7 Technology Innovations Are Coming to Disrupt the Construction Industry in 2020

December 23, 2019 Rosa Trieu

You’re on the construction site, outfitted in your Terminator-like robot suit that gives you exponential strength, letting you effortlessly lift hundreds of pounds as integrated sensors send your vitals and atmospheric data to the cloud. Meanwhile, your augmented-reality glasses superimpose 3D models over your work while your colleagues back at the office guide your movements, tracking your exact location through your GPS-enabled boots.

Sound like sci-fi? This scenario is not far off. From wearable tech and roads made out of recycled plastic to connected construction and blockchain, read on to learn about the futuristic technologies coming to the construction industry in 2020.

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Sarcos Robotics’ Guardian XO Alpha: a full-body, powered exoskeleton unit. Courtesy of Sarcos Robotics.

1. Forget the Runway; Try Walking the Girder in These Wearables

Construction is an inherently dangerous job. It requires working at dizzying heights and operating heavy machinery, often in harsh or unpredictable weather conditions. That’s why the industry has long required workers to wear protective gear such as hard hats, glasses, safety vests, and boots.

But what if that gear had brains and brawn? Smart wearables are gaining traction, such as exoskeleton suits that allow construction workers to lift up to 200 pounds. By bearing less weight, workers can experience less muscle fatigue and reduce the chances of occupational injury. It’s no wonder Ford factory workers are already using them.

Then there are smart work boots, such as the ones by construction-technology startup SolePower, which were tested by a select group of companies this year. Embedded sensors and communication technology allow for location tracking as well as the ability to easily hold relevant parties responsible in real time: RFID tags in the boots can automatically verify that tasks are complete for field service or equipment checks.

2. Get Ready for 5G Networks to Fire Up Blazing-Fast Connections on the Jobsite

5G networks are expected to launch across the world in 2020 and will impact construction efficiency in unprecedented ways. With faster and more reliable connections, construction design using artificial intelligence and BIM (Building Information Modeling) will be even more efficient, as 5G networks will allow everyone involved on a construction project to access all ongoing project information on a single design platform more rapidly.

5G also offers communication improvement in tele-remote (essentially, remote-control) operations and in real-time video feedback, which is critical for efficiency gains and safe operation. It even makes it possible for further development of tele-remote equipment and robotics that can recognize signals, receive input, map coordinates or instructions, make split-second decisions, and share communication.

3. The Construction Industry Manages—and Minimizes—Its Carbon Footprint

Tools used for monitoring and measuring carbon emissions are showing a promising future in construction. Sweden-based Skanska USA, for example, was able to reduce embodied carbon emissions on projects by up to 30% using its Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3), an open-source tool that calculates carbon emissions embodied within building materials. Using Skanska’s tool, contractors and designers can examine data for common building materials and create an overall embodied carbon footprint for a project. The tool provides data transparency, helping to reduce a project’s carbon footprint even before it begins.

Taking carbon-footprint reduction even further, the XPRIZE Foundation is hosting a competition offering $20 million in prizes for innovations that help carbon-dioxide-producing power plants transform carbon dioxide into viable construction materials.

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Workers install PlasticRoad’s sustainable roadway. Courtesy of PlasticRoad.

4. Round and Round: Circular Construction Uses and Reuses and Reuses Again

A circular economy is an economic system that aims to eliminate waste and promote the continual use of resources. Considering construction today consumes 42 billion tons of resource materials—with 1 to 2 billion tons (one-third of the global total) going to landfills—it’s certainly a sector worth shaking up.

That’s how Danish philanthropic association Realdania came to launch the Circular Construction Challenge to find a solution for removing waste from the equation while simultaneously creating a valuable resource. Some of the challenge’s winning ideas include the development of building materials that can grow from organic waste and fungal spores, and the reuse of a previous-generation building’s high-quality waste (for example, clay pantiles and wooden rafters) to build sheds that last for the next generation.

PlasticRoad uses post-consumer plastic waste to build sustainable roads from plastic. The world’s first installation was in Zwolle, Netherlands, in the form of a 98-foot bike path. The road has sensors that collect data (to use for further development) and its own stormwater-management system.

Another example of upcycling plastic into building materials is Israeli startup UBQ’s technology, which sorts, grinds, chops, shreds, cleans, and heats garbage into pellets that can be made into everyday items such as trays and packing crates.

5. (Rise of the) Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence

Machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) are now helping contractors use their data to make better decisions in ways they couldn’t before. For example, in the past, when productivity and performance data was available, it was too complex to mine through in order to help with planning.

Now, AI is now being used to help with scheduling by making informed suggestions as to what durations, sequences, and costs of work should be. TradeTapp and Construction IQ, for example, use AI to provide general contractors with subcontractor qualification, analysis, and custom risk-reduction recommendations.

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A 500-square-foot Abodu ADU. Photo: Joe Fletcher Photography.

6. Prefab and Modular Construction Make Their Way Into Suburbia

Prefabricated homes are making big waves—they cost less to make and are way cheaper to buy than traditional houses, especially in mega-expensive regions such as California’s San Francisco Bay Area. They have also proven to be more durable and require less time to build than traditional homes.

The city of San Jose, CA, recently announced a new express-lane program that makes it easier and more attractive to obtain a permit to build an accessory dwelling unit (ADU), a secondary housing unit built on a single-family lot. Inspired by the Netherlands, the first ADUs approved by the city are made by Redwood City, CA-based Abodu, which offers 495-square-foot homes for about $199,000 that can be delivered and installed within two weeks of initiation.

ADUs are also being used to serve a critical need in disaster areas. The Sunset BUD LivingHome by Plant Prefab is an ADU designed as temporary living for the Malibu, CA fire victims, using factory construction that is faster, more cost-effective, and more reliable than on-site construction.

7. Data Is Paramount in Connected Construction and Blockchain

Connected construction is based on the idea that data should be at the heart of the construction ecosystem of jobsites, machines, and workers. While the concept seems basic, data—especially building operations information—is often lost between handoffs from architect to engineer to contractor to owner, due to the use of different platforms at different stages of the construction.

Blockchain is one of the most disruptive technologies to touch construction because of its power to record, enable, and secure huge numbers and varieties of transactions, holding everyone who touches it accountable. On top of that, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) provide vital geographical data that planners, designers, and engineers should always consider throughout the construction-planning process. With the help of blockchain, GIS, and connected construction workflows, this data can be retained much more reliably.

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