In February 2017, the World Economic Forum wrote: "the construction industry has been slow to adopt new technologies and processes and over the past 50 years has undergone no fundamental change." Have the opportunities and benefits of modernization failed to emerge in the construction and infrastructure sectors? Can the new wave of technologies embodied by the Fourth Industrial Revolution produce a fundamental shift in our industry?
The full adoption of construction technologies brings the promise of an efficient and transparent enterprise. The ability to monitor progress in real-time, enhance quality and safety, and ease communication between stakeholders are some of the benefits the Fourth Industrial Revolution can unlock, but the construction sector may not be ready for the shift in thinking required to modernize.
"Construction has not even made the transition to 'industry 3.0' status which is predicated on large scale use of electronics and IT to automate production," said a report published by the UK Construction Leadership Council entitled 'Modernize or Die: Time to decide the industry's future.' We're far behind other industries and there is much to be gained by embracing new solutions. But are there indicators that our sector will be left behind as the rest of the world is swept up in the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
The Fourth Industrial Revolution, sometimes referred to as Industry 4.0 (I4.0), is the technological age that uses cyber-physical systems and the Internet of Things, Data and Services to connect production technologies with smart production processes. This "confluence of trends and technologies promises to reshape the way things are made," says McKinsey & Company's report, Manufacturing's Next Act.
The German Federal Government, during the Hannover Messe in 2011, released its vision for the future of the manufacturing sector under the broad umbrella term INDUSTRIE 4.0. Loosely speaking, it is a conglomeration of various physical and digital technologies (shown in the illustration below) that makes factories smarter, production more efficient and products better.
Application of many of the I4.0 technologies and trends are currently being explored in the construction sector. With the advent of the I4.0, the built environment sector has the opportunity to leapfrog toward more efficient production, business models and value chains. Such a transformation is possible through the convergence of existing and emerging technologies. With the pervasive use of building information modelling (BIM), lean principles, digital tools, and offsite construction, the industry is at the cusp of this transformation.
Despite the progress made, several challenges remain. Due to horizontal, vertical, and longitudinal fragmentation in our sector, the application of these technologies and emerging trends remains somewhat fragmented. Furthermore, the industry has not shown much improvement in terms of investments into information technology—68.2 percent of companies invested up to one percent of annual sales volume in 2017, dropping to 64.1 percent investing up to one percent in 2018.
This may not be the case for long, however. As the construction sector is seeing significant investments in new technology startups that are in the process of developing new digital tools for the industry, some reports estimate total expenditures of $10 billion in the eighteen months beginning January 2018.
The opportunities afforded by the concepts, principles and components of I4.0, translated into a strategic, tactical and operational paradigm as Construction 4.0, have the potential to truly revolutionize the sector. We now approach a potential tipping point at which the concepts generated and applied by forward-thinking innovators and early adopters are accepted and being considered by mainstream project teams.
The useful application of cyber-physical systems and the associated technologies and practices that combine to manifest Construction 4.0 require a new set of skills within the sector workforce. The development of such skills impacts upon the required approaches of educators, employers and sector leaders to enable a phase shift in the very manner in which construction operates as an industrial and economic domain.
The full adoption of Construction 4.0 related technologies can transform the construction industry into a more efficient and transparent enterprise. Real-time progress monitoring, enhanced quality and safety, and improved communication between stakeholders are just a few of the benefits the industry can enjoy for years to come.
It is incumbent on the construction industry to partner with technology innovators, academic institutions and its researchers and educators to make the implementation of Construction 4.0 a reality.
Collaboration between owners, designers, contractors and technology providers can lead to a transformation in the delivery model through talent and technology with a shift in focus to delivering value. Such a change will require investments in the right technology solutions and in developing the capability, capacity and skills needed to deploy them.
We need to consider value as a driver for broader and longer-term impacts and outcomes that are founded on principles of whole life performance and social, environmental and economic measures.
Anil Sawhney FRICS
Director of Infrastructure
Anil Sawhney is the Director of the Infrastructure Sector for the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS). He leads the emerging RICS initiative and strategy on placing and positioning the Institution within the field of commercial management of infrastructure projects globally. His primary focus is on the (economic) infrastructure sector, defined by the RICS as transport, utilities, energy and similar fields. Anil is involved in the production of infrastructure sector’s body of knowledge, standards, guidance, practice statements, education, and training. He’s also a Visiting Professor at Liverpool John Moores University in the UK. Dr Sawhney is also a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (FRICS) and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (FHEA) of the UK. Anil has a rich mix of academic, research, industry and consulting experience gathered working in the USA, India, Canada, the UK, and Australia.