The construction technology sector has been on a R&D binge for years now. New solutions to old problems are constantly being released, and old solutions are being improved upon seemingly daily. Pros with 30+ years under their tool belts recognize that this isn’t how the industry has always been, but we seem to be making up for lost time in recent years.
At times, it’s challenging for companies to even keep up with the speed of advancement, which is why it pays to look ahead and make some educated guesses about where construction tech is heading. That way, we stand a chance of getting ahead of the curve and benefiting fully from what these technologies have to offer.
With that in mind, we’ve looked at the research and come to a strong conclusion as to what’s driving current and near-future tech solutions, at least in the MEP world: automation.
Automation itself isn’t new
Granted, applying automation in one form or another to the design, fabrication, or construction phases of a project isn’t new or unheard of. In fact, forward-thinking companies have been doing so to the extent possible for years now.
Some of the earliest examples of practical automation in construction included rudimentary robotics applied to repetitive tasks like materials handling and bricklaying, as far back as the 1980’s. On the software side of things, back when CAD/CAM applications were first developed, the architect’s or draftsman’s ability to automate certain manual processes was one of the most valuable initial reasons to move forward with adopting that new technology.
As the years have gone by, automation has advanced dramatically, and so has the level of automation construction professionals can rely upon for consistent, quality production. These days, on the software side, nearly every aspect of the construction workflow can be implemented and managed within BIM-powered applications that can automate essentially every manual process to some extent. And, fabrication shops are relying more and more on mostly- or even fully-automated machinery that can take the output from those software applications and turn it into usable finished building components at the highest possible tolerances.
Indeed, it’s an exciting time to be exploring automation in the construction field.
What’s ahead in construction automation?
Recently published estimates indicate “the global market for computer-aided design (CAD) in civil engineering and construction is expected to grow 9% from 2018 to 2022, driven by a need to automate the design process." The same research also predicts “a market expansion of $357 million from 2017 to 2022, as more construction and engineering firms aim to prevent rework and improve their ROI.”
So, there’s no sign of construction automation slowing down anytime soon. In fact, with that kind of growth expected over the next few years, it’s reasonable to consider the latest automation solutions a “must have” for most companies looking to remain competitive.
Automation applications are still expanding across the entire constructible workflow, from estimating and bidding, to design and detailing, through to fabrication and even on-site building. In all these cases, numerous companies are developing or improving upon hardware and software solutions designed to accomplish a few common goals by means of automation:
Speed - Wherever automation can speed up a process, it means shorter projects, happier clients, more projects in the hopper, and healthier margins.
Quality - When automation facilitates removing human error from the equation, processes become more efficient, costly rework can be avoided, and the overall quality of construction is improved.
Safety - Especially in the fabrication shop and on the construction site, employing robots to accomplish tasks that used to require human laborers can result in far fewer injuries and fatalities while enhancing speed and accuracy.
Profitability - Logically, all of the above translates directly into more profitable projects and, therefore, fuel growth for the companies taking advantage of them.
The caveat, of course, is cost.
New automation technology rarely comes cheap. In some cases — drone technology being a prime example — a mass market or consumer technology can be applied economically to a construction use case. But, more commonly, construction automation solutions are being developed at great expense for niche applications, and therefore carry a hefty price tag when they finally hit the market.
For example, the Digital Construction Platform (DCP) — one of the more successful examples of applying robotic automation and 3D printing to the building trades — will cost just under a quarter of a million dollars. While that’s not a huge price tag for standard construction equipment, the DCP’s unique finished product is unlikely to support widespread usage in most markets, so ROI may not be immediate.
This raises the bar for entry effectively putting the latest automation technology out of the reach of small firms. Still, even in cases where purchasing the tech requires a significant — even uncomfortable — investment, some companies are seeing fairly quick returns. Like any business decision, investing in cutting-edge automation needs to be decided upon strategically.
Still, there are highly effective forms of automation that have been developing and improving for some time, which can provide incredible ROI very quickly. These include many of the BIM software solutions mentioned earlier, such as those for model-based estimating, detailing, and even job submittals.
By investing in these kinds of automation solutions, even smaller companies can see real bottom line improvements that could even put the higher-cost investments within reach in short order.