The digital future of construction

ALTHOUGH the construction industry suffers from sluggish productivity growth and relatively low financial returns, it has been slow to embrace the process and technology innovations that could help it to do better with respect to both profitability and performance.

In general, R&D spending in construction runs well behind that of other industries: it accounts for less than one per cent of revenues, versus 3.5 to 4.5 per cent for the automotive and aerospace sectors. Ditto for spending on information technology.

Traditionally, the sector has tended to focus on making incremental improvements. But this will no longer do. Projects are ever larger and more complex. The growing demand for environmentally sensitive construction means traditional practices must change. And the shortage of skilled labour and supervisory staff will only get worse. These are deep issues that require new ways of thinking and working.

Here are five ways the industry could transform itself over the next few years.

1. Higher-definition surveying and geolocation. Geological surprises are a major reason why projects are delayed and go over budget. New techniques that integrate high-definition photography, 3-D laser scanning and geographic information systems, enabled by drone and unmanned aerial vehicle technology, can dramatically improve accuracy and speed. And they are more accessible than ever because costs have come down substantially.

Used in conjunction with ground-penetrating radar, magnetometers and other equipment, Lidar can generate above-ground and underground 3-D images of project sites. This is particularly important in dense, environmentally sensitive or historical project sites where disturbance needs to be minimised.

These advanced survey techniques are complemented by geographic information systems that allow maps, images, distance measurements and GPS positions to be overlaid. This information can then be uploaded to other analytical and visualisation systems for use in project planning and construction.

2. Next-generation 5-D building information modelling. The construction industry lacks an integrated platform that spans project planning, design, construction, operations and maintenance. Instead, it still relies on bespoke software tools. In addition, project owners and contractors often use different platforms that do not sync with one another.

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