The buzzword in new industries is “disruption.” Companies like Uber, Door Dash and Yelp have arisen not just because their industries were ripe for change, but because the major incumbents in those industries—taxi companies, for example—were too slow to embrace it. With the rise of new technologies such as artificial intelligence, digital twins, big data, process automation, 3D printing and robotics, the construction industry stands at the brink of a technological watershed, and the pandemic has forced even the most change-resistant companies to embrace upstart technologies in unprecedented ways. Is this the beginning of a renaissance in the adoption of new technologies in communication, material production, supply chain management and industry coordination, or just a bump in the road? Incumbents now face a choice—lead the change or watch someone else do it.
The pandemic has created a new normal for the onsite construction force—smaller crews, fewer nonessential personnel and stricter performance targets per capita. It remains to be seen how these changes will affect productivity and profitability, but through the adoption of technologies new and old, a smaller and more efficient onsite workforce may become a fact of life for construction companies long-term. Many tasks currently performed by skilled labor onsite can be automated—whether using assembly-line techniques or robotics—without the need to transport expensive equipment to a construction site. Skid-mounted and containerized equipment has been used in the industrial sector for decades, but these principles are now being applied to commercial, residential and retail spaces. This trend toward modularization and offsite fabrication contributes to a small, efficient onsite workforce by moving construction activities offsite to fab yards and factories close to major population centers, where work can take place more efficiently. These settings are also ideal for piloting new technologies—such as 3D printing, the use of alternative materials or AI-designed workflows—in a controlled environment. Additional development along these lines—adoption of a standardized grid system for module cross-connections, for example—could make the onsite component of construction even simpler without sacrificing quality.
Quality control is significantly simpler in the context of a fab yard or factory as well, with one quality agent able to make many inspections at every stage of construction. The principle of “design one, build many” is achievable in a factory setting, where every aspect of the work can be inspected and controlled, versus the relatively chaotic environment of a construction site. Onsite labor can complicate the task of workmanship inspections, with one trade covering up the work of another or concealing mistakes that could have been caught with a more rigorous quality program. Workmanship also improves when workers can focus on one task which is repeated across many jobs. When materials do finally arrive at the work site, they will be complete and tested, further simplifying logistics and limiting onsite quality inspections to cross-connections and finishing work. Furthermore, those onsite inspections can also be improved through the adoption of comprehensive 4D building information modelling (BIM) that compares actual onsite progress against expected using sophisticated digital tools, including robotics.
Implementing these changes will require a change in how projects are designed and specified, which presents another opportunity—to increase the focus on total lifecycle costing through adoption of products and systems that require less or simpler maintenance. As the requirement for maintenance and replacement declines, the opportunity to reevaluate operations staffing levels and contracting strategies also presents itself.
These step changes have two things in common. First, they will require extensive communication and collaboration between every contributor to the construction sector, from design teams to management to fabricators to construction crews to facilities operations and maintenance. Second, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented an opportunity to implement them now. Decision makers and leaders in the construction industry have a choice—they can either drive these changes now or be dragged along by them later.
With more than 30 years’ experience managing complex multi-disciplinary projects and programs in North America and Europe, Stephen Tubby is the Managing Director of Operations for Canadian business for Faithful+Gould North America. Stephen is a member of the Charter Institute of Building and of the Project Management Institute.