How can construction firms learn from the manufacturing sector?

Autodesk's Naji Attalah outlines how the construction sector can make digitisation and technology “the norm”

Autodesk head of AEC and manufacturing Naji Atallah (pictured)
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Autodesk head of AEC and manufacturing Naji Atallah (pictured)

Construction has long had the reputation of being a conservative industry that is slow to adopt new technologies.

According to McKinsey studies, only agriculture employs less digitisation than construction among the surveyed industries. As a result, construction lags behind many other industries when it comes to efficiency, productivity and sustainability.

One way to establish and embrace new best practices in construction is through looking at technologies that have been successfully adopted in other industries.

By stepping outside traditional methods, the industry can rise up to the challenge of delivering the 13,000 buildings required per day, every day, till 2050 to house the world’s population.

When compared to the flatlined productivity in construction over the last several decades, the manufacturing industry can be considered a lighthouse for what works – nearly doubling its efficiency.

Below are some examples of what construction firms can learn from an industry where digitisation and technology are not considered innovation but rather the norm:

Waste reduction

A staggering third of the world’s solid waste is generated by the construction industry. Much of this is caused by inefficiencies in workflows, communication gaps and outdated systems and processes.

Implementing better design processes such as Building Information Modelling (BIM) and coupling it, when relevant, with additive manufacturing techniques will significantly reduce this type of waste due to better material management and reduced rework on site.

Speed

Where once buildings took months to years to complete, new manufacturing techniques make this possible within weeks or even days.

In 2015, China led the way by completing a 57-storey tower in just 19 days. Through the use of modular design and prefabrication, builders were able to construct three stories per day.

The tower has 800 apartments, 19 atriums, and office space for 4,000 people. The tower was not a one-off; a Marriott property is currently under construction in New York City and will soon be the world’s tallest modular hotel.

Autodesk is collaborating with Skystone to deliver the tools that are necessary to undertake such a landmark project.

Safety and quality

By moving the ‘manufacturing’ of a building offsite to a controlled factory environment, the industry will see gains in both safety and quality.

This means panels and spaces for buildings with repetitive designs such as hotels and offices will be prefabricated at a factory before being shipped to the construction location to be ’attached’ to the building’s conventional super-structure.

According to a 2016 study, serious injury or death among construction workers made up almost half of all worker related injuries in Kuwait.

More automation and less on-site construction works means less safety incidents. Additionally, quality checks in the factory will help discover issues early.

The later a problem is discovered, the more it will cost to fix it. If a problem is found in the design phase of a building that costs $1 to fix, that same problem discovered in the construction phase will cost $20.

If the building reaches its operational phase before the problem is discovered, it is estimated to cost $60. 

Complexity of designs

Architects have sometimes had their creativity held in check by the limitations of traditional construction technology.

Additive manufacturing can fundamentally change this by allowing more complex organic shapes that were once too hard to manufacture.

The Museum of the Future in Dubai is an example of a building in which new manufacturing techniques led to a complex and distinctive shape.

Additive manufacturing will eventually allow designers to use Generative Design which results in complex shapes. Just like in products now, this will result in buildings with better performance yet using less material to construct.

New materials

Throughout the human history, the development of materials has helped expand the limits of human endeavour and achievement.

The aerospace and medical industries for example had major leaps with the use of newer and better performing material last few decades.

Construction is yet to benefit from complete disruptions in material and essentially uses similar material to what has been in used for centuries.

In the future, additive techniques will allow us to use smart materials; to have a wall function as a battery storing energy from a roof fitted with solar cells.

Newer material that can be used in an additive technique will also change the way we build in remote areas; a regional application would be a 3D printer that is able to use sand from the desert significantly reducing the logistics and de-risking a construction projects.

If we are to explore other planets in our future, scientists believe our first bases will need to be built, probably additively, from material local to that planet.

The construction industry in the Middle East is already on the right path towards adopting some of those technologies.

This is driven by many ambitious projects on which traditional methods would struggle to deliver on schedule. Couple this with country visions focused on innovation, the environment is right for the ecosystem to explore new technologies and flourish.

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