The past twelve months have been interesting for digital technologies. While new developments have continued at pace, some technology has failed to meet expectations, and security issues and public/government sentiment has challenged the view that growth would continue unchecked. As we enter 2018 what is next for tech and how will it impact the construction industry?

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Despite the recent developments in Artificial Intelligence, we are still some way from AI replacing human jobs. However, what it can do is augment human workers activities; helping them to do their job better by providing information (like Siri or Alexa) and carrying out those tasks, which are repetitive or reliant on pattern recognition. We are already being asked if it is possible to create “buildings with brains” i.e. a building that can identify faults before they happen, learn from tenant behaviours to create the optimum working conditions and suggest better ways of space planning and operations. While we are not yet at a stage where we can create an intelligent building, some of the components that would be needed to achieve this do exist. We already have building management systems that can identify faults before they happen and we have the sensors required to track temperature and occupancy etc. However what we currently lack are the algorithms needed for AI to understand: what it has to learn to operate a building effectively, what success looks like and how to take into consideration individual tenants requirements. Without these crucial parameters, it cannot work. Therefore we need to be working with AI specialists to understand how we can create the algorithms we need for this sector.

Sensors and the Internet of Things (IoT)

The National Science Foundation estimates there will be 20.8bn sensors connected to 50 billion items by 2020 - a mere two years away. These sensors will collect all types of data including air quality, temperature, traffic, biodiversity, occupancy and health indicators that will form part of the Internet of Things; an open platform, which aims to disseminate information, to help people and organiszations make better decisions and improve quality of life. The construction industry is already using sensors to track materials and personnel on site, along with temperature and occupancy in buildings. However, with the imminent arrival of more sensors, all generating vast quantities of data, it is vital that as an industry we establish how to store, manage and analyse this data in a timely way. To do this we will need to hire or train existing employees to ensure we have right skills and we also need to obtain a greater insight into the types of data we have (not just building data), so that we understand how and when these should be used to greatest effect.

Virtual or Augmented reality

The jury is out as to whether Virtual (VR) or Augmented (AR) reality will become the go to technology for consumers. However, in the corporate world, companies are adopting both technologies and where necessary combining the two to deliver a better experience and realise benefits. Boeing is using AR to show trainees how to assemble an aircraft wing section, which they were able to complete 35% faster than before. Ford has a virtual workshop where engineers located around the world can collaborate together in real time to discuss holograms of vehicle prototypes and the US Department of Homeland Security is combining AR instructions with virtual simulations to train personnel on how to deal with high risk emergency situations. In construction we are already using VR to enable stakeholders to understand their asset before it is built and AR to train staff and enable them to carry out maintenance activities more efficiently. However, with so much development being carried out in this space, much of which is very similar, it would make sense for us to explore how we can develop cross industry collaboration in 2018, to share knowledge and best practice between sectors and prevent the constant reinvention of the wheel.

Smarthubs

With Amazon claiming to have sold millions of Echos over the 2017 holiday period, smart hubs and the smart products that sync with them look set to become a household staple. Statista predicts that by the end of 2018 over 32% of US households will own a smarthome device and with the anticipated launch of the Apple HomePod in early 2018, these numbers will continue to grow. But what do these home hub devices mean for construction? Homebuilders are most likely to be the first to have to respond to the smarthub trend, as buyers begin to demand smart connected devices such as smart lighting, thermostats and security that will sync with their existing hubs. One solution might be to add an options package, where buyers could choose selected items for their home, rather like they currently choose fixtures and fittings or a basic set of devices could be provided as standard. It is also possible to use smart hubs in offices or have a series of hubs in hotel rooms and communal spaces, but more research needs to be done in this area to determine how this can be achieved and the impact it would have on the operations of assets.

Blockchain

Over the last twelve months there has been a lot of discussion in the media about cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin and Ethereum and distributed ledgers like blockchain. Although talk of crypto-unicorns and crypto-kitties might sound like fantasy to some, crypto transactions and asset values are developing rapidly. In 2016 the value of the cryptocurrency market was worth $15bn, it is now worth $500bn. Dubai recently announced that it is committed to using blockchain for all its government business by 2020 and in October 2017 the Dubai Land Department (DLD), launched a blockchain-powered system to help secure financial transactions, record all real estate contracts, and connect homeowners and tenants to utility providers. Other countries such as Canada, Japan, China and Sweden are also exploring this area and in response the construction industry must begin to consider how it would do business within a crypto environment. Failure to do so may result in lost contracts because companies cannot meet their client’s finance and contractual requirements. (For more information on blockchain and cryptocurrencies, click here for our crypto-glossary).

Edge and super computing

Computing is going to get faster! Currently most processing takes place in the cloud, which is run by one server. But with Edge Computing, multiple computers handle the processing allowing them to deal with vast amounts of data without reducing connection speeds. This will be invaluable to those industries like construction, where users are collecting, storing and accessing many types of data from various sources.

