Construction Technology to Watch in 2021
Innovative construction technology enables massive improvements in the safety, efficiency and productivity of large-scale construction projects.
Construction has a long history of innovation that has spurred impressive advances in the types of buildings we can produce. For example, the development of cofferdams and caissons opened the door for majestic underwater structures. Meanwhile, advancements in tower crane technology propelled construction upwards, opening up the possibility for massive skyscrapers.
After a long construction boom, the past year amidst the pandemic was difficult for the construction industry as it strived to protect its workers and keep job sites open. The industry always responds to difficult periods with an increased focus on innovation, so the coming year is likely to see further development of automation and technologies that are reshaping construction as we know it.
Below, we’ve outlined 10 of the most important technologies to watch in 2021.
1. Augmented Reality
Augmented reality (AR) is a digital layer of information that enhances a view of the real world. By using a mobile device with AR capabilities, construction professionals can look at a job site with additional information laid directly on top of the real world.
For example, a construction worker could point a tablet at a wall, and the tablet could display the building plans for that wall as if they were actually part of the environment. Augmented reality has huge implications for construction because it provides additional information exactly where it’s needed.
Here are a few other uses for augmented reality:
- Automate measurements: By measuring a physical space in real-time, AR technology can help construction workers accurately following building plans.
- Visualize modifications: By layering potential project modifications directly onto the job site, contractors can visualize potential changes before committing to them.
- Provide safety information: By recognizing hazards in the environment, augmented reality devices can display real-time safety information to workers.
While augmented reality can be used on a tablet or other portable computer, the future of augmented reality will likely rely on AR glasses, which would enable hands-free access to crucial information at all times. These augmented reality glasses are one of several construction wearables that are likely to gain traction over the next year.
2. Construction Wearables
Construction wearables offer numerous benefits for productivity, but they may succeed in rapid adoption especially because of their upside for safety.
Even before the pandemic, construction was one of the riskiest industries to work in, with accidents like falls and collisions with equipment accounting for hundreds of worker deaths each year. Wearable technology offers the possibility of added safety for workers, potentially preventing injuries and deaths across the industry.
Here are a few construction wearables that are already available today:
- Smart boots: Powered by walking, smart boots can detect workers at risk of a collision with nearby construction vehicles equipped with sensors.
- Smart hard hat: By sensing brainwaves, smart hard hats can detect “microsleeps,” which put workers at risk of injury.
- Power gloves: When worn on a workers’ hands, power gloves increase dexterity and strength, helping reduce overuse injuries.
Other wearables, like smartwatches, monitors and goggles, improve lone worker safety, check for fatigue and enable contact tracing. We’re at the beginning of a revolution in construction that will help improve the efficiency and safety of each individual worker.
That said, the technological benefits for workers don’t stop with small, portable wearables, but also include larger personal devices like construction exoskeletons.
3. Construction Exoskeletons
Construction exoskeletons, or exosuits, are wearable machines with motorized joints that provide extra support and power during repetitive movements like bending, lifting and grabbing.
While exoskeletons originated in rehabilitation programs, they are gaining attention as a tool to reduce injuries and increase efficiency for construction workers. Some exoskeletons are powered by electricity and others simply redistribute weight throughout the body, but all of them have advantages for workers performing tough jobs.
Here are a few examples of exoskeletons being used on construction sites:
- Back support exosuits: A powered suit that fits around the shoulders, back, and waist reduces strain during lifting.
- Crouch support exosuits: Attached to the legs, a crouch support exoskeleton acts as a “chair” even when no chair is present, making it easier to crouch for long periods of time.
- Shoulder support exosuits: By redistributing weight from the shoulders, exoskeletons can prevent fatigue when performing overhead lifting.
There are also full-body construction exoskeletons, which enhance strength and reduce fatigue for difficult lifting jobs.
Though exoskeletons are making strenuous jobs easier for construction workers, the industry is also looking toward construction robots to ease the burden even more by offloading certain risky and difficult tasks to machines.
4. Construction Robots
Construction robots are still a ways off from completely taking over the industry, but a number of designs and proposals are on the table as the industry considers ways to deal with a labor shortage and the need for social distancing.
Three main types of robots seem poisoned to help reshape labor in the construction industry:
- Factory robots: Factory robots are able to perfectly and repeatedly perform a single job, like simple manufacturing tasks.
- Collaborative robots: Collaborative robots can be used on a job site to ease the burden on a human companion, for example by carrying tools or equipment.
- Fully autonomous robots: Similar to the robots of science fiction, fully autonomous robots (which already exist in some form today) can scan the environment and perform complex tasks with tools independently.
While robots like this have not yet been widely adopted in construction, other formerly futuristic technology is already widespread. For example, drones are now a common sight on construction jobs, performing work that would have been cost-prohibitive just a few years ago.
Drones have already made an impressive contribution to construction, and their influence is set to grow in the coming year. Small, camera-mounted, flying drones are able to reduce the costs of processes that used to be extraordinarily expensive.
