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How automation in construction is driving growth in 2021

By Charlie Cropp MRICS
December 29, 2020
Construction is the biggest industry in the world. Yet, even outside of the economic downturn of 2020, it’s not performing well.

Construction is the biggest industry in the world. Yet, even outside of the economic downturn of 2020, it’s not performing well. According to McKinsey, the ecosystem of the construction industry represents 13% of global GDP, but has seen productivity growth of only 1% annually over the last 20 years. Time and cost overruns are the norm, and overall earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) are only around 5%.

Achieving growth is challenging given the practices and techniques currently in favour. The traditional project lifecycle is filled with inefficiencies and slumps in productivity. 

Skilled-labour shortages have also become a major issue, and almost 41% of the US construction workforce is expected to retire over the next 10 years. The impact the COVID-19 crisis will have on this dynamic in the long term is also unclear. 

However, there are positive signs. Automation in construction is poised to finally come into its own and be the factor that drives future growth. Let’s explain.

BIM multiples effectiveness

BIM (Building Information Modelling) and reality capture are the catalysts for the implementation of new automated industrialised solutions (e.g., off-site prefabrication, robotics, collaborative planning, automated file sharing). BIM has been around for a while, but it’s the more recent proliferation of database-led BIM Level 3 design processes (rather than lower-level BIM) that really sees efficiency gains delivered. In the UK, Construction firms need to work towards BIM Level 3 by 2025

Suggested reading: Check out our guide about “BIM-washing” if you want to learn more. 

As construction projects become more complex, with designs provided by a range of service providers, laser scan data that has been created quickly and processed accurately will be crucial. As a complement to laser scanning, robust and accurate registration of the scan data means that more reliable models can be produced and passed along the BIM workflow. 

Users in that construction workflow benefit from increased confidence that the building process meets the actual design specifications and means that collaborators can return to a single digital file to validate and reference their workload.

BIM is the sum of all parts

BIM is not just a 3D image without any further content. It’s an interactive model full of data. It's a three-dimensional real-time representation of a database of all the construction parts. All elements are placed in a realistic construction sequence in order to virtually construct and maintain the entire building.

Reality capture advances put BIM in touch with physical space

The knock-on benefits of working with accurate BIM data are numerous. More reliable and accurate automatic point cloud registration can be achieved using novel algorithms. This removes the chore of placing targets in the scene and gives the option to process scan data more easily than ever before. 

No software installations, no add-on updates, no CPU or RAM-hungry hardware specifications, and no huge upfront software costs are necessary. These automated point cloud registration developments come just in time to match another key development which will massively increase the scan data at our disposal — SLAM.

SLAM and mobile scanning

The popularity of SLAM (Simultaneous Localisation And Mapping) is growing with the emergence of indoor mobile scanning and robotics. It also offers an appealing alternative to user-generated plans and maps — giving the freedom to work even without pre-defined infrastructure.

SLAM’s main power is the speed with which reality capture data can be captured. Fundamentally, this is a trend across the entire sector — it’s now easier than ever to generate scan data, and then use that to inform planning and cross-check outputs. 

For SLAM (along with standard GNSS-enabled or stationary scanners) the major advancements opening the door to increased application revolve around processing scan data and layering that data with other data sets. More robust processing algorithms allow for greater automation, which improves the use of cloud-based processing to access on-demand memory and CPU power. This will allow the system to scale, and create automated 3D LiDAR maps in large, complex environments. Coupling BIM with these more cloud-oriented algorithms will generate significant performance and process gains.

Suggested reading: If you want to learn more about SLAM, check out our free eBook — How SLAM Enables The Evolution of Wearable Reality Capture Technology. 


Better planning forms the basis of automation

Using digital tools can significantly improve on-site collaboration. And digital channels are spreading to construction, with the potential to transform purchasing interactions across the value chain. 

By taking this collaborative planning approach, it’s easier to plan, and then automate tasks based on that planning. For example, using off-site manufacturing and pre-fabrication will likely become far more common. It will be easier to model and incorporate new automated methods such as:

  • Modularisation
  • Off-site production automation
  • On-site assembly automation 
  • 3D printing 

The transition to efficient off-site manufacturing involves integrating planning and automated production systems — essentially making construction more like automotive manufacturing.

Here are the crucial advances that will drive automation of construction:

  • Factory-based automated construction techniques 
  • Scan-to-BIM informing the basis of planning
  • SLAM-based scanning of multiple stages to prevent errors
  • Cloud-based registration, processing and storage of data
  • Post-fabrication scanning based on pre-fabricated parts 
  • 3D printing onsite and off-site
  • Construction robotics
  • On-site measurement and validation
  • Automated documentation and hand-over

Many of these topics are worth a deep-dive themselves, and each has an important part to play in driving growth and automation in construction. For more details on some of them, check out the following: 

How far are we away from is real automation?

While 2021 will see an acceleration in automation adoption, we’ve had too many false-dawns to forecast massive change. 

Not including uncertainty post-pandemic, this is principally due to the limitations of data sharing between the numerous project stakeholders which still results in miscommunication, delay and inaccuracies. Fundamentally, BIM and reality capture are the answers here, but adoption is far from universal. 

The industry needs to tackle these issues in order to help deliver cost improvements to the bottom line for organisations in the construction ecosystem — and this will take more than 21 months to solve. But by getting ahead of the game and planning for that automated future, you can make investments now that will improve your uptake of these advancements as they occur. For more information on BIM, check out our ebook — The Ultimate Guide to BIM — and start planning for a future driven by automation today.   

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