Pi Labs, a London-based investor in proptech, has written a 23-page white paper exploring the impact of technology on the future of construction.
From robotics to modular, the VC shares what’s being worked on now, future areas to watch out for, and offers insight into its own investments.
Here is an edited extract
In the last year alone, global construction sector expenditure has risen 5% to reach a total of £4.79tn. This builds on growth of 4.3% in the previous year and 4% the year before. However, rising levels of expenditure are only part of the picture, and there are several outstanding issues the sector must address if it is to keep up with increasing demand. The adoption of new technologies and digital tools is increasingly seen as essential to revitalising the sector. Between 2008 and 2012 construction companies invested just $9bn in new technologies, but between 2013 and 2017 this doubled to $18bn. There has also been a growing interest from venture capital funds in facilitating modernisation of the construction sector.
Robotics + exoskeletons
Construction sites are often poorly structured and unpredictable, which has hampered the use of automated machinery. However, robots are now being selectively used for repetitive and predictable activities, such as tiling, bricklaying, welding and spool fabrication, demolition, and concrete recycling.
The most prevalent form of automated machinery is the robotic arm. In April 2018, Japanese contracting firm Shimzu developed robots that can carry materials, work on floors and ceilings, and weld steel columns autonomously. The average human mason can lay up to 1,000 bricks a day, whereas robotic masons, such as Construction Robotics’ SAM100, can lay as many as 3,000.
Musculoskeletal disorders account for more than 60% of construction industry ill health cases. To reduce the strain on industry workers, companies are investing in metal exosuits, or exoskeletons, that are fitted with motorized muscles. When worn, these devices can significantly increase the wearer’s strength and minimise the impact of strenuous construction tasks.
Prototypes of autonomous construction vehicles ranging from bulldozers and tractors to cranes and excavators have already been created. The use of driverless vehicles is already being pioneered in the mining industry by Rio Tinto iron ore mine in Western Australia, which currently employs more than 80 automated haulage systems as part of its day-to-day operations. The same technology is already being adapted to streamline the operation of common construction equipment.
The first semi-autonomous bulldozer was produced by Komatsu in 2013, partly in response to the shortage of skilled operators in the labour market. This sparked a race between vendors to automate the operations of their equipment, but while these new tools have the potential to be used on a fully autonomous basis, regulations currently restrict their use. The automated extractor by Built Robotics, for example, can operate without human input, but the regulatory conditions in most markets require it to be supervised by a human at all times.
Unmanned aerial drones
Drones are being used on construction sites for a wide range of tasks from inspecting structures for ongoing wear and tear to collecting 3D information, which can be integrated with existing BIM systems. PwC expects drone use in the UK construction and manufacturing sectors to boost productivity by 3.1% and create efficiencies worth £3.5bn by 2030.
More than 76,000 drones are expected to take to UK skies over this period, and as many as 4,800 could be employed in the construction and manufacturing sector alone. The data can be shared in real-time through cloud-based platforms, enabling unambiguous comparisons of progress at agreed periodic intervals. Drone surveys are also performed with pinpoint precision and can be used to deliver fully 3D models of active construction sites to ensure they adhere to architectural plans.
Firms are moving toward a manufacturing-like system of mass production, relying on prefabricated, standardised components that are produced offsite. Prefab or modular construction could radically transform existing processes, with some estimates suggesting such methods could boost productivity five-to tenfold on projects where the techniques are economically feasible.
The largest player in modular construction is the California-based startup Katerra. Since its founding in 2015, the off-site construction company has raised $1.2bn from investors like SoftBank. The vision is to simplify the construction supply chain by replacing middlemen with an integrated service that delivers prefabricated materials and modular components directly to sites. The division of assembly and component manufacturing allows greater specialisation in the production of new materials that promise to boost the sector’s environmental credentials.
On a small scale, 3D printing technologies can be used to create detailed models as well as real size objects for use in construction prototyping. More exciting, though, is the potential for 3D printing to be used to mass-produce entire buildings. The technology that underpins 3D printing has only recently advanced in sophistication enough to become viable for use in construction. Trials have shown that it is now possible to print a habitable structure in less than 24 hours, and urban planners have begun to prioritise working with contractors that use this method.
