Innovative tech like AI, robots, and 4D printing bring the construction industry into the 21st century

  • The rise of the construction robots
  • How AI is making construction safer and more efficient
  • Visualising the future of construction with AR/VR
  • Blockchain improves security and transparency
  • Are augmented workers the future of construction?
  • Transforming the built environment with digital twins
  • Could 4D printing be the next big thing in construction?
  • Your building may soon be made out of bacteria
  • Smarter cities for happier citizens
  • The tech-driven transformation of the construction workforce

Not particularly known for its adventurous spirit, the construction industry has always lagged behind other industries when it comes to adopting innovative technologies. This is, however, slowly starting to change and the future of construction is looking increasingly digital. Consumer expectations are the driving force behind this transformation. The old way of doing things no longer suffices – we want things to happen faster, better, and cheaper. New technology is changing the way we design and build, as well as manage and maintain buildings and infrastructure. The industry will increasingly make use of construction robots, virtual reality, blockchain, 4D printing, and digital twins. Drones will map construction sites, construction materials will repair themselves, and cameras and sensors will provide the data required for artificial intelligence. Everything will become smart. Are you ready for the future of construction?

The rise of the construction robots

Many of us have mixed feelings about the rapidly approaching wave of automation. But slowly but surely, even the construction industry will see the implementation of robotic systems. Think bricklaying robots, autonomous construction vehicles, drones mapping building sites, and 3D-printers creating entire structures. Yes, these high-tech machines will eventually replace many human construction workers. Another likely scenario is that humans will work alongside cobots or collaboration robots – making construction faster and cheaper. More importantly, it will minimise the number of accidents, prevent injuries and make human workers more efficient.

A recent report published by the research firm Tractica predicts that the global construction robotics market will reach the value of $226 million by 2025, with more than 7,000 robots set to be deployed on construction sites around the world during that period. Barcelona-based robotics startup Scaled Robotics has developed a robot that can autonomously navigate a construction site and produce an accurate 3D-map of its surroundings using a 360-degree camera and a custom lidar system. It’s equipped with an advanced object recognition system that enables it to differentiate a constructed wall from a piece of sheet rock leaning against it, or a staircase from temporary stairs for electric work. The resulting 3D-model is then compared against a source CAD model of the building to evaluate construction progress.

An even more impressive creation is named Hadrian X, the world’s first autonomous bricklaying robot developed by the Australian construction tech firm FBR. Hadrian X consists of three separate elements: a control system, a block-delivery system, and a dynamic stabilisation system. Blocks are first loaded onto the machine, which then – using an algorithm – proceeds to identify each one and determine its position in the wall. It then feeds the blocks into a boom-transport system and conveys them to a layhead, which lays them out according to a predetermined logic and pattern. The blocks are 12 times larger than standard bricks and it takes just 45 to 55 seconds for Hadrian X to lay one block. The process also requires a special adhesive, which bonds faster and holds stronger than traditional mortar. Patented Dynamic Stabilisation Technology (DST) ensures that blocks are kept at their precise location by counteracting the effects of wind, vibration, and other environmental factors, allowing the robot to accurately position blocks over large distances in a 3D space. In addition to significantly improving efficiency and decreasing waste, providing a faster and cheaper way to build houses, robots like Hadrian X could also help us address the growing shortage of construction workers around the world.

How AI is making construction safer and more efficient

Did you know that over the years, artificial intelligence (AI) has found an ever growing number of applications in the construction industry? Not only is this technology used in autonomous machinery, but also for planning and surveying, in safety and maintenance, for risk mitigation, and in the monitoring and analysing of structures. AI enables fully IoT-connected construction sites where sensor-generated big data will ensure increasing levels of efficiency and safety, enable predictions, and prevent injuries.

The value of the global market for AI in construction is predicted to reach $4.51 billion by 2026, according to a new report published by Reports and Data. Boston-based construction company Suffolk recently announced it has been working on an AI system that can predict construction site accidents before they actually happen. Developed in collaboration with computer vision company SmartVid and trained on construction site images and accident records provided by a number of major construction companies, the system uses a deep learning algorithm to monitor a new construction site and flag incidents that are likely to result in an accident. Such incidents may include, for instance, workers not wearing protective equipment or standing too close to dangerous machines.

Nucon is an AI engine that automates the analysis of inspection reports and allows companies to learn from mistakes during and before construction. Described as an AI quality manager for construction, it collects, organises, and analyses historical and real-time construction data to produce valuable insights. Using proprietary diagnostic tools, Nucon creates unique recommendations for each construction project to ensure it’s completed on time and within budget. It can also detect high-risk issues and lapses and warns the construction teams before they turn into something more serious.

