Balfour Beatty has made some stark predictions for the future of the industry – not least the fact it believes construction sites will be human-free by 2050.
In its report – A Digital Future for the Infrastructure Industry – published this week, the firm flags that there are “significant opportunities for transformational change” due to the technological changes taking place in the sector.
Echoing Mark Farmer’s Modernise or Die report from last year, Balfour Beatty said it believes the industry must “modernise to secure its own future”.
Here we examine some key predictions from the report:
The robots are on the march
“The construction site of 2050 will be human-free. Robots will work in teams to build complex structures using dynamic new materials.” This is how the report begins, laying out implicitly what the future could bring as technology becomes more prevalent.
Drones will scan sites, analysing work progress and sending signals to robotic cranes, diggers and automated builders, Balfour believes.
Humans will be back at base managing multiple projects using 3D and 4D visual data.
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The only time humans will be on site they will be wearing robotically-enhanced exoskeletons and will use neural-control technology to control the machinery on site, according to the report.
Balfour is already using exoskeletons in Hong Kong to make repetitive and heavy lifting tasks easier.
“Other forms of advanced clothing will also emerge, which will help the industry carry out a range of tasks and keep workers safe and healthy,” the report predicts.
Workforce wake-up call
With robots replacing humans on construction sites, the role of workers in the industry will inevitably change. “Traditional roles and even entire disciplines will evolve and change,” Balfour said.
“Existing processes and structures will need to change and companies will need robust data analytics capabilities.”
Two-thirds of children currently at school will work in jobs that do not yet exist, it is predicted.
Digital natives – those familiar with computers and the internet from an early age – will be highly sought after, but will also need to balance that with ideas and creativity.
However, Balfour warns there is likely to be a skills gap in the short to medium term. And it adds: “We must work to improve the image of the industry to explain the wide range of exciting and challenging roles in order to attract the skilled individuals we need.”
One nagging question for us, though: will a robot ever really replace a good brickie?
3D printing to tackle the housing crisis?
Construction will get faster, helped by 3D printing of components and even entire buildings, Balfour says.
One interesting upside is that housing could become cheaper as, thanks to 3D printing, buildings can be assembled quicker and more efficiently. A team at the University of California are working on a 3D printer that aims to build an entire house – including electricity and plumbing – in under 24 hours.
“With every major urban economy in the world facing a housing shortage, the potential this offers is significant,” Balfour says.
Contractors will be forced to become disrupters
Balfour believes that tier 1 contractors will “need to become disruptors” as the business landscape becomes less predictable in this brave new world. “Pan-industry partnerships will emerge between large technology players – Amazon, Google, Microsoft, bespoke SMEs and construction businesses,” the company believes.
It predicts that construction could face disruption in the same way Uber and AirBnB have shaken up their respective industries.
“This will require companies to increasingly balance their existing offer with innovating and nurturing new ideas,” Balfour explains.
All this new-fangled wizardry will inevitably bring with it challenges. Cyber-attacks in particular are likely to become more prevalent, Balfour warns.
“Regular assaults are likely to become the norm as criminal gangs find new ways to exploit cyber weapons which exploit old, weak and under-protected software systems,” the report says.
Construction is particularly vulnerable it suggests, with remotely accessible systems such as BIM at risk to cyber-attacks.
Meanwhile, as technology usage increases, this will add to the issue of energy consumption. As Balfour notes: “Energy grids in many countries are already reaching the limits of their capacity.”
Industry to remain fragmented
Despite the advent of a technological revolution, Balfour chief executive Leo Quinn is not convinced this will lead to a more consolidated industry. While in France the construction industry consists of just of a few big players, the UK remains littered with firms often competing for the same work.
Mr Quinn told Construction News he believes there is an optimal size for a UK contractor, which is around £1bn revenue – conveniently not far off the £1.9bn Balfour currently turns over in the UK.
He said with low barriers to entry there will always be multiple players. He added: “I don’t think scale works either and I don’t see the industry consolidating.”