Construction must get smart – or get left behind

28 April 2019
Construction is undergoing smart transformation and companies failing to invest in innovation will be at a serious disadvantage, says Heriot-Watt University’s Ammar Kaka

There is an overwhelming consensus that the construction sector is lagging behind other manufacturing industries in its pace of development and innovation.

Where industries such as automobile manufacturing, ship building and aerospace have managed to double their productivity rates over the past three decades, construction productivity has remained static at best. This is mainly because it is measured by on-site factors, which are an intrinsically inefficient part of the process. 

Construction projects feature a set of characteristics that are not found together in other industries. They are generally one of a kind, built in situ and delivered by an assembled team that is likely to change from project to project. 

These characteristics, coupled with the fact that construction products are physically large in scale, means that much of the assembly has to take place on-site. And, as we all know, every site has its own peculiarities with varying degrees of accessibility, climate exposure and ground conditions.

The industry is also responsible for intensive energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. According to the UK’s Constructing Excellence, energy from fossil fuels used in the construction and operation of buildings accounts for about half of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions. Buildings are estimated to account for up to 70 per cent of energy consumption in major cities. 

Demand for construction will continue to rise. Around the world, 200,000 people a day are migrating to urban areas, where they need affordable and sustainable housing and infrastructure. The lack of skilled labour is one of the biggest global challenges facing the industry.

The cost of construction in Dubai is lower than most developed cities, mainly due to intense competition and low wages. So, even though there are more workers on a typical site in Dubai, construction still works out cheaper than in other markets. 

At the same time, the UAE is recognising the need for improvement in workers’ welfare. The Taqdeer initiative, launched by Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed al-Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and Chairman of Dubai Executive Council, is the world’s first points-based awards programme that recognises excellence in welfare practices.

Expo 2020 is aiming to have improved workers welfare as part of its legacy. Together, a global shortage of skilled labour coupled with improved welfare and standards of living will result in a cost escalation, which will be a significant challenge to the industry and its clients. 

Innovative solutions

There is a pressing need for automation and technology. The significant and rapid developments taking place in the digital sector cannot be ignored. Artificial intelligence, robotics, the internet of things (IoT), 3D printing, blockchain and big data are all too impactful to be ignored and will transform how buildings are constructed and operated. 

We are witnessing a significant growth in venture capital being invested in construction technology start-ups. The journey has started and it is progressing quickly. Companies must either be part of the journey or get left behind. 

Smart construction comprises two main themes: smart buildings and infrastructure; and the way in which these are designed, procured and built. 

On the smart building front, the majority of developments are focused on making buildings more environmentally sustainable. They learn occupants’ energy needs, respond to changing weather conditions and automatically adjust themselves to maximise efficiency. The potential for smart buildings is massive.

Emerging smart workplace technologies can be used to improve productivity, comfort, security and more. The ability to connect systems through IoT will streamline inventory management at warehouses and improve operational efficiency across the supply chain.

As e-commerce continues to take market share from the traditional brick-and-mortar stores, retailers must take advantage of smart building technologies to transform the customer experience. 

Smart innovations will result in a more efficient use of space, but will undoubtedly generate demand growth for the construction industry. We are witnessing this in the hospitality sector where hotels are being retrofitted with new equipment at least every 10 years. Increased room security, customised climate, lighting and appliance control through mobile apps offer leading hotel chains a competitive advantage.

Building information modelling (BIM) is transforming the industry’s approach to projects with clients, consultants, contractors, fabricators and facilities managers working collaboratively and concurrently. BIM is reducing risk, enhancing scheduling and cost estimates, and improving productivity. 

BIM data instantly generates production drawings or databases for manufacturing purposes, allowing for increased use of prefabrication and 3D printing. It also influences on-site assembly, whether in automation, augmented reality or drone-assisted monitoring. Finally, as-built models, together with archived data on progress, will improve building operation and maintenance. 

Investment in technology

The development of artificial intelligence and data analytics, coupled with the big data created and generated as a result of designing, constructing and using the assets, will result in an industry that is smarter, more innovative and more efficient.

The business case for investing in research and development is clear. Moving towards smart construction will deliver a return on investment from cost savings, increased productivity and greater safety. 

Perhaps the most significant point in all of this is that the technology underpinning all of these factors already exists.

 About the author

Professor Ammar Kaka is the provost of Heriot-Watt University Dubai, and vice-principal (Dubai), Heriot-Watt UniversityProfessor Ammar Kaka is the provost of Heriot-Watt University Dubai, and vice-principal (Dubai), Heriot-Watt University

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