Visualising the future of construction with AR/VR

Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) promise new ways to design and build, and enable improved project efficiency, increased safety and more effective training. AR and VR help reduce design errors and eliminate wasteful changes – all while working in coordination with apps and wearables. AR revolutionises BIM visualisation by clearly presenting data and enabling virtual collaboration. AR-headsets let you virtually ‘see through walls’ and project virtual information into your line of sight. AR and VR can greatly speed up construction projects, reduce costs and minimise errors and delays.

The Dutch aerial platform rental company Riwal recently unveiled new virtual reality simulators, designed to make work at heights safer and more efficient. The simulators provide operators of scissor lifts and boom lifts with additional training by immersing them in various high-risk construction scenarios. Each device features a working basket for operators to stand in, VR goggles, and a control panel with joysticks and switches that are identical to those on actual machines. By creating a controlled environment in which operators can train, these simulators can significantly reduce personal safety risks and minimise costs. “Safety is of paramount importance to us, and we will continue to seek new opportunities and innovations to make working at height as safe as possible,” says Pedro Torres, Riwal’s COO.

SiteVision is a new augmented reality system for visualising geospatial data in situ. Developed by California-based tech company Trimble, it allows construction professionals to view new designs, reveal underground utilities or other existing hidden infrastructure, and visualise potential changes in new landscapes over time using nothing more than a smartphone. From within the app, you can take a 3D-model and place it in a real-world environment at 1:1 scale using the embedded GNSS coordinates. You can then walk through the model, examine it from every angle, identify errors, and make instant modifications. “It’s easier to understand complex ideas when we can see them in a real-world context,” says Mark Nichols, general manager at Trimble. “SiteVision improves our understanding of projects and worksites with a handheld device that is accessible to a wide range of users.”

Blockchain improves security and transparency

As most of us know, blockchain powers cryptocurrencies and records vast numbers of transactions. But did you know that this distributed ledger technology is also increasingly used for tracking and executing projects in construction? These projects often involve many contractors, subcontractors and numerous regulations and building codes, which can lead to complex challenges. Blockchain can be used to automate these contractual processes by creating smart contracts that are visible to all stakeholders. Like a well-oiled machine, it will eliminate disputes, speed up project delivery and free up valuable resources.

Construction companies Vinci and Skanska recently joined forces on a project that aims to develop a new blockchain-based digital planning and supply chain management toolkit called PLASMA. Designed to improve productivity at construction sites through better project planning, improved supply chain collaboration, and analysis of supply chain and IoT data, the toolkit promises a 25 per cent reduction in costs and time required to complete construction. PLASMA allows planners to devise and go over various project delivery scenarios to minimise risks. It also enables companies to collect, share, and store data without the need for central control and management. Furthermore, the toolkit can track task completion via existing IoT-based data capabilities, opening the door to smart contracts as a way to make payments.

Are augmented workers the future of construction?

When it comes to augmenting construction workers, exoskeletons – robotic suits that enable increased strength and endurance – will soon be taking centre stage. In challenging and often dangerous conditions, these high-tech getups will help workers move heavy objects, perform overhead tasks, and prevent accidents or injuries. Augmenting construction workers can also be done by kitting them out with VR/AR headsets for added assistance or training purposes. Fitting construction workers with sensor tech and connecting them to smart platforms makes their work safer and more efficient.

At CES 2020 in Las Vegas, US-based robotics company Sarcos Robotics held the first public demonstration of its Guardian XO full-body industrial exoskeleton. Designed for industries that require lifting and manipulation of heavy materials, such as construction, Guardian XO boosts the wearer’s strength and endurance while reducing their risk of injury. According to the company, it can amplify the wearer’s strength by a factor of 20, making an object weighing 90 kilograms feel as light as 4.5 kilograms. Despite such impressive capabilities, Guardian XO is incredibly lightweight and offers a full range of motion. The exoskeleton is powered by a pair of lithium batteries and can run for eight hours on a single charge.

Transforming the built environment with digital twins

Wouldn’t it be incredible if you could create virtual ‘what if’ scenarios for buildings before investing cold, hard resources? Well, you can! With digital twins – digital replicas of physical structures. These can be used – also combined with mixed media – to run simulations before building actual structures. You can also use a digital twin for receiving sensor data from its real-world counterpart to gain valuable insights and predict challenges. Did you know that even Singapore has a digital twin? It helps city planners improve services for its citizens.

The London-based simulated reality startup SenSat has developed a new digital twin platform called Mapp, which is aimed specifically at the construction industry. The platform uses drone and satellite imagery to map out big construction projects and monitor their progress in real time. It can also use AI to test different scenarios that will help construction teams make better-informed decisions. “Our digital twins allow us to build rich digital representations that replicate exactly what is happening in the real world. This means that the data we use to train AI is genuine (because it’s real) and therefore of much higher quality input that traditional simulations may be,” explains James Dean, chief executive at SenSat.

