Blog. The future of construction. Part 3 of the series ‘Disruption and new business models’

Futures Studies

We live in a fascinating and rapidly changing world. Together, technologies such as robots, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, self-driving vehicles, 3D/4D printing, solar energy, nanotechnology, biotechnology and quantum computing are initiating a 4th Industrial Revolution. We are witnessing new products, new methods of production and new business models across all industries. This is Part 3 of the series Disruption and new business models, discussing the future of construction.

Smart homes

The Internet of Things will grow rapidly in the coming years. By 2020, more than 50 billion devices worldwide are expected to be connected to the internet. A large number of such devices will be found inside the home and by this, we do not simply mean our computers, tablets and smart phones.

More and more people use a smart thermostat; they can see on their mobile phone how warm it is at home and subsequently turn the heating either on or off. Lights and curtains can also be connected, as can a washing machine, coffee machine and all other household appliances. Samsung currently manufactures a refrigerator incorporating a built-in camera, so you can see how many eggs you have at home while racing around the supermarket.

When such diverse in-house systems stop operating as stand-alone networks and start to exchange information and communicate with external networks with the capacity for self-learning, things get really interesting.

In the United States, you can buy a push-button ordering system via Amazon, the Amazon Dash, enabling you to order household products at the touch of a button. You might stick one on your washing machine, for example, and when you are low on detergent, simply press the button to reorder. Amazon Dash is available for more than 200 products.

Many other applications are in the offing. Imagine, for example, cameras around the home incorporating face detection technology, whereby the door will only open for residents, or send an alarm to the police when a wanted criminal is recognised. Or refrigerators which propose meals or recipes based upon available ingredients, as well as the personal preferences and dietary requirements of the inhabitants. A smart home system with artificial intelligence teaches itself the requirements and needs of each inhabitant and anticipates them, for example, by correcting the temperature in each room at the correct time. And then we have intelligent toilet bowls with sensors to analyse urine and faeces for the presence of blood, sugar and bacteria for medical diagnostic purposes.

In the United States, they are currently debating the question: Amazon Echo or Google Home? Both of these are virtual in-home assistants and, unfortunately, not yet available in the Netherlands. They look like speakers and are voice-controlled. You can ask them questions and give them spoken commands to operate in-house devices.

3D/4D printing

We can now print in 3D in hundreds of different materials, ranging from plastics, food and human tissues to steel and concrete. Printed items are becoming larger and increasingly complex. We are now also printing composite, moveable objects that can perform specific functions. In these cases, we are talking about 4D printing.

For architects, it’s Christmas time. Thanks to 3D/4D printing techniques, building designs formerly deemed too complicated or expensive can now be followed through. Even defining elements of the traditional architecture of a town or region can be incorporated into construction plans. Such flexibility will encourage dramatic leaps and bounds within the design world, as time-consuming moulds are no longer necessary and production speeds up, with less production costs as a result. Furthermore, this method means less construction waste and more energy-efficiency.

Amsterdam is currently working on the first 3D printed steel bridge to stretch over the Oudezijds Achterburgwal canal. This project, led by the Amsterdam R&D start-up MX3D, is being carried out in collaboration with companies such as Autodesk (software), ABB (robots), Lenovo (hardware) and Heijmans. At the end of 2016, a printed concrete pedestrian bridge was installed in a park in Madrid. This bridge was designed by the Institute of Advanced Architecture of Catalonia and manufactured by Acciona.

We find more advanced 3D printing construction applications in China. For example, those created by WinSun, who have not only printed villas, but also apartment blocks. While in Dubai, the first 3D printed offices have been installed at the Museum of the Future, a unique design incorporating numerous rounded forms.

The Dutch CyBe Construction has just manufactured the first portable concrete printer, allowing on-site printing which will even further reduce both construction time and costs.

Robots and drones

Robots in the construction sector can take over both repetitive and dangerous human tasks. The impressive bricklaying robot SAM, which stands for Semi-Automated Mason, can lay 2000 bricks per day, about 2 to 3 times more than a man. SAM is produced by Construction Robotics from New York. Fast brick Robotics from Australia has produced a comparable machine with their Hadrian X.

There are also robots that can remove concrete, remote-controlled demolition equipment and machines that can lay paving. A particularly unique form of robot is the so-called exoskeleton, worn by construction workers to support the back when lifting and bending.

In the construction sector, drones are primarily used for inspection purposes. They can look at difficult to access places, for example, high up or underground. Drone stability is now so advanced they can be used for surveying and positioning purposes.

New materials

Self-healing concrete can significantly extend a building’s lifespan. In The Netherlands, Green Basilisk, part of TU Delft, markets solutions for both new and existing buildings. This technology is based on micro-organisms which produce limestone when in contact with water, allowing the restoration of cracks of up to 0.8 mm. The company achieved 3rd place at the 2016 MKB Innovation Top 100.

Further work will be geared towards the development of new, incredibly thin materials, composed of only a single layer of atoms. These are also called 2-dimensional materials. An example of a 2D material is graphene; graphene is stronger than steel, harder than diamond and a better conductor of electricity than copper. It is also transparent and flexible. You can strengthen existing constructions with graphene, at the same time improving the city’s air quality; graphene absorbs carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide from the surrounding atmosphere. Graphene was, until recently, exorbitantly expensive, but this cost is rapidly decreasing thanks to new production methods. Graphene can be found on many of today’s ‘emerging technology’ lists.

Also interesting is the development of nanosensors, which are so small that they can be mixed in together with construction materials. In this way, the beginnings of rust formation and cracks are detected at a very early stage, allowing for preventive maintenance. This is part of the Internet of Nano Things (IoNT), another breakthrough technology.

Augmented Reality

The construction industry is ideal for the application of Augmented Reality. During the design phase, clients can see and experience how their new home or office will look in 3D format. During construction, it is possible to give visual instructions to construction workers. With the incorporation of Augmented Reality, you can show how cables and pipes run through walls or under the ground. Images often communicate better than words and Augmented Reality makes this possible.

Many different parties are involved in the building process, often at a variety of locations. Any software used throughout this process, from design up to completion, must therefore be both mobile and collaborative. Software such as BIM (Building Information Modelling) and WoonConnect provides a platform for the collaboration and sharing of information at all stages of a building’s life cycle. This software also facilitates collective innovation, which we recognise as faster moving than innovation kept within the limits of a single company.

Sharing economy and platforms

The sharing economy, facilitated by platforms, has been extremely successful within many industries. The most famous examples come from consumer markets. The travel industry boasts companies such as AirBnb, and Trivago. In mobility, we have Uber and other car sharing concepts such as Car2go. While in the financial sector, there exists peer-to-peer lending or groups such as Lending Club and Zopa.

The business-to-business sharing economy is also growing. In construction, we see platforms or market places for the trading of used heavy equipment, such as IronPlanet, which was sold for more than $500 million in 2016. On YardClub, you can rent out equipment not currently in use (peer-to-peer).

Urgent: new technology investments to make up for the lack of professional construction workers

The construction sector has good reason to seize these new technological opportunities with both hands. The financial crisis is over. Construction is once more a growing business and with current demand overtaking supply, house prices are rising. Unemployment within the construction industry has been decreasing at a rapid rate in recent years, order books are filling up and waiting times are beginning to increase. The imminent shortage of construction professionals could prevent further growth within the sector. Even more reason to invest in the most recent building technologies.