Building with drones is being tested at the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium. Picture co

Building with drones is being tested at the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium. Picture courtesy of UCL DroneZone/Belgium, Prof Pierre Latteur, 2017

While technological progress on construction sites may be shooting forward faster than many can keep pace with, experts are saying that they are “disappointed because nothing is moving ahead”, and that “we need another revolution in construction”.

Flying robots, artificial intelligence, 3D printing and the ever-increasing scope of BIM (building information modelling) are all way in which the construction industry is changing, with some elements already in place but clearly much more to come.

The effects of these changes are many and varied, and range from economic benefits and safety issues, to a resultant need to attract young talent to the industry of the future.

At a conference held at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, recently, there was a call for the construction industry to become “more future-orientated”.

The conference was staged by Construction Products Europe, whose director general, Christophe Sykes, said this was “the first event in a long discussion”.

The event was hosted by Catherine Stihler MEP, and it looked at a number of different topics under the heading High-Tech Evolution in Construction.

Building with drones was discussed by Pierre Latteur of the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium.

He said, “BIM allows for all the stakeholders of a construction project to better co-ordinate by using a central, unique and permanently updated source of information.

“BIM is necessary today, but it is not yet sufficient. We need another revolution in construction.”

He said it was not sufficient because it did not avoid the impact of many factors, such as the lack of communication between people, the lack of skilled labour, bad weather conditions, etc.

He pointed out that today, workers still had to open a paper plan on a jobsite, and to translate it, so it was a source of mistakes.

He suggested an answer to these problems was to use robots – and not just flying robots.

“Why couldn’t we use robots to build structures on a fully automated process?” he asked, saying that robots could place each construction element at exactly the right spot.

His laboratory tests have seen that a wall could be built in less than two hours with two drones, with labour costs of €4 per m2 – not including the cost of materials.

“That means ten times cheaper than the cost of a Belgian worker, and five times faster,” he said. 

“If you want to use flying robots for construction, we have to rethink the construction processes. We think we will never on a construction site use flying robots with a mass bigger than 100 or 200kg, unless it becomes a heavy, noisy and dangerous helicopter, so we have to rethink the construction processes in order to be able to build big structures with light and small elements.”

He said that went against what is done everywhere in the world where labour costs were high, saying that this was because building at the present time was with big elements and big cranes.

Artificial intelligence

Tim Chapman, director of Arup Infrastructure, took up the topic of artificial intelligence.

He said, “The high-tech evolution in construction is a key part of artificial intelligence.”

In the past, he said, it had been evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

“I think this industrial revolution – the next one – is going to be more revolutionary than we have seen in our lifetimes.”

Some speakers came up with a different number of industrial revolutions that have been seen already, but for Chapman it was four.

“The first one was in the 18th century with steam power and mechanical production. The second one was the division of labour, electricity and mass production, and factorisation of production at the end of the 19th century, and in the latter part of the last century, electronics and IT.

“The fourth industrial revolution we’re coming into now,” he said, “is cyber physical systems and artificial intelligence. So very quickly now, human technology is moving ahead.”

Chapman said that automation in construction – whether it was drones, robotics or something else – was all the same thing.

“It’s all about automation, making ourselves more efficient, and we tend to think in construction that it won’t happen to us. We will do things like we always have done.

“The miracle is we have got as far as we have, doing it the way we have always done it before technology has taken over.”

He pointed to industries like buying insurance, banking and bookstores, which have been “obliterated by technology – the nature has changed utterly over the last 20 or 30 years, and the same thing will happen to us. It hasn’t happened yet. We need that productivity boost in construction.”

‘Construction puzzle’

The subject of BIM was addressed by Peter Caplehorn, deputy chief executive and policy director of the UK’s Construction Products Association.

He talked about the “construction puzzle”, saying there was a situation where lots of things happened in construction, with many unco-ordinated things that were meant to happen but probably didn’t.

“It’s a case of making sense of this to achieve the buildings and the outcomes that we want – and that hardly ever happens,” he said.

“We always have a situation where chaos reigns at some point in the production, so how do we make this work better? That’s the challenge of digitalisation.”

He said that currently in the UK industry, every project was drawn two and a half times, and constructed one and a half times.

