of those assets. An 85% increase in the size of the this capital will come from. Indeed, global infrastructure faces an annual financing gap of $1 trillion. But tomorrow’s technology should help to improve the flow of money into tomorrow’s buildings and infrastructure projects.

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Opportunities These Challenges Bring


1. Big Data-Driven Decisions

Construction is increasingly being reshaped by the need to build in the context of complex urban environments, and by a shift in the center of gravity of output to emerging nations. Where and how should clients and contractors respond to this dynamic?

That need is driving the creation of new tools that are capable of modeling building and infrastructure information at the macro scale, enabling contractors to help their clients to make decisions in multiple contexts.

Global infrastructure construction group Balfour Beatty used BIM 360 software as part of its project to convert London’s Olympic Stadium into the new home for West Ham United Football Club. The software has enabled Balfour Beatty’s teams to track performance in real time, identify and address workflow bottlenecks, and keep all project stakeholders up to date with the latest information and documentation. 

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Having all this data, in-context, at the team’s fingertips allowed them to make more informed decisions, more often, and assisted the firm’s quality engineers and package managers in detecting 6,000 clashes in the 3D model and assigning fixes to subcontractors to deal with the clashes promptly, before they could escalate. This resulted in leaner operations, more on-time/on-budget delivery, and a delighted customer.


2. Digitally-Driven Capital

Construction needs capital to build, but since the 2008 financial crisis, uncertainties have hindered the flow of funds into projects. Technology trends, however, are beginning to offer three new ways of unlocking capital with which to build:

  • Matchmaking on Risk: Understanding the risk profile of projects is something that big data and predictive analytics can improve. Understanding how existing assets are used via the IoT should enable a better understanding of how future assets are likely to perform, enabling investors to understand the risk profile of a project before committing funding.
  • Determining Remaining Value: Unlocking capital by selling assets, then investing the proceeds in new projects is common. But it’s a process dependent on accurately determining how much value remains in an asset. Predictive analytics, remote sensing, and IoT feedback should help to better quantify that value to maximize the level of capital released (and the liability being taken on).
  • Crowdfunding: Crowdfunding is already being used to raise capital in manufacturing and other areas, but in the built environment, it could be used as a way to raise finance for private-sector real estate development and public-sector social infrastructure projects.


3. Prefabrication & Digital Fabrication

Prefabrication isn’t new, but it is becoming easier. Advanced modeling technology is enabling
contractors to work both from the bottom up to use standardized elements for buildings and
infrastructure, and from the top down to split an inherited design into elements that might be
prefabricated off-site, then assembled on-site.

Prefabrication is now scalable, and has the potential to help the industry to achieve a high degree of standardization—a cornerstone in unlocking manufacturing-style productivity levels. Buildings can be manufactured in low-cost execution centers, then shipped around the world for final assembly, providing significant implications for the competitive landscape in construction.

Standardization isn’t appropriate for every project, which is where 3D printing comes in. Today, it's possible to go directly from a 3D model of an item to a finished real-world object in a single touch, with a single machine, without having to retool, in over 80 different types of material—steel, glass, ceramic, polymer, concrete, and more.

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MX3D uses robotics and 3D printing to construct a metal bridge in Amsterdam.

With 3D printing, ‘complexity and uniqueness’ are essentially free. Freed from the constraints of standard components, contractors can focus on the ideal solutions for projects, and then deliver those solutions with minimal waste.

Dutch 3D printing firm MX3D is equipping industrial multi-axis robots with 3D tools to create a fully functional steel bridge that will span the Oudezijds Achterburgwal canal in Amsterdam. Once complete, the MX3D bridge will be the first 3D printed bridge in the world.


4. Site Automation

New technologies such as drones can be used to perform surveys, scans, and inspections on
construction sites. Feeding imagery taken from drones into reality-capture software, which
stitches photographs together to create 3D models, essentially brings the real world into a
silicon environment on a large scale.

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Drone footage and 3D model of water treatment plant site from IMCO Construction.

We’re already witnessing the use of camera-fitted drones for multiple applications—from remote surveying of tall buildings and structures, mitigating the risk and cost of having operatives work at height, to the larger scale inspection of linear assets, like pipelines or rail corridors.

Wearable technologies are being used to improve safety on construction sites. Human Condition Safety is one firm leading the charge here and is in the process of developing solutions such as smart vests to help construction workers to get their job done better, safer, and faster, and provide the site managers with a real-time dashboard showing how many workers are currently in areas with elevated risk.

We’re now at a point where robots are capable of so much more than doing a limited range of repetitive tasks, mainly in handling materials and components. Now, they can be connected to a broad range of sensors, allowing them to capture information about the parts they’re working on. This data can then be fed back to the control system, which can then make adjustments to the robot’s operation and drive greater efficiency and higher accuracy during the process.

Next steps

Keeping up-to-date on these emerging technologies is an excellent next step as the construction industry and its norms change as the disruptions take hold. It will be paramount for construction firms to learn, master and harness these technologies and techniques so that their construction businesses can remain competitive and relevant in the face of an ever-increasing list of demands from clients. 


Want to get started using a recent construction innovation like drones, mobile tech for safety and more?
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