architect
Business Process Management (BPM)

Constructing the Future: Possibilities, Probabilities, Opportunities

Predicting the future is never an easy business, predicting the future of construction is an especially difficult prospect. Think of all those reports and commentaries down the years lambasting wasteful practices, inefficient processes and contractual arm-wrestling. Think of their recommendations. Then think of their impact. Construction productivity and profitability have by many measures remained stubbornly in the permafrost as other industries have advanced.

But to continually chastise the industry is to do it a disservice. Delivering change is no small task when your daily fare is thin margins, shifting supply-chains and an end-product often procured in a convoluted manner - where price too often trumps value. No, despite headline appearance construction remains a consistently innovative sector. An industry continually looking to improve, but perhaps crucially, only if the price is right, the disruption minimal and the duration swift is perhaps a fairer appraisal.

So what of the future? Well, here are four predictions for 2030. Each has a basis in technology, each with opportunities for projects, companies and the industry at large, and each prudently aligned with the sector’s business realities.

1.    Digital Reality: an era of perfect design

Building Information Modelling (BIM) has taken the industry by storm, becoming increasingly embedded in the fabric of the industry in recent years. The transformational promise of better project performance, from better information management, from democratically-available technology, has been a compelling reason for adoption. But BIM is in its infancy. Today much of its impact results from better coordination, better collaboration, or for more advanced practitioners, from time and cost simulation.

A combination of infinite computing from the cloud and advances in high definition visualization technology could change the design and planning of assets beyond recognition.

Imagine the prospects of being able to undertake constraint-based design across any and all dimensions, simultaneously, in a timely manner – cost, carbon, energy, schedule, constructability, net to gross and more. As projects become more complex, human endeavor alone will find it increasingly difficult to make the right design decisions quickly. The prospect of observing multi-dimensional performance behaviour, in a graphically ergonomic manner, will usher in an era of ‘right first time, every time’ projects.

But there’s more. Ask yourself “who is the best designer in the world today?”. Step forward nature. The evolutionary process arguably embodies the ultimate approach to multi-dimensional design. Contrast that with the iterative process of construction design. Now, might it be possible to leverage infinite computing power to mimic the way nature designs? Shifting the built asset design process from iterative to evolutionary may just deliver the ultimate transformation of the industry.

2.    Cloud and Mobile Computing: a marketplace of service providers

There’s much chatter around the role mobile computing is playing in the construction delivery process. Putting accurate, complete and timely information into the hands of the team at the jobsite, delivered from the cloud, tailored to the individual persona, is delivering cascading benefits: consistency in process, increased productivity, improved quality and more besides. But, there’s another aspect to mobile computing that has the potential to deliver an even greater impact.

Take your smart phone from your pocket, execute a few swift strokes with your finger and a marketplace of mobile applications is at your disposal. Today, amongst other things, you can browse recommendations for restaurants, calculate your tax obligations, play poker or buy tickets to see your favourite band. What if in addition you could size a power cable, undertake a grading study, identify and order a replacement circuit breaker or just issue a test certificate?

Construction, an atomic industry where the majority of companies are small or medium size businesses, is perfectly aligned with the mobile applications phenomenon – a cottage industry of small players tapping technology to punch above their weight. But the ‘first mover’ opportunity won’t be around forever. We’re likely to see a renaissance period as large swathes of engineering and construction process real estate makes its way into the mobile world.

Now think bigger. If you can put small scale functionality into the hands of consumers, can you put more complex functionality into the hands of businesses? Just as the cloud is supporting mobile computing, it can also support enterprise to enterprise computing. This may open the lucrative door to digital outsourcing. Today it’s common to outsource traditional back-office functions, but what of the front-office? If you are the best practitioner of energy analysis, or HAZOP studies, could you lay out your stall in the cloud and have customers round-trip their project data to you for your value-add service?

Whether small or large, the future is undoubtedly going to be a more connected one and construction companies will need to quickly decide whether they’re consumer or provider in this brave new world.

3.    Construction Intelligence: a new engine of competitive advantage

Supermarket loyalty cards, many of us have one. You’ve loaded your trolley with the weekly shop and you watch nonchalantly as each item is scanned at the till. Three weeks later you receive a promotional flyer targeted to your weakness of chocolate chip ice cream. How did they know? Through data-mining.

Looking for patterns in large amounts of data is an established practice in many sectors of the economy, and with good reason. The promise of discovering new information, new knowledge that will give a company an edge over the competition, from existing assets for low overhead is an enticing one. Data warehousing and the analytics that sit astride it are often likened to an ‘engine of competitive advantage’.

As the trend for digital working permeates all aspects of construction, something of a paradox will appear. Democratically available technology will have a ‘rising tide’ effect on the sector, lifting the productivity of all participants. The ability to differentiate through the adoption of technology will thus diminish over time.

Data mining as applied to construction – let’s call it ‘Construction Intelligence’ – will be one such route. Today, for the first time in history the industry is beginning to accrue large amounts of high integrity, highly structured data via BIM models. As BIM’s functional footprint expands to incorporate all aspects of a project, what might you do with that data? Data you’ve already paid for.

Step back from the individual project and think how that data might be put to work outside the originating project. What might looking horizontally across the information sets of multiple concurrent projects, or vertically back through time across multiple project information sets reveal?

Could construction information sets be leveraged to identify opportunities to further drive out cost, improve work processes, reduce waste, create more competitive bids and add additional value to clients’ projects?

How companies manage, explore, extrapolate, shape and query information may end up being the industry’s leading source of competitive advantage. Utilising that information as a tool to do useful work in the same manner as any crane, compressor or backhoe on site might just separate the winners from the losers.

4.    Reality to Realization: shortening the distance between the real and digital worlds

The digital world doesn’t exist in isolation. Developments in reality capture technology upstream, coupled with those in manufacturing, in particular direct manufacturing downstream, will seamlessly integrate the real and digital construction worlds.

Today, capturing the existing context of a project typically involves the use of high resolution laser scanning equipment. The fidelity of this process continues to increase. But there’s one key limitation, currently technology is only capturing physical geometry. What of all the other data – material properties, environmental conditions, usage patterns? Advances in remote sensing technology are likely to fill these blanks.

And what of shortening the steps in moving from the perfectly designed digital project to finished asset? Developments in manufacturing technology and further transfer of manufacturing practices are likely to herald a blended future of traditional craft skills and modern fabrication techniques.

Key trends to watch include:

  • Digital Fabrication: direct machine control from digital models – from fabrication of bespoke curtain wall elements for buildings through to automated grading of embankments for large civil projects.
  • 3D Printing: additive manufacturing particularly suited to smaller components.
  • Prefabrication: refinement of the existing practice of ‘manufacture and assemble’ through bottom-up use of standard, optimised components, through to modeling technology advising top-down intelligence for splitting bespoke structures for fabrication.

Collectively these will deliver on the promise of unlocking manufacturing efficiencies from standardization, but also sidestep the long held norm of unique, low-volume building components being expensive.

Lasting, structural change has never been an easy thing for the construction industry to achieve. Perhaps democratic advances in technology such as these will unlock the path to the productivity, profitability and value that many commentators have so longed for.

 

Dominic Thasarathar is Senior Industry Program Manager, Construction, at Autodesk

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Dominic Thasarathar

Dominic Thasarathar is Senior Industry Program Manager, Construction, at Autodesk

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