Here are just a few of the ways that drones are making a difference on job sites:
- Topographic maps: Mapping is vital prior to construction. Aerial drones survey large amounts of land quickly, reducing mapping costs by as much as 95%.
- Equipment tracking: Purchased or rented equipment can quickly get misplaced on a vast job site, but drones can automatically keep track of all equipment on site.
- Security surveillance: Job sites are vulnerable to theft of materials and equipment when no one is working, but drones can monitor a site even when no humans are around.
Drones also have implications for progress reports, personnel safety and building inspections. One of the ways that drones—and other types of construction technology—will continue to improve is by increased use of artificial intelligence and machine learning.
6. Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
Artificial intelligence is the ability for technology to make decisions independent of human input, while machine learning is the ability for technology to “learn” from past experiences. Both of these technologies have massive implications for construction, where efficient and intelligent decision-making has notable effects on productivity and safety.
Take a look at some of the ways AI and machine learning are already re-shaping construction:
- Improved safety: For example, by using machine learning processes, software can analyze job site photos and identify risks and safety violations.
- Decreased costs: By analyzing past projects, machine learning software can identify inefficiencies and propose more effective timelines.
- Better design: Because machine learning software can learn over time, it can improve building design aspects by exploring hundreds of variations.
Machine learning and artificial intelligence will soon affect every aspect of a construction project, from planning all the way through project closeout. Additionally, AI and machine learning are improving novel methods of building, like modular construction, which is a growing part of the construction sector.
7. Modular Construction
Because construction of the building happens at the same time the site is prepared, modular construction can be up to twice as fast as traditional projects.
Other benefits of modular construction include:
- Decreased construction waste: Since many buildings are constructed simultaneously in one factory, excess materials from one project can easily be used on another.
- Lower emissions: By reducing total deliveries as well as total time spent on-site, modular construction decreases carbon emissions.
- Optimized by machine learning: In the factory, building processes are optimized over time through software enhancements, further reducing waste and increasing efficiency.
While modular construction currently represents a small fraction of the overall industry, two-thirds of contractors believe that it will experience increased demand in the coming years. A related technology that benefits modular construction as well as traditional construction is 3D printing.
8. 3D Printing
3D printing involves layer-by-layer creations using machines. Like traditional printers, 3D printers take a digital design and render it in the physical world. Unlike traditional printers, however, 3D printers are not limited to a flat document, but can instead use a variety of materials to create objects or even entire structures.
Though 3D printing is still in its infancy with respect to large-scale construction projects, entire houses have already been printed using this technology. Here are some of the ways that 3D printing is likely to influence construction:
- Efficient materials usage: A growing field is invested in printing building materials (like cinder blocks) or entire structures (like bridges) out of concrete, reducing waste as opposed to traditional methods.
- Increased speed: Compared to traditional building, a 3D printed structure can emerge in its entirety within a few days.
- Eliminating errors: Once a 3D printer receives a design, it renders it perfectly in the physical world, eliminating costly errors.
Though 3D printing is likely to have a huge impact on construction in the coming years, the technology is still relatively new and untested. In the meantime, another 3D technology has emerged to increase efficiency on job sites: building information modeling.
9. Building Information Modeling
Building information modeling (BIM) is the process of creating a digital representation of a structure (a “model”) prior to building it. An accurate representation of the building enables everyone involved in the construction to anticipate difficulties, eliminate risk, determine logistics and increase efficiency.
Building information modeling is useful for all stages of construction:
- Before construction, BIM helps reduce the need for future change orders by anticipating challenges.
- During construction, BIM improves communication and efficiency by offering a central hub for up-to-date and accurate reference documentation.
- After construction, BIM creates the possibility for building management for the structure’s entire lifecycle by providing owners with valuable information about every detail of the building.
Building information modeling may currently be one of the most important developments in construction because it affects and improves every aspect of the construction process. That said, an emergent new technology may ever further revolutionize construction with its innovative approach to information: blockchain.
Blockchain technology, first used for the online cryptocurrency “Bitcoin,” is a way of recording information that has broad applications for construction project management. Though difficult to understand at first, the importance of blockchain is that it is an intuitive way to increase project efficiency.
A few aspects of blockchain make it particularly appealing for the construction industry:
- Secure: All data related to the project is encrypted, so proprietary information stays protected.
- Decentralized: Project information is not stored in a single location, and it is accessible from anywhere.
- Scalable: Since it doesn’t require a massive data warehouse, blockchain can be scaled to very large projects.
In the coming years, blockchain is likely to influence many aspects of construction management, from contracts and asset management to payments and materials procurement. Blockchain is helpful for the entire length of a project, and it helps store information that is accessible even after a project is completed.
Technology is moving rapidly in the construction industry, which is currently looking for ways to innovate and improve processes. Today, technological innovations in construction affect every aspect of the industry, including project planning and safety for workers. With the right equipment and technology, the construction industry is ready for its next leap forward.