The Future of Construction Technology

Christian Burger shares his thoughts on the state of the industry and how he thinks technology will shape the field moving forward.

Historically, the construction industry is not one that has been quick to incorporate new technologies. Far from it in fact, according to Christian Burger, president and founder of Burger Consulting Group.

"We were a sleepy industry," Burger said, "just plodding along rather slowly in terms of adopting new technology." 

Burger, an adjunct professor in Northwestern Engineering's Master of Science in Project Management (MPM) program and Master of Science in Executive Management for Design and Construction (EMDC) program, said that a shift happened within the past five to 10 years. Now, the industry's adoption of new tech — at least in the United States — is much more aggressive. 

"The pace of technology in construction has gone from zero to 60 in almost no time, relatively speaking," said Burger, whose IT consulting firm helps clients in the construction industry select and deploy the latest technology advances for projects.

MPM students in Burger's Information Technology in Construction course spent the quarter examining how various technologies are being applied within the construction industry. The students presented their findings on how emerging technologies are influencing construction in countries around the globe in conjunction with BuiltWorlds — a research-driven, member network at the intersection of the built industry and technology — on Dec. 16.

"I thought this was an exercise that would allow the students to apply what they've learned in class," Burger said, "and I thought it was also something that would be intriguing to the BuiltWorlds community."

To understand the present and future of construction technology, it is best to understand the seismic shift in technological adoption over the past few years. According to McKinsey & Company, investment in construction technology has more than doubled in the past decade. McKinsey found that investors put $25 billion into engineering and construction technology from 2014 to 2019; the industry saw approximately $8 billion from investors from 2008 to 2013.

That influx of money is partially responsible for the rapid rise of building-information modeling (BIM), a technical tool that makes it possible for buildings to be rendered digitally and allows A/E/C professionals to more efficiently design, build, and operate an actual building itself. BIM is essentially a digital twin of the project, Burger said, and it represents a working model on the job site that the foreman and superintendent can interact with to help reduce project risk.

BIM is now widespread across the industry in the US and is used to various extents across the globe. With BIM helping to transform construction, the next question is, "What's next?"

One natural answer, Burger said, would be automation of fabrication and installation. As he explained, automation already exists in the industry, but for the most part it has been focused on the administrative side of business systems for accounting, estimating, and human resources. There's been very little in the field to help with constructability, until now. Digitation of the job site will reduce errors, improve efficiency, and greatly decrease rework.

In 2018, McKinsey compared construction with 12 other industries to understand how artificial intelligence solutions were being adopted. Ten of the industries were considered to be further along with AI adoption, and all 12 were expected to increase spending on AI at a faster pace than construction during the next three years.

AI may start to become more common on job sites through robotics, such as the multiple types of brick-laying robots that have been developed in the past few years. These robots vary in the way they work — some are fully autonomous while others work alongside masons. They lay a perfect brick every time, and as Burger noted, they don't take breaks or get sick. Other examples are robots that install drywall or one that ties rebar. 

Burger isn't sure to what extent robots will become commonplace on job sites. The systems are expensive and still require manual assistance. Plus, job sites are often dirty and unpredictable, neither of which are ideal for robotics.  

Where Burger thinks automation will have a more pronounced impact is in the prefabrication of materials. Prefabrication is already becoming more commonplace, and automation will likely only continue that trend.

"The benefits are quick to see and identify," he said. "Climate control. Safety. Available equipment. The ability to prefab and stage and bring it to the job site when you need it helps the contractor control the schedule a little bit better and really the quality as well."

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