New technology in the construction industry is quickly becoming a hot topic for Silicon Valley investors looking for a new outlet, pushing an industry that’s been slow to innovate in recent decades.
Interest among entrepreneurs in construction technologies is driven, in large part, by a boom in large-scale building projects, which are complex and notoriously prone to cost overruns. “Cost and schedule blowouts are the norm in construction,” writes Robb M. Stewart for the Wall Street Journal. “Large projects typically take 20% longer to finish than scheduled and are up to 80% over budget, according to a study by McKinsey & Co.” Meanwhile, only agriculture and hunting invest as little into R&D as construction, according to that same study.
It’s the perfect combination for smart investment: a booming industry that’s hamstrung by inefficiencies and communications snafus, which desperately needs fresh ideas. Smart technology designed to monitor and schedule worksite progress and help minimize budget oversights could disrupt the status quo and potentially save hundreds of millions of dollars industry wide.
Companies are experimenting with everything from big data sourcing to AI, looking to drastically improve construction practices for efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and safety. If you’re an entrepreneur who is thinking about getting your hands dirty, here are a five of our favorite innovations to keep an eye on:
Mobile technology, the Cloud, and Big Data
You can’t talk about new tech today without first addressing mobile technology and cloud computing. Of course, construction is no different. Nearly every worksite today is using smartphones and mobile devices to access everything from plans to timetables and more on-site, instantly using the cloud. IoT technologies, enabled by mobile devices, allow contractors to collect data faster and in larger quantities than ever before. Several startups are putting big data solutions to the test, using this information to create advanced cost and scheduling modeling, as well as improve efficiency and safety.
For example, 5D BIM (Building Information Management) technology connects elements of standard 3D CAD modeling with data variables for cost- and time- related constraints to offer a clear picture of conceptual design as it applies to budgetary needs. Designers, contractors, and investors can use this technology in concert with existing data to present their vision while preventing costly overages.
Currently, the most common way to engage with 3D models is using a 2D screen. That’s sure to change in the coming years, as new holographic headsets allow architects and designers to render their creative vision into something that engages with real space and real time. Augmented reality tech is in the works that will allow contractors to inhabit the design space using VR, letting them walk around and explore in the 3D model. Already, we are starting to see the creative potential virtual walkthroughs like Site-Walk 360 offer owners, investors, general contractors, and facilities managers by allowing viewers to “walk” through their construction site remotely from anywhere in the world with internet connectivity.
3D modeling and holographics technology are both getting a major push from advances in photo documentation, which uses an assortment of advanced cameras to create top-to-bottom visual records for a range of different uses. Photo documentation is already being used for everything from validation of as-built progress to remote inspection and gaining easier access to hard-to-reach areas (often using UAV technology). Video documentation also helps mitigate risk by allowing project managers and investors to track progress remotely.
It may look like something out of a blockbuster movie, but we are already starting to see mechanical exoskeletons hit the construction industry. Exoskeletons are designed to allow workers to lift and move heavy materials without risking their health and safety. Current models use counterweights and metal tubing to stabilize hefty objects, then move them between positions. In the future, automated exoskeletons are expected to drastically reduce injuries in construction, healthcare, the military, and more. This rundown from Wired on the subject features some interesting videos of current exoskeleton technologies in action.
Engineered Living Materials
Perhaps the most scifi-caliber innovation on this rundown comes from an amazing push to engineer living building materials that autonomously re-generate, produce energy, or modulate to meet a range of different needs.
Evocative is a startup that uses mycelium technology to develop a material similar to styrofoam that’s sustainable and biodegradable. Major companies, including Dell and Stanhope Seta, are early adopters of this technology, which literally “grows” foam-like components to suit your need. Think like 3D printing, but for mushrooms. These futuristic materials are designed to be used in construction projects in situations where traditional materials may not be cost effective to bring in, i.e. remote areas not accessible by road. This technology is still years out from implementation, like the exoskeletons mentioned above, but the idea is that the "bricks" can be grown on-site using more easily transported precursor materials.
Other startups are working toward greening up building materials. From buildings that are regulated for temperature by algae to building-grade self-regenerating concrete being developed in university research labs, the future of building is one where the materials do a lot more heavy lifting than the workers do.