It’s a time of great change in the construction industry. Reporting from Autodesk University in Las Vegas, we bring you some of the tech trends that might affect you and your supply chain in the months and years to come.
Digital offsite manufacturing
Offsite manufacturing has been a buzzword in the construction industry for a few years now. Well, imagine if this process was also completely digital.
One firm in the Netherlands, Voorbij Prefab, has created the world’s first digital offsite manufacturing facility that it says has not only improved the quality of the product but significantly reduced construction costs and time in the housing sector.
Put simply, the process uses digital designs that are broken down into different components. The specifications for these components are then processed by computers and communicated to robotic arms and 3D printers that manufacture the components at exceptional speed.
Primarily used for housing at the moment, Voorbij says the switch to digital has transformed its fortunes.
From a company that was haemorrhaging money and heading for bankruptcy in 2013, the firm turned a healthy profit last year and expects growth to continue in 2016.
The switch to digital has also seen the firm’s productivity increase, with the new factory taking 80 per cent less time to produce products ready for construction and shrinking its labour costs by cutting its staff numbers from 180 to 12.
Digital offsite manufacturing could catch on more widely soon – and help achieve the increased efficiencies that construction desperately needs.
Smart Business Cards_Coins Fulcro
Smart business cards
Gone are the days when business cards were limited to exchanging mere contact details. Now construction workers can carry their whole project back catalogue in their wallet, all on the back of a business card.
UK-based Coins and Fulcro has used the latest in augmented reality to develop an app that can read QR codes on the back of business cards and automatically make a full 360-degree digital representation of a completed or planned project appear on the phone’s screen.
The app allows users to zoom in and out and assess the interior and exterior of a project on a room-by-room basis if needed.
With clients and partners increasingly keen for tangible evidence of planned work, don’t be surprised if you see these floating around at networking events in the near future.
If one brain wasn’t enough, US-based tech company Daqri has developed a way for construction workers to use two with the introduction of the sector’s first smart helmet.
Somewhere between Google Glass and your regular run-of-the-mill hard hat, the smart helmet is aimed at bringing information to workers about the environment around them instantaneously.
Within seconds, users can access data on the specifications of certain components, measure lengths through the industrial grade measurement gauge, or get a full surround-view through the helmet’s 360-degree multi-camera set-up.
The helmet also improves communication on site, with managers able to send out instant messages to workers about potential hazards or site defects, or use the live stream video function to give workers advice and guidance remotely when carrying out jobs.
And all of this is done not through a remote or by voice activation, but through the movement of your eyeballs.
Already trialled on a handful of projects across the world, Daqri says that its use has shown significant improvements in productivity and health and safety.
Set to be rolled out commercially in the first quarter of 2016, Daqri says there has been a high level of interest from a number of UK firms.
Falcon 8 drone
While not a new trend by any means, the importance of drones for construction continues to grow.
As Autodesk’s Building Products Group vice president Jim Lynch says: “The biggest tech trend we are seeing when it comes to our industry is the rise in companies using drones on their projects.” And this growth in importance has been matched by the advances in drone technology.
Already considered essential tools in aerial photography, the new batch of drones have now been developed to map projects digitally via digital mapping equipment installed on their underbellies.
The new drones can provide crucial surveying information and monitor project progress against more detailed digital designs.
The work carried out by the drones can now go towards creating 3D models, providing specific numeric data on the scheme of work’s progress, and even be used to create live interactive maps of projects for clients.
And there’s no need for pilots here either: the drones made by companies such as Topcon and Skycatch are automatic, with users simply programming a route for the drone to follow and then putting it to work.
The use of these drones is increasing in commercial development but, more importantly, also in the construction of large-scale rail, road and bridge infrastructure assets across the globe.
With major rail and road projects such as Crossrail 2 and High Speed 2 in the pipeline, drones look set to become an essential part of UK firms’ construction kits.
Workforce sensors PS-01
Sensor technology (workers)
Popular in the retail and marketing sectors, the use of sensor technology is only now being developed and used in the construction industry.
With the primary objective of increasing safety and making communication easier on site, sensors are attached to workers’ helmets or belts, with their positions then communicated onto a live digital site map.
Areas of danger or potential hazard zones can be programmed digitally onto the map to alert workers by buzzing or flashing if they find themselves nearby.
The technology also gives site managers a better idea of where people are on site and where they need to be.
The developers of the technology say its trials on sites in the US have seen countless hours saved for site managers who, instead of having to complete time-consuming site inspections, can now just refer to the digital map.
Sensor technology (buildings)
Sensor technology is also becoming more important in ensuring the welfare of buildings and structures.
Part of the ’internet of things’, the use of sensor tech is moving repair and maintenance work on the exteriors and interiors of buildings and structures from a reactive to a predictive model.
One example of this is bridge design, where sensors are now being installed into the structures during the construction phase to provide information on condition throughout their lifespan.
Where in the past it would take a failure or, in some cases, a catastrophic incident, now the sensors are used to pre-emptively pick up potential weaknesses or failings in the bridge so that these can be rectified by engineers ahead of any problems.
Another area where sensor technology is set to become vital is in the FM sector, where the potential for cost savings is considerable.
Mr Lynch says: “If a chiller or a heat exchanger goes down in a hospital unit, that is a very costly problem. If you can catch problems like this ahead of time it can save companies millions of pounds.”
With the skills shortage continuing to bite, construction companies are looking at more innovative ways to try to plug the gap – and robots could be one way to do it.
Like drones, robots are by no means new to the world of construction. But the past 12 months have seen them move from being a gimmick to a way for companies to bring down costs and speed up projects.
From the robotic arms used in offsite manufacturing that can help firms like Voorbij produce products more quickly and accurately, to robotic bricklayers that can put up a wall three times faster than your typical brickie, the number of robots available in construction has grown exponentially.
And not only has the last couple of years seen a rise in terms of numbers, but also the democratisation of robotic technology, with companies able to produce the same technology for less money.
This has meant that companies like Universal Robots can now offer machines for tasks like dry wall cutting for as little as £7,000.
Construction News attended Autodesk University in Las Vegas last month. Flights and accommodation were paid for by Autodesk.