In the United Arab Emirates, Dubai’s municipal authorities have mandated that 25% of all new builds will be constructed using 3D printing technology by 2030. They believe the technique could have the potential to reduce the amount of labour required by 70%, overall project cost by 90%, and duration of construction by 80%.
Conventional materials such as concrete admixtures, adhesives, insulation materials and polymer composites are typically heavy and expensive to transport, which makes them a significant financial and environmental cost in development projects. New materials are being developed that are lighter, more durable and cheaper so existing processes can be streamlined or replaced entirely.
Adopting these new materials often involves a greater upfront investment and mandates some retraining of the existing labour force. However, these costs are in many respects offset by the potential for these materials to make the industry more sustainable. Public procurement is a vital revenue stream for most construction firms, if they are to continue to win government contracts, they will need to demonstrate that their operations have minimal impact on the environment.
A wide array of startups are improving existing materials by reconstructing their chemical composition to make them more sustainable. High-profile examples include Tesla’s solar roof tiles and titanium dioxide tiles that break down smog when exposed to UV light. Already, these products are being rolled out into new build properties and other constructions. Smart materials like self-healing concrete have the potential to increase the life of structures and reduce energy-intensive processes.
Virtual reality, augmented vision + digital platforms
Virtual reality is being used to improve design, safety and training, and to avoid costly overruns. Making changes once a building or infrastructure project is underway can be expensive and time-consuming, which is why building information modelling, BIM, is rapidly replacing conventional paper-printed blueprints.
The UK government now requires all public sector construction projects to use BIM-compliant software and its use is rapidly becoming standard in the private sector too. This means that both developers and stakeholders can easily create information-rich virtual models. Advanced products that combine BIM with virtual reality are currently under development. These products are making it easier for architectural, engineering and construction management to visualise designs earlier, shaving material costs off budgets and reducing the volume of workers needed for projects.
A VR tour of a project can be conducted using a BIM model so that teams can fully understand a project before it is initiated, and maintenance schedules can be better planned. Wearable devices to allow augmented vision are being adopted by construction crews to overlay BIM data onto jobs sites.
We’ve seed funded two platforms that are pioneering ground-breaking software. LandInsight pulls together data about permission planning, current ownership status and adopted policy proposals so that prospective developers can more easily assess and compare off market sites. Aprao aims to streamline the appraisal of constraints and opportunities once a site has been chosen. The software provides tools to streamline development cash flow forecasting, feasibility reporting and pipeline management. Platforms like these are already demonstrating how a more data-driven approach to construction can translate into real-world efficiencies.
Artificial Intelligence + predictive analytics
AI is still largely underutilised across the construction industry but is showing promise in a few operational areas. Requests for information, open issues, and change orders are standard in the industry, and machine learning processes could be used to streamline them. With the assistance of AI, teams could potentially prevent cost overruns, better manage risk and improve productivity. However, these opportunities will only be realised if firms are able to master the art of collecting and organising the relevant data.
An approach that is becoming more and more common is for construction firms to partner with third-party data analytics companies — a lucrative area for vendors. In 2017, Uptake became the fastest US company to reach a valuation of $2bn. The Chicago-based analytics startup harmonises data collected by construction companies and uses AI to identify new data-driven business models and revenue sources. Here in the UK, data analytics is being utilised to make the industry more sustainable. Unlike Uptake’s focus on revenue sources, Qualis Flow aims to leverage construction data to minimise the environmental impact of projects.
Connected job sites and IoT
According to the UK Health and Safety Executive, fatal injuries in the construction sector are four times higher than the average for all industries, with falls from height and collisions with machinery or equipment still far too common.
Each workplace accident has the potential to delay projects for months and incur severe fines, making safety a top priority as the sector looks to the future. The use of Internet of Things, IoT, devices is becoming increasingly common as a way of better managing the operational risk of construction sites. Data from wearable devices, smart equipment and workplace sensors are being integrated with cloud-based platforms to transform the way projects are planned, monitored and delivered.