The construction sector in the UK has not traditionally been an early adopter of technologies. Compared to other industries, culture and lack of investment have prevented the industry taking advantage of technology developments, with many traditional businesses preferring to continue to do things as they have always been done.
Change on the Horizon
Times are changing however, and across the industry, businesses looking to cut costs, enhance safety and effectively manage large projects are turning to technology to meet these needs. Government targets are behind some of this change, with costs to be cut by a third and emissions by 50% by 2025
The technologies that will help drive the industry towards meeting these targets are exciting, and due to the speed of development, costs of adoption are falling quickly allowing even the smallest independent operators to adopt some of the technology and remain competitive.
So what are these technologies, what will they do for us and what concerns are there around their use? We have a look at some of the tech that is just too important to be ignored.
Drones Survey Construction Sites
When most of us think of drones we think of small flying objects popular with hobbyists and professional photographers alike, and for the most part their main use has been to replace the need for a helicopter In aerial photography and filming. On large construction sites drones are now being regularly employed on several different missions.
Drones are built with special sensors to feed site information back to decision makers who can monitor everything from supplies to worker productivity and real time site progress. This information can then be fed into project management software and allows more efficient use of resources across large sites, right down to just in time ordering of supplies. Data can also be collected that will feed into CAD packages to allow surveyors and designers to make changes as the build progresses and see real time three dimensional models of the site.
Augmented reality & Building Information Modelling
Being able to plan a project visually in 3D equips architecture, engineering, and construction professionals with the insight and tools to plan more efficiently, design, construct, and manage buildings and infrastructure.
Being able to show a prospective client around a building’s interior and allow them to get a feel for what a proposed development would be like on completion is where this augmented reality tech is making big waves.
It allows developers to see the exact location of services and utilities within the building and to physically plan any amendments through the holographic technology. These developments also permit the sharing of large plans amongst project stakeholders that could be working in different offices across the world, reducing the requirement for international travel and helping to satisfy the government demands for emissions cuts.
3D Printing in Construction
Perhaps the most exciting development in any form of manufacturing is 3D Printing. Plastics, Carbon Fibre and even Concrete are amongst the materials that can be printed in 3D and although the tech is still in its infancy, there is no doubt that this is a game changer for construction. Concrete printing by laying down layer upon layer of concrete to a pre-defined design will allow contractors to construct sections of buildings on site and amend designs at the click of a button. The process will minimise any waste concrete product and will allow a degree of building customisation that could only be dreamed of as little as five years ago. Over time the development of these printing machines will allow individuals to design and print the sections required to build their own buildings without professional assistance.
3D Concrete Printing
Robotics in Construction
The impact that robots have had on the car industry is plain to see. In the 1970’s over 20,000 workers toiled at the Mini plant in Oxford producing cars at a rate of 275 a day at peak output. Today with the help of robot technology the plant produces almost 1000 vehicles a day and has fewer than 4000 staff.
The story in construction is similar, with intelligent machines now replacing roles that were traditionally filled by human labour. Some of these changes are to improve safety on sites and remove the human element in potentially dangerous situations. In fact continuing accidents in high risk environments prove the need to automate some procedures as highlighted by the tragic deaths at the didcot demolition site earlier this year.
Robotic excavators are now becoming available, and although only capable of some jobs at present, the technology is developing rapidly and many manufacturers are working towards full size machines controlled by operators via tablets, cameras and sensors. Connectivity will eventually allow these machines to link with BIM software and guide themselves round a site and perform tasks without requirement for a man at the controls.
Tracking Construction Equipment
Sensor and RFID (radio frequency Identification) technologies are now being rolled out across the industry, with a wide range of differing applications. On large sites it is now not uncommon for workers to have trackers in their ID badges allowing site managers access to real time information on each persons location. This allows more efficient deployment of resources, and a more effective method of controlling access to restricted areas. Smart helmets have even been designed that alert the site foreman should a worker take a knock to the head, these helmets also have in built visors that can display blueprints and other data at the wearers request, negating the need for paper plans to be carried.
RFID tracking has allowed firms to track the location and status of equipment, protecting them in the case of theft but also allowing them to manage their inventory and service schedules with greater efficiency. many firms that have implemented RFID have claimed it reduces the need to manually check the inventory and it’s accuracy has reduced the requirement to hire additional equipment. In a similar way sites can track building supplies as they arrive on site and are consumed, automatically reordering when stocks are depleted.
As technology advances the capability of all these systems will progress more towards complete autonomous operation. There is little doubt that in the longer term this will lead to machines and technology replacing jobs now carried out by humans. The time for eyeing technology with doubt and suspicion is over, it advances at such a rapid pace that the only choice is to adopt it and master it. Moving forward those who are masters in the operation of these systems will find their job is one of high value on any site. Training in the operation of new technologies should be planned into the budget of every business, and government assistance is available to help develop staff and implement these game changing advancements.