The building industry is undergoing rapid technological changes; Drones, augmented realty, virtual realty, 3D prints, big data BIM…
While most other industries have undergone tremendous changes over the last few decades, and have reaped the benefits of process and product innovations, the Engineering & Construction sector has been hesitant about fully embracing the latest technological opportunities, and its labour productivity has stagnated accordingly. This unimpressive track record can be attributed to various internal and external challenges: the persistent fragmentation of the industry, inadequate collaboration with suppliers and contractors, the difficulties in recruiting a talented workforce, and insufficient knowledge transfer from project to project, to name just a few.
The industry has vast potential, however, for improving productivity and efficiency, thanks to digitalization, innovative technologies and new construction techniques. Consider the rapid emergence of augmented reality, drones, 3D scanning and printing, Building Information Modelling (BIM), autonomous equipment and advanced building materials – all of them have now reached market maturity. By adopting and exploiting these innovations, companies will boost productivity, streamline their project management and procedures, and enhance quality and safety. To capture all this potential will require a committed and concerted effort by the industry across many aspects, from technology, operations and strategy to personnel and regulation.
Technology, Materials and Tools
Advanced building and finishing materials
Materials constitute an extremely powerful lever for innovation. The European Commission estimates that 70% of product innovation across all industries is derived from new or improved materials. With approximately one-third of construction cost attributed to building materials, the scope for applying advanced building materials (ABMs) is considerable.
The solutions emerging from the building material industry are numerous and wide-ranging – from the incremental innovation of traditional materials and existing characteristics, to the generation of new material combinations with additional multifunctional characteristics, to radically innovative materials with entirely new functionalities.
A large variety of innovative ABMs are market-ready or close-to-market. Yet despite their great potential, they very often fail to penetrate the market, let alone achieve widespread acceptance. That is particularly true for emerging countries. One reason is that ABMs often require a higher initial investment, with the benefits generally realized over the entire life cycle. Other reasons are that the new materials still lack a track record of success, and that project owners and E&C company decision-makers may not be up-to-date on the latest developments, or may lack the information needed for making difficult trade-offs (on such issues as price vs quality, durability and ecological merit). All of that points to another serious impediment to the introduction of new materials: the liability risks that engineers, contractors and suppliers would face if they recommend a new material. To remedy this unsatisfactory state of affairs, it is crucial for stakeholders along the value chain to take action.
E&C companies should build up relevant competencies in-house, and create a database of evidence on the applicability and benefits of ABMs, to be able to provide clients with a convincing quantitative case for using ABMs. Afterwards, contractors should institutionalize the knowledge transfer to local project teams, so the decision-makers at a project level have all the relevant up-to-date information and can thereby optimize their decisions on materials.
Example: Fluor has built up an internal team of experts on concrete to advise the client at an early planning stage, to develop a foundation of data based on experience and to create a convincing business case for greater use of innovations (such as 50%-faster-curing concrete) in the market.
Example: The United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) validates new technologies (such as cross-laminated timber), whether in its own research labs, in demonstration projects or in collaboration with academia. Once a new technology has met USACE requirements, its value can be communicated internally in multiple ways to ensure broad awareness. Additionally, when appropriate, such technologies can be specifically incorporated into design guides or specifications.
It is also essential to inform and convince architects, engineers and clients of the advantages of ABMs. For instance, by showing how ABMs, despite their price premium, have an improved total-cost-of-ownership (TCO) performance relative to traditional materials, the industry can win risk-averse clients who would normally favour the lowest-price options.
Example: BASF and Arup have jointly developed an app for architects, engineers and project owners to calculate the energy savings achievable from the latent-heat storage system Micronal.
Given the multiple-stakeholder nature of construction projects, it is essential to improve collaboration and knowledge transfer among contractors, subcontractors and building material suppliers – both strategically and on a project basis. For optimal innovation and better uptake of ABMs, what’s needed is a concerted effort on the part of the industry as a whole – for instance, via industry-wide standards and certifications as well as an active role by governments, in establishing innovation-friendly policies and procurement processes. Proper risk sharing is crucial in this context.