Anyone who has visited the incredible city of London has used the Tube.
The Tube forms the arteries of the city and its success lies in its reliability. But I wonder how commuters in London would feel if the reliability of the Tube trains were placed entirely in the hands of a machine.
Transport for London (TfL) announced last year that a new fleet of 250 trains, which will be operational by the mid-2020s, would be capable of fully automatic operation. TfL is making this move to deal with the expected population of London in 2030 of 10 million people.
Using machines to complete tasks such as these is something that we as society will have to become used to as the efficiencies and certain safety aspects of using machines helps increase productivity and efficiency dramatically. Can we apply this way of thinking to the construction industry?
Current statistics show that the construction industry over the past 40 years has declined in productivity. This is a staggering fact when we think about the quantum technological advances we have had in that time.
But change is now afoot; construction companies, civil plant operators and of course technology companies have all put the construction industry as a whole under the microscope and are finding ways to reverse the trend.
Mining companies have led the charge in automation. Rio Tinto has a program in place called “The Mine of the Future” which essentially automates the process of drilling, crushing, and haulage.
The reasons for doing this lie predominantly in the safety aspect of automation. Driving the huge haulage trucks can be a mundane task and the drivers are prone to fatigue. Machines don't get fatigue, but there is a human element to this. Most of the operations in the mining pit are controlled remotely from a control centre hundreds of kilometres away. Plus, there is a skeleton staff of workers on the ground serving as the additional eyes and ears.
What is interesting about this system is that the workers who would have worked in the open cut mine have now been re-skilled and are working in the control centre, and they appear to feel just as much satisfaction as when they were on the coalface.
Other moves are being made at a smaller scale. Construction Robotics has developed a commercially available robotics mason or a robot bricklayer that can lay up to 1,500 bricks a day. This robot can do the task of three workers and does not need breaks.
Other companies such as Husqvarna have developed robots that can crush, cut and drill. Again these are extremely labour intensive tasks and, notwithstanding the efficiencies and productivity aspects of the task, using these robots can actively reduce the number of work site injuries and long-term adverse health effects of the workers.
So what is on the horizon? Spare a thought for the workers recovering what’s left of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan. One of the most difficult tasks was simply to gain access whilst avoiding exposure to deadly radiation. A lot of work is currently underway to create robots to do just that. Some of the world brightest minds are applying the advantages of repetitive and task driven algorithms that robots are very good at to a more real world environment such as a disaster zone or a construction site.
The way in which we capture our world is also changing. The world’s current voracious appetite for data is greater than at any time in history. The rise of 3D laser scanners and tools such as mobile mapping systems are feeding this desire; however, having the right information here is critical, as designers, engineers and construction professionals can be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of data.
The use of drones is helping to rapidly capture sites and give clarity to the construction process. Deployment of small drones on construction sites can give immediate insight that can help in decisions relating to the site and safety. For example, understanding where materials have been placed and will be removed can assist in site safety decisions for the day or week. Having a snapshot of the construction site from high resolution video or a site image can also serve as a record of works completed, while the creation of 3D data from the imagery captured from the drone can help compare the current stage of construction against the proposed timeline..
There has been a lot of interest in the press on augmented reality and wearable technology. Most of this focus has been centred on media, entertainment and gaming technology, but there is a clear move by companies to use wearable technology and augmented reality in design, construction and delivery.
Companies such as Daqri have taken this technology to the next level by developing an industrial grade hard hat that combines wearable technology and augmented reality and enables workers to access intelligent data in the field. Productivity gains by using this technology are almost immeasurable.
At a very basic level, having 3D models and information live in the field can help with controlling systems, giving live feedback, exchanging information with other workers no matter where they are located on site or remotely, and much more. Further, wearables in a larger scale can help with movement of materials on the construction site.
Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering, one of the world’s largest ship builders, is looking to outfit workers with robotic exoskeletons that can currently assist lifting loads of up to 30 kilograms, with a vision to increase this to 100 kilograms. This will be an important piece of wearable technology when workers need to move large and heavy objects on a construction site, in particular with the global move to pre-fabrication. It should dramatically increase project efficiencies and long-term safety.
As you can see from these examples, it’s clear that technology will be one of the key drivers of improved efficiencies in the construction industry. While there is currently a heavy reliance on technology in the design process, there is plenty of room for technology to improve the delivery of both large and small scale construction projects. The efficient delivery, construction and management of projects will depend on technologies like these in the future.