By Gavin Gibbon
The construction industry has always been innovative, from the engineering feats of the last century to newer construction methods that use sophisticated building modelling, 3D-printed building materials, and prefabricated facades.
Despite this, the industry’s adoption of new technologies has lagged behind other sectors. However, brick by brick, technology start-ups are changing the construction landscape by launching applications that will change how companies design, plan and execute projects.
There is no doubt the industry is a challenging one, with low margins and high risks, and technology can possibly assist in mitigating risk going forward.
Naji Attalah, head of AEC and manufacturing at Autodesk, said: “Clients and asset owners across the Middle East are increasingly looking for innovative solutions to help deliver safer, quicker and more cost-effective construction projects more than ever, whilst ensuring the quality of the end product is the best it can be.”
Change and disruption only come with setting bold goals and visions, something GCC countries and the UAE in particular can never be accused of not doing. As a perfect example of this, Dubai has previously set an optimistic target to 3D print 25% of its buildings by 2030.
Fadi Nwilati, CEO of Kaizan Asset Management Services, said: “In 2009, Dubai had the most cranes in the world. I can easily see that we will be at a point of having the greatest number of 3D construction printers in the world.
“3D printing has unlimited benefits for all parties involved in the construction process; reduced material usage, saving on 30-60% of construction waste, reduction of production time by 50-70 % and reduction of construction labour costs by 50-80%.”
In August, Immensa Technology Labs, the UAE’s leading Additive Manufacturing (AM or 3D printing) company, in collaboration with Consolidated Contractors Company (CCC), released the result of a world-first joint effort to recover a series of concrete casting techniques with the aid of large-format 3D printing. The ‘Sensorial Adaptive Concrete Screen’ was developed with NOWlab, the Innovation Department of Berlin-based BigRep.
The ‘Sensorial Adaptive Concrete Screen’ showcases techniques that once belonged to skilled craftsman but have had life breathed back into them through expert digital fabrication. It sheds light on 3D printing as the tool that will allow architects to become the master builders of the 21st century and enable direct control of the 1:1 production of their designs.
Fahmi Al-Shawwa, CEO of Immensa, said: “This breakthrough signals the immense potential that 3D-printed formwork offers companies to significantly shorten and simplify their studio to site process. It brings proven concrete casting methods back to today’s building sites, renewed for the modern era and offering significant added value.”
A report from the World Economic Forum (WEF), ‘Shaping the Future of Construction: Future Scenarios and Implications’, revealed full-scale digitization of the construction industry – including 3D printing, AR and even autonomous construction – could save up to $1.7 trillion globally within 10 years.
The challenge to embrace such technological developments is being accepted head on in the GCC, where more than $3 trillion worth of project investments are currently planned or underway.
According to a BMI Megatrends Survey of high-level participants within the construction and engineering industry, the Internet of Things (IOT) - a network of devices that are connected to the internet and can be controlled remotely - was identified as the most disruptive force facing their industry in the short-term, one which will reward first movers in the space and diminish the competitiveness of those companies slow to adopt IOT technology.
Nwilati said: “The Internet of Things market in the Middle East and Africa is expected to grow 15% this year to $6.99bn compared to $6.07bn last year as automation gains traction.
“The green building movement has highlighted more than just material wastage, and landfills, design, and engineering systems are implanted to help reduce the impact on the environment. Some buildings are engineered to shut down specific systems if the building is unoccupied automatically.”
An example of this is the Khalifa Al Tayer Mosque, in Dubai, where there are LED energy-saving lights inside the building, with a control system that automatically dims the interior outside prayer times, and sensors monitoring the entire process.
Another way IOT is assisting building and construction is Intelligent Prefab. Using prefabricated building components can be faster and more cost effective than traditional building methods, and it has an added benefit of creating less construction waste.
However, using prefab for large commercial buildings projects can be very complex to coordinate. “The IOT is helping to solve this problem. IOT also plays a vital role in construction management, since it assists with preventative maintenance issues and ensures that no unnecessary delay occurs on the project. Sensors are placed on critical equipment to alert maintenance workers if there are any fluctuations or excessive vibrations,” said Nwilati.
Growing urbanisation, along with new legislation from governments and independent agencies, is driving developers, consultants and contractors to embrace sustainable design, materials and building techniques.
And technology is playing a huge part in this. Building Information Modelling (BIM) may be something of an elder statesman compared to the continuous stream of cutting-edge technologies being developed, but its effects on the industry remain hugely significant.
Attalah said: “Comparing this region to the rest of the world, the Middle East tends to have many grand-scale construction projects which potentially compounds the effects of not deploying the latest technologies. For example, currently an estimated 30% of materials at every construction project result in waste. This is waste compiled before, during and after any construction project, and is due to reworking (correcting mistakes on the way through), miscalculations and other construction inefficiencies.
“From a sustainability perspective, this presents an incredible opportunity to both save costs and materials, by using BIM tools to help avoid such challenges.”
However, Nwilati believes the relative new kid on the block - augmented and virtual reality - can supersede BIM technology moving forward. The UAE augmented and virtual reality market is projected to grow at a CAGR of over 55% during 2017-23 across all sectors.
He said: “An example of virtual reality in construction is 3D modelling that will enable you to manipulate the model to test the effect of changes before making them in the real world. 3D modelling has been used for a few years now, but Virtual Reality has a more significant impact on the construction industry as we know it.
“We have also been familiar with computer-aided design (CAD) and BIM but these drawings in some instances can’t be precise and can’t provide enough technical insights. This leads to reassessing the feasibility of the construction. Virtual Reality can immerse a person in a visually constructed environment. VR/AR companies are saving money for real construction companies by reducing rework, improving safety, lowering labour costs, meeting timelines and increasing quality. The price for VR equipment has diminished over the past few years, but it’s still in the infancy stage in the UAE construction industry.”
According to the recent BMI report, ‘Industry Trend Analysis - The Ongoing Tech Evolution: Construction Sector Developments In 2018’, automation, robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) feature prominently in respondent’s expectations for disruption. Over a five-year horizon robotics, automation and AI are rated as high impact by 67% and 53% respectively, which jumps to 78% and 81% when on a 30-year horizon.
The same report revealed that, in the short term, robots will likely only perform 1% of construction sector jobs on site. However, it noted: “On the other hand, we highlight the fact that in our recent survey of construction and engineering companies, executives rated robotics and automation highly in terms of its disruptive potential over the next 30 years, a fact which bodes well for the continued long-term uptake and incorporation of robotics in the construction process.”
Another growing trend in the region is the use of drones. This was of particular significance during the construction of the Motiongate theme park in Dubai, where a monthly drone flight captured video footage of the entire construction process.
Daniel Whyte, Aurecon’s BIM Leader for the Built Environment, Middle East, explained: “As well as aiding site inspection, planning and health and safety, the future use for drones includes point cloud scanning capabilities which will feed into the BIM models and volumetric measurements. The benefit of this for the client is that real time coordination can be checked, which saves the contractor time and results in cost saving for the client as the construction phase is accelerated.”
With worker safety also of paramount importance, technology has an increasingly crucial role to play. Salman Yusuf, Founder and Managing Director of Takeleap, said: “According to a report published at the beginning of this year, the UAE remains number one in the GCC for construction, with projects such as Expo 2020 driving the trend of further expansion. Technologies such as AR, VR and their extended usage contribute to achieving the construction goals of the country. Furthermore, the UAE has two main priorities: innovation and safety, specifically in the construction industry. Integrating technologies such as AR and VR contributes to achieving these goals, allowing the UAE to continue to be a pioneer."