Japan is currently building the world’s biggest supercomputer, which will be able to carry out 130 million billion calculations a second, making it one million times faster than your average computer. Its developers hope it will be used to advance artificial intelligence technologies, such as "deep learning” for government and commercial users, so the ideas it generates could benefit to the construction industry in the near future.
    

Exoskeletons and robotics

Wearable exoskeletons aim to reduce some of the stresses manual labour places on the body; by transforming and supporting a worker’s movements, to improve biomechanics and efficiency. They are powered by electricity or human motion and can be as large as a space suit or as small as a glove. Currently, tests are being undertaken to explore how exoskeletons could be successfully adopted in construction and other industries where they face similar issues. Ford is trialling the EksoVest, which is an  upper-body exoskeleton designed to help workers lift heavy objects and perform overhead tasks. It elevates and supports a worker’s arms and can provide lift assistance for up to 15 pounds on each side. However, the use of exoskeletons can create their own hazards such as an inability to move out of the way of falling objects or injuries from long term wear. In 2015, the EU undertook a study to develop safety standards for their use in manual handling activities but further research and trials are needed to develop appropriate standards, before we will see their widespread use on construction sites.

Robots are already appearing on site, carrying out jobs such as demolition and bricklaying. This year we will continue to see new robots being developed to carry out those tasks which are repetitive, labour intensive and high risk. Advanced Construction Robotics Inc., a Pennsylvania-based company has created a rebar-tying robot called "Tybot"; Honda recently unveiled the 3E-D18, which is an autonomous off road device that can drive round a site on its own and climb obstacles to reach hard to access spaces and MIT’s Media Lab has created an autonomous 33ft robot arm, comprising a large powerful pneumatic bicep, and a smaller, more agile electric forearm that recently built a 50-foot diameter, 12-foot-high domed structure in 14 hours; all by itself. However, it is unlikely that in the next 12 months we will see an influx of robots on site, as we still need to fully understand how robots need to be deployed to achieve the optimum results; what infrastructure is required to support them and how we mitigate against any risks.

Security

In 2017, the Wannacry ransomware attack caused chaos in the NHS but it is not just viruses that we need to be aware of. Hacking and data breaches can have serious implications when personal or secure information are accessed and find their way onto the dark web. Currently, the user name/password process can be hacked in less than 20 min and many sensors have no security because RFPs don’t request it and companies won’t give it for free. Security experts are also predicting that we will see the first drone hack in 2018, where a third party will be able to take over a drone’s operation. Although construction companies might not have sensitive health and financial data, they do have lots of client based business critical data such as building plans, product information, energy usage etc. that could be used for negative purposes and we need to make certain that we maintain the optimum levels of security to protect this information. However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Experts believe that in 2018 AI will help companies to detect and protect against new sophisticated threats; increasing detection rates and decreasing false alarms.
 

Are we heading for a digital overload?

2017 saw the first challenges to the unchecked growth of digital technology. TfL banned Uber in Greater London and there was protests and legislation aimed at curbing the impact of Airbnb on property availability and rents. 2018 could see more of the same. Apple was recently asked by two of its major investors CalSTRS and Jana Partners to look at reducing children’s addiction to their devices and people are starting to talk about digital overload. In response, some venture capitalists are now looking at funding offline businesses which foster greater community connectivity. Hayley Barna of First Round Capital, speaking to Fast Company Magazine stated “It’s pretty clear that people are dealing with the effects of digital overload. Too much screen time, and we’re feeling disconnected because of it. We’re thinking of businesses that counteract that … such as co-working spaces”. Construction companies need to be aware of the changing perceptions of digital and make certain that any technology used on schemes has a positive impact on the end user and surrounding community.

Conclusion

With technology developing at such a rapid pace, many of the approaches and tools seen as innovative now may be obsolete in 20 years’ time. Therefore it is vital that the construction industry keeps an “eye on the future”, to enable us to quickly analyse new technologies as they enter the market and identify which of these will be game changers in project delivery. This will allow us to respond to these potential disrupters in a timely manner and ensure we have the right facilities, processes and staff in place to allow us to adopt these technologies and achieve the best outcomes.

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About the author

Andrew Pryke

Managing Director - BAM Design

Andrew leads BAM Design’s architectural, structural and interior design departments, working closely with our construction and FM divisions.

He also leads the adoption, development and integration of Building Information Modelling (BIM) adoption at BAM, to increase efficiencies at all stages of design, construction and FM.

Andrew joined BAM in 2012, following 25 years as director and project lead at James Stirling Michael Wilford & Associates and John McAslan and Partners. He has worked on projects such as The Lowry, Manchester, No 1 Poultry, London and The Royal Academy of Music, London.

A triathlete in his spare time, Andrew also applies his competitive spirit to working out the best design solutions for clients, integrating sustainable design, lean construction and full FF&E (furniture, fixtures and equipment) solutions.

“We are developing BIM as a tool for greater collaboration between design, construction and facilities management, to deliver better buildings that are easier to manage and maintain, and perform better for their users over their entire lifecycle.”

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