“That’s a ridiculous amount of waste and it’s something we need to address,” said Caplehorn. “It’s something I think that digitalisation rather than BIM – because it is a wider subject – will actually tackle and get us to a good solution.”

He continued, “BIM is not about CAD, it’s not about 3D images. It’s about data first and foremost.

“The data supports the 3D images. That is so important because it’s the data that brings the reliability. It’s the data that joins up all the players in the conversation. It’s the data that gives us sense, in terms of what will actually be built, reliably and with improved performance, and with better health and safety, and all those aspects that we are trying to drive for.”

For Jeremy Rollison, director of EU government affairs within Microsoft’s corporate, external and legal affairs group, there are three revolutions to consider – the industrial revolution, and the PC computing revolution in the 1980s having already happened.

He said, “We really identify the next big revolution from our side as cloud computing, and all the things that come with that.”

He felt that drones, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things would all increasingly be powered by the cloud.

‘Disappointed’

Thomas Bock, professor of building realisation and robotics at Technische Universität München, said he had been following the construction industry for more than three decades, “and I’m getting disappointed because nothing is moving ahead, so we really have to come up with a kind of innovation lead”.

He said his solution would be to initiate in the region of 80 flagship projects in the next 15 years.

“I would take at least about €5 billion,” he said. “It sounds a lot, but it’s not. If you just consider the cost overrun of the Berlin airport, it’s more than €5 billion already. The airport should have been finished six years ago – we don’t know when we can finish it.

“So if you just take this money of the cost overrun of the Berlin airport, we can do something revolutionary in Europe.”

He added, “And it will generate new professions, so we don’t need to worry that a robot might take them away. On the contrary, we will have new professions and new markets if we develop these processes with robots.”

Cédric de Meeûs, who is responsible for LafargeHolcim’s public affairs and government relations, spoke about 3D printing.  

“We are only one actor in a very complex and very fragmented value chain, and each actor along these value chains is impacted by megatrends such as urbanisation, and all of them are trying to solve different challenges.

“We have to provide partial answers to those challenges. This is transforming everything we do, and everything we have done for the past 100 years.”

He said that at the heart of this transformation lay value-added data, and that for LafargeHolcim, this could take many different forms, including BIM, and the use of RFID (radio frequency identification) chips to monitor and control the infrastructure that his company was helping to build.

“It’s also about smart manufacturing,” he told the conference. “That’s where 3D printing comes in.”

He said there were more questions around 3D than answers at the moment, and that 3D was not one process, but a broad family of techniques which was currently evolving.

“We are trying to understand two revolutions that are ongoing,” said de Meeûs. “The first one is trying to understand how building practice and how the model of traditional building are completely changing with 3D.”

He said this was because 3D meant unlimited product diversification which, as it was on demand, meant there was no need for stocks.

“You can produce one piece, or 3,000 pieces, so you have complete control on cost for small series and for large series.”

He said it changed everything completely, with “infinitely complex shapes for architects, and you transform completely the way you work. Usually you design, you mock up, you prototype and then you build. Here you go from design to build in one go.”

He said a second element here was that, from a cement and concrete perspective, the industry was not used to robots.

“We’re not an automated sector. The construction sector in general is not robotised or automated, and this changes completely the basis on which we work.

“When approaching 3D printing, we have three things in mind,” said de Meeûs. “The first one is purely aesthetic.

“It’s working with the construction value chain, working with architects and conveying the message to architects to go for it – go on, dream it! We can build it today or at least try to build it with you.”

He said that in the longer term, this could bring solutions to “the affordable housing dilemma that we have in many parts of the world”. He cited countries where a house could be built in a small number of days for a very controlled cost.

The third element he identified was about integrating elements that had been discussed throughout the conference, such as BIM.

“To do large scale 3D printing you need, of course, a material supplier – concrete is one of them. You need digital-friendly building companies, and there are not many around today. It’s changing but there are not many around.”

He said the biggest step to overcome in the future would be how to adapt these technologies to a sector which is heavily standardised.

Closing the conference, Construction Products Europe’s Sykes said, “We need to attract young talent, and we need to be more future-orientated as an industry.”

More details from the High-Tech Evolution in Construction conference are available from Construction Products Europe’s website at www.construction-products.eu.

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