Could 4D printing be the next big thing in construction?

3D and 4D printing technology holds incredible potential, especially in construction. It enables the use of advanced and sustainable materials, making building more efficient while producing less waste. Conventional construction methods are mostly restricted to square and rectangular shapes, but 3D printing enables buildings of any type of shape. And it gets even better! Did you know that 4D printing uses sophisticated materials and designs that are programmed to prompt a 3D-printed structure to shape-shift, opening up a world of entirely new design possibilities? Believe it.

When it comes to 4D printing, changes in shape are typically induced by heat or water, but manual input is often required for the material to revert to its original shape. A team of researchers from Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) have now created an innovative 3D-printed material that can change its shape multiple times without any electrical input. The researchers used two readily available materials called VeroWhitePlus and TangoBlackPlus, which have been proven to retain considerable mechanical strength during shape changing.

First, the researchers swelled the elastomer with ethanol to induce stress on the transition material. Then, they applied heat to make the transition material change its shape to a second form. Once the ethanol evaporated and the elastomer was dry, the researchers once again exposed the material to heat to make it revert to its original shape, with the elastomer using the elastic energy stored in it after drying, to pull the transition material back. “While reversible 4D printing in itself is a great advancement, being able to use a more robust material while ensuring a more precise reversal during shape change is revolutionary, as it allows us to produce complex structures that cannot easily be achieved through conventional fabrication. By relying on environmental conditions instead of electricity, it makes it a game changer across various industries,” says Professor Chua Chee Kai, lead researcher and Head of Engineering Product Development at SUTD.

Your building may soon be made out of bacteria

Imagine the possibilities if a building or other structure could heal itself like our skin does after a cut? This is no longer science fiction. In fact, self-healing materials containing special bacteria that react with concrete and limestone are already used to repair cracks and other damage in buildings. This revolutionary technique, as well as bioconstruction – the use of long-lasting, toxin-free materials – promise incredible opportunities for the future of construction. And really, microorganism-based solutions and healthy, self-healing buildings… what’s not to like?

Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder’s Living Materials Laboratory have spent years working on engineering bacteria that could be used to create useful minerals and polymers that may one day enable us to build ‘living’ structures. In their latest project, the researchers used photosynthetic cyanobacteria to grow a structural building material. Most importantly, they were able to keep the material alive. In the right conditions, these cyanobacteria produce a biocement, which the researchers used to bind sand particles together and create a living brick. Rather than creating one brick at a time, the researchers were able to harness the exponential growth of bacteria to grow multiple bricks simultaneously. First, they split one brick into two and used the halves to grow two full bricks. Those two bricks then turned into four, four into eight, and so on.

Smarter cities for happier citizens

If you think smart cities are an elusive dream for the future, you’d be mistaken. Many cities across the world are already rapidly becoming smarter, leveraging wireless technologies to improve infrastructure, efficiency, convenience, and quality of life for their residents and visitors. There’s various ways in which residents engage with the smart ecosystems in their cities of the future – via their smartphones, their connected cars or smart home systems. Connecting these devices with their city’s infrastructure enables improved energy distribution, decreased traffic congestion, and streamlined trash collection.

The Munich-based tech startup Hawa Dawa has developed a new air quality management solution that provides municipal governments with a block-by-block understanding of their own cities’ air quality. Using data sources like satellites and dedicated air monitoring stations, Hawa Dawa creates a granular heat map of air pollutants that enables cities to make valid, data-based decisions. For instance, a city could use this data to try to minimise vehicle exhausts in particularly polluted streets by rerouting traffic and then monitor whether it has any impact on air quality. The company has already installed its measuring boxes in more than 20 cities across Germany, Switzerland, and the UK.

The tech-driven transformation of the construction workforce

With construction changing as fast as it does, we can expect the next generation of construction jobs to be high-tech and cloud-connected. Already, construction job market entrants are in awe of the use of technology like robots, drones, and laser scanners on building sites. New careers will emerge and replace conventional labour-intensive construction jobs. Some likely new jobs could be construction drone operators – professionals who control drones to do repairs, site inspections and materials deliveries. Or robot technicians/managers – people who program the software and take care of the maintenance of these machines.

The construction industry has long resisted change, focusing instead on traditional methods to accomplish its goals. However, the mounting pressure to reduce construction times, growing shortage of workers, repeated demands to minimise the sector’s environmental impact, and increased competition within the industry have forced many construction companies to change their ways and adopt innovative technologies. From construction robots and AI systems that can predict accidents to augmented workers and living buildings, technology is taking on an increasingly prominent role in the industry, changing the way we design, build, manage, and maintain buildings.

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