The Global Construction Industry is Changing – Will you be Left Behind?

In this thought leadership piece Steven Root B.Eng (Hons), a Delay, scheduling and risk expert at Capital Consulting International, provides expert opinion on why it is vital for construction professionals to keep abreast of the latest digitalisation trends and advances. Steve explains why embracing digitalisation can result in greater certainty, more efficient analysis, and a superior customer service. Having spent over 20 years working all over the Far East, he also explores how the Asia Pacific region has often been at the forefront of the adoption of new methods and techniques.

It’s often said that the world is at the start of the fourth industrial revolution. The first industrial revolution in the 1700s involved the use of coal/steam power and the introduction of factories. The second industrial revolution started around the 1850’s when steel was invented and the use of petroleum products and by products started to replace coal. The third industrial revolution is considered by some to be the advent of mass adoption of computers in the 1970/80’s. The fourth industrial revolution is considered digitalisation and we have all seen the rapid growth of the Internet and miniaturisation of many devices such as smart phones and apps dominating the way we now work and play.

The construction industry lags many other industries in its adoption of digital technologies and in long term productivity growth.  On some respected surveys of productivity growth, the industry is near the bottom just above agriculture. Whilst manufacturing is up to 1600% more productive than the 1960’s due to the use of automation and supply chain initiatives like just-in-time, the construction industry productivity is semi static or on some measures even going backwards.

Aside from digitalization there’s a growing acceptance globally that the construction industry HAS to change. This is driven not only by the productivity issue, but the growth and prominence of technology in society, by climate issues and by the long term shortage of young people willing to enter what is perceived to be a dirty and dangerous occupation.

Traditionally the construction site has essentially been an ad hoc factory, where raw or semi-finished materials are delivered and then put together to form a new road or building. The latest trends are moving towards prefabrication of complete sub-units based on Design for Manufacturing and Assembly (DfMA), also known as modular construction. This method is adopting the productivity advances made by manufacturing and implementing them into constructing the built environment. There is a precedent whereby the shipping industry has used the techniques for many years. The bridge of a cruise ship is pre-fabricated and installed as a unit, as are individual cabins down to the sheets, pillows and even the hanging wall art.

The use of DfMA does require a complete change of mindset and skills base to the traditional construction skills, with an emphasis on ease of manufacturing, simplification of assembly and fastenings, and the efficient use of materials. The advantages of building modules under controlled factory conditions with a subsequent reduction in the number of site staff required, results in improved quality and delivers site safety advantages. All quality issues can be resolved before the unit has gone to site and installation then becomes a much simpler process, requiring vastly reduced site labour with the attendant decrease in both risk and safety incidents. Whilst not necessarily quicker nor cheaper, the method does produce consistently better quality results and significant reduction of the waste of effort and materials inherent on a traditional construction site.

Whilst many of the ideas and initial research into things like DfMA has been carried out in the UK and Europe, it is in Asia where the greatest adoption of new methods and techniques has found the most acceptance and application.

Modular construction depends on economies of scale, due to the overhead of setting up the initial factory production line. It is much easier to achieve this when you are building 10 identical 35-storey towers in the Middle East or Asia, than when you are applying it to a 7-storey one off student hostel in the UK.

Conservative regulatory concerns have also held back the use of certain leading technologies such as drones for example in Europe, whereas in Asia, drones are now being used to routinely measure and survey monthly progress and feed as built information directly back into the Building Information Management (BIM) models for the monthly update.

Given the prominence of China and the Far East in producing most of the world’s cutting edge electronics, the adoption of modular construction and the use of new and novel construction technologies has been enthusiastically received.

In Singapore modular construction is heavily promoted by the Government as the default way forward and Singapore’s Public Sector Construction Productivity Fund (PSCPF), was setup in 2019 to “promote DfMA techniques including prefabricated prefinished volumetric construction (PPVC), mass engineered timber, structural steel systems, and advanced precast concrete systems”. The establishment since 2014 of a series of ‘integrated construction and pre-cast hubs’ open for all contractors to use, has accelerated the adoption of using precast concrete building elements and volumetric modules.

In Hong Kong, the Government has encouraged the local industry to take advantage of mainland China established factories to promote the use of welding robots, pre-cast modules and emerging sensing technologies. Augmented and virtual reality design activities and training are now established and being used by industry as well as taught to construction students.  Leading contractors have dedicated teams examining how best to adopt to new technologies, like rectangular boring TBM’s, the use of personal exoskeletons for site staff and more on-site robotics including painting, tile laying and 3D concrete printing technologies. The increasing use of sensors to monitor on-site activities such as concrete curing progress and live building instrumentation is increasing productivity and giving asset owners a better long term end result.

In China the use of modular construction is well established with hundreds of factories dedicated to production of pre-cast and volumetric modules. This has led to on-site feats such as constructing a 10-storey steel apartment building in 28 hours and a 57-storey building in just 19 days! Of course, these durations do not include the manufacturing time off-site or on-site foundation works..

Australia has a well earned reputation for procurement and project management innovation, but is lacking the unifying focus of strong Government promotion of the new technologies compared to some of the other Asian countries. Some modular hotels have been constructed, based on procurement from China and various studies undertaken, but Australia is proceeding on a much more cautious basis.

The application and potential of technology to revolutionise construction is also attracting non-conventional investors into the industry, such as Google and companies like Legal and General. No doubt more traditional manufacturing companies may also be attracted in the long term. This will have huge implications for the survival of traditional contractor/sub contractor ‘construction companies’ unless they adopt and change.

With so much change starting to happen to the industry, some traditional roles and approaches to issues like claims will also change dramatically. The introduction of BIM models linked with automatic module costing data is starting to replace the traditional quantity surveyor’s role of material take offs from drawings and the production of bills of quantity. Changes are also taking place in planning where time phased BIM models can directly generate schedules from project start to finish.

A.I. is also starting to be applied to scheduling, with the aim of producing the most optimal schedule by simulating millions of scenarios and resourcing levels. Some of the more advanced software can generate 600 million scenarios in a single afternoon and present the fastest, cheapest, most environmentally friendly options etc. so that clients and contractors can decide what their priorities are and pick the best way to achieve them

As most of the new initiatives I’ve mentioned will ultimately become standard practice in the global industry over time, it is vital for construction professionals to keep abreast of these trends and advances. At CCi through our network of global offices, we have local staff monitoring the national construction trends and developments. Within CCi’s core business of dispute resolution, the use of 4D time phased BIM models in explaining to adjudicators and arbitrators what actually happened on site will increase and automatic cost collection and progress summarisation will fundamentally alter how quantum claims are processed and evaluated.

As leading construction professionals at CCi we make it our business to be aware of and keep up to speed with global developments. Our next article on changes in the global construction industry will focus on BIM as a tool that CCi uses for claims and dispute resolution.

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