By Johnny Clemmons, Global Vice President Industry Business Unit Head of Engineering, Construction, and Operations
At the beginning of the pandemic, the construction industry was forced to play catch up alongside every other industry, adjusting to work-from-home mandates and an immediate interest in larger living spaces.
But now the tides are changing, with the construction industry have been able to plan and digitize to meet shifting needs – this is especially critical because about 75% of the infrastructure that will exist in 2050 will be via net-new construction.
The Construction Industry and COVID-19: From a Wrecking Ball to an Innovation Boon
With productivity levels nearly stagnant in the United States between 1947 and 2010, the construction industry was ripe for disruption. As technology advanced, new additions to the arsenal, such as modular building brought a much-needed jolt to the industry.
The pandemic has accelerated building trends like prefabrication. McKinsey estimates that “15 to 20 percent of new building construction will be modular in the United States and Europe by 2030.”
This is just one example of the ways technology upgrades are helping the construction industry deliver on housing and other building needs. No matter the personal impact of COVID, the way we all approach personal and public space has been altered and will redefine the way we approach engineering, construction and operations moving forward.
Where the Construction Industry Is Headed
Digital transformation in the construction industry is essential to meeting the housing, building, and infrastructure needs of the future that have become more prominent during the COVID-19 global crisis.
In order to build better, business processes must be modernized. This often starts with information flow – we’re far beyond the days of blueprints being blue, and the stakes high to stay on track by staying true to the design. Businesses are ensuring this by digitizing designs, using 3D modeling software on iPads as a guide in the field.
Information must also be democratized, digitized, and universally placed into the hands of constructors to make a real impact on the industry.
Just like in the boardroom, when everyone involved in a construction effort has a common understanding of the project design and current status, along with a central point of communication from day one, buildings are much more likely to avoid costly errors and go up on schedule.
Another way the construction industry is using technology is via digital twins, defined as dynamic models of real, physical assets.
While a digital twin can be made of any object, it is especially useful when used in construction because it contains all necessary data from CAD to operating manuals. Housing all of this information digitally makes it possible for builders to understand data quickly and easily share models and predictions.
Future Trends In the Construction Industry
Communication is Everything
Construction projects are becoming more complex, buildings are getting taller, and more technologically advanced. This means the collaboration between everyone executing must be tighter.
Suppliers, designers, government agencies, and owners must share the risk of these large projects, remaining aligned so that timelines don’t change, and costs don’t skyrocket. With digital twin technology, all stakeholders can stop costly errors and changes before they happen by using real time IoT sensors to make predictions and boost proactivity.
A Gap in Knowledge Could Be Around the Corner
The construction workforce is changing; skilled craftspeople are retiring, and the race is on to find their replacements. Unfortunately, the Associated General Contractors of America reports that 81% of construction companies are finding it difficult to fill craft positions at both hourly and salaried ends of the spectrum.
This is further compounding labor shortages due to the construction pipeline change between 2005 and 2010, which resulted in reduced construction projects and lower employment thanks to the economic downturn. This kept new constructors from entering the industry en masse, which is especially problematic now as skilled craftspeople are retiring.
Businesses must codify the institutional knowledge and expertise retiring workers have accumulated throughout their careers and digitize it so that tech savvy newcomers can understand key business processes.
With an estimated 200 million jobs coming to the construction industry worldwide by 2030, speed of digitization and distribution of information being available widely on mobile devices (think of “knowledge on demand”) will help newcomers acclimate and will determine which companies win in the new construction paradigm.
Technology Will Help, Not Hurt the Industry
Prefabrication and even 3D printing are becoming widespread in construction. They require perfect alignment between manufacturers, designers, and beyond to ensure all prefabricated pieces fit. When it’s done right, it shaves significant time from the building process.
Beyond modular construction, other types of technology will continue to grow in popularity—and this shouldn’t be cause for concern.
Construction is a specialized trade that must take into account factors like ever-changing environmental conditions that only humans can adapt to. Robots aren’t coming for construction jobs, they’re here to help and boost productivity at a time when hyper-production is severely needed.
In fact, the term “cobots,” or “collaborative robots” has become a popular term to describe the helping hand that robots extend to their human counterparts. Robots and technology like 3D printing can take on a number of tasks on construction sites to increase delivery by 50-80%. The world requires more affordable housing now and automation, alongside human-know, will make it possible to make this a reality in record time.
Next in Construction: Sustainability
Technology is also fueling sustainability. The construction industry is unrivaled in raw material consumption, and accounts for 25-40% of global carbon emissions. The ability to monitor consumption makes optimization of material and power usage over time possible.
This decrease in material usage could amount to a 30-60% reduction, thanks to new technologies.
COVID-19 has changed a number of things about construction, from what we prioritize in office and home construction, to additional safety precautions businesses must adhere to in an already hazardous industry.
Being able to introduce robotics and off-site fabrication reduces some of the newer risk’s employees face and enables businesses to keep up with the demand for housing.
Keep Building, Better: Final Thoughts
Employing the right tools to help employees learn and build faster will be paramount to staying relevant as societal expectations of the construction industry change frequently.
Office buildings have been sitting empty or at reduced capacity for most of the year, and some companies have said they will allow remote working forever. The impacts on the industry are hard to quantify, but having a strong technology core makes quick adaptation possible.
SAP’s Industry Cloud acts as a hub for construction businesses to access technologies and services to attain an end-to-end business model faster. There is no reason to have construction siloed regionally. Instead, a move to standardized processes, deep vertical functionality and interoperable solutions will make it possible to move faster and build exactly what a community needs in less time.
Hear more about the future of the construction industry in our latest Industry Insights Podcast.