The emergence of a whole swathe of “disruptive” paradigm-shifting technologies could severely undermine the competitive ability of those construction firms still leery of innovation and change.
Andrew Harris, Professor of Engineering at the University of Sydney and the Australian director of Laing O'Rourke's Engineering Excellence Group, points to a broad range of new technologies that are poised to have a transformative impact upon the industries involved with the built environment.
"I'm talking broadly about technologies including robotics, automation, giant 3D printers, and the opportunities that these present in the engineering, construction and infrastructure spaces," he said.
Harris notes that the construction sector is one of the few hold-out industries to remain significantly unaffected by the emergence of transformative new technologies. This makes the sector ripe for the picking in the eyes of the heavyweight tech giants that specialise in cutting edge innovation, given that the introduction of these new technologies is all but inevitable.
"Companies like Google, Apple or Amazon see the size of the opportunities in the construction sector, which is the last major undisrupted industry on the planet," Harris said. "If the construction industry doesn't deploy disruptive innovation or disruptive new technologies, they will get disrupted from the outside."
The lagging uptake of radical new technologies by the construction is likely due to the conservative nature of many firms and practitioners, particularly given the extremely venerable nature of the industry in which they operate, as well as the imperative to avoid risk during complex projects.
"The challenge is that the industry is so conservative and risk-averse – they need to really see how it works," said Harris. "In the construction sector we still use the brick, and that was invented about 5,000 years ago – that’s the rate of change in the industry.
"Construction companies are all about mitigating risk – the delivery of major projects is about risk – who has the risk and how you deal with it or manage.
"Innovation brings in risk, and because of this, nobody wants to do it because it’s the antithesis of the standard way of delivering a project."
Harris nonetheless considers the adoption of a range of emerging technologies to be inevitable for the sector, given the profound cost and operational advantages they confer.
"Over the next couple we’ll see more people using augmented reality and virtual reality technology as the prevalence of headsets becomes more widely available and costs come down,in order to do client engagement and community stakeholder work," he said. "A little further down the track, certainly additive manufacturing technology will play a major role.
"We’ve used 3D printers on projects before to print simple parts, and we’re doing lots of research to print much more complicated components. I think it’ll be quite a while before you see a giant 3D printer printing a building, although all of the constituent components for that exist today, so if somebody wanted to and they put enough money behind it, you could print out a whole building."
A key paradigm change will involve the adoption of manufacturing techniques from other industries in tandem with digital technology to dramatically enhance the design and assembly of prefab buildings.
"Prefabrication and offsite manufacturing is taking its cue from the aerospace model of what they call design for manufacture and assembly," said Harris. "It starts with a full digital model broken up into components that are built separately by a global supply chain, before being brought together and assembled.
"You bring those components together and just assemble it by hooking it together by train, so you're not waiting for concrete to dry.
"That’s a new model which is used extensively in aerospace to build Formula 1 Cars, and the methods and knowledge in those sectors will trickle into construction where we'll start seeing major changes."
Another major paradigm change for the construction sector will involve the use of the vast amount of data amassed by modern economies to better analyse and optimise various industry and business processes.
"The next paradigm will be around digital and the interaction between digital models, people and the sub-structure around data," Harris said. "Big data analytics will be used to derive new insights to improve safety, quality, productivity and costs."
Given the profound impacts that this cavalcade of technologies will bring to the construction sector, Harris believes some of its established members will need to overcome their traditionally risk-averse perspective in order to avoid being blindsided by outside entrants to the industry.
"The risk is that we get Ubered – something comes in and all of a sudden the incumbents are in trouble because it's what all of our clients want, that we didn’t know they wanted, because we were just doing what we’ve always done," he said.