Katerra's “growth on the horizon” for construction tech in KSA

Katerra’s Ash Bhardwaj tells CW’s how the firm is leading the way with construction technology

“Projects that have faced delays due to the crisis will need to speed up deliveries” [Image: Katerra]
“Projects that have faced delays due to the crisis will need to speed up deliveries” [Image: Katerra]
Ash Bhardwaj, President of Asia and Middle East, Katerra. [Photo supplied by Katerra]
Ash Bhardwaj, President of Asia and Middle East, Katerra. [Photo supplied by Katerra]

The year of 2020 has redefined the world as we know it. The era of COVID-19 has pushed the need for technology across all industries from healthcare – manufacturing -communication- ecommerce and services – the construction sector has been no different.

The world watched as China put together a 1,000-bed hospital in 10 days, and then started constructing a second one that was ready for patients in barely six days.

As the virus spread - hospital building design, offsite manufacturing, modular construction and technology became the talk of the industry across Europe.

At Katerra, this seemed to be the discussion long before the world had changed.

Founded in 2015, the Silicon Valley construction technology start-up has been asking the right questions. How do we build faster, better and more sustainably while reducing reliance on labour? The answer seems to be somewhere in between design and technology.

Commenting on this, Katerra’s president for Asia and the Middle East, Ash Bhardwaj, tells Construction Week that modular or offsite construction has been around for decades.

“Our company is design and technology-led. Imagine manufacturing a building like a race car or a phone. You spend time first developing the design, technology, and even the material. Once you have that structure in place, you can make it in different colors, styles, sizes and aesthetics,” says Bhardwaj.

“We look at buildings the same way, based on data driven design. We are creating a design library of products for residential, commercial buildings, hospital and retail.

“This approach cuts structural design time, while maintaining design freedom and aesthetics. Every building follows a component-based design which is manufactured in a Katerra factory and delivered onsite for assembly. All tied up end-to-end with technology.”

A recent report points out that Saudi Arabia’s population is likely to reach 39.5 million by 2030 a 19.9% growth from 2017.

This growing populous will need structures to live, work and play in, and Katerra has zoned in on this need.

At the 2018 Future Investment Initiative, (Davos of the Desert) Katerra signed its first memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Ministry of Housing to build 500,000 homes in the next 10 years.

Shortly thereafter came a show of its unique technology with a four-bedroom home built in 48 hours, which they claim was a first for the kingdom.

“We are currently commissioned to build more than 14,000+ homes across eight districts in Saudi Arabia with the Ministry of Housing. In the last year we have set-up four fully functional onsite factories that are delivering 350-400 homes a month and we continue to ramp up productions,” adds Bhardwaj.

In the last year, the company set-up its first offices in the kingdom growing to more than 2000+ people working across 30 sites and delivering a home a day on each site.

Globally, the construction industry is reckoned to be the second largest in terms of turnover and also employment. But the industry has been held back by trained labour shortages.

Katerra’s technology-led factories use 70% less labour than traditional sites, yet they face the same or greater challenges with most unskilled labour having never worked in a manufacturing environment, the company propagates.

“On the job training is an essential part of what we do at Katerra, our employees get trained to use every process they previously did manually, now using technology,” Bhardwaj explains.

While this means the company faces initial challenges, it works better in the long run.

While some of this technology is new - with component-based construction and assembly line production a task that was once new, soon becomes easy when done repeatedly. Unlike traditional construction where the needs and tasks change rapidly.

Bhardwaj, a technology veteran from the chip manufacturing industry, believes that it is simply a matter of time that the construction industry will have assembly line workers like other sectors.

“COVID-19 has definitely brought this to a forefront, with more technology driven practices it is easier to maintain social distancing even on sites and at an offsite construction factory, and the use of 70% less labour is a far cry from traditionally crowded sites.”

He added: “Most of our sites and factories continue to be working in the Middle East. The use of modular technology, fewer workers on sites makes it easier for us to follow all the COVID-19 protocols laid down by the government while continuing our projects. We continue to monitor the operational situation closely daily, to ensure we are protecting our employees.”

While the company is largely building homes in Saudi Arabia, it is also bidding for for the kingdom’s giga projects and projects in the retail, commercial and healthcare sector. Its India operations caters to all of these sectors and the experience is one Bhardwaj seems keen to bring to the Middle East.

“We are building the Lulu Group’s two-million-sq-ft mall in Lucknow, India that’s scheduled to be handed over in Q3 this year. The 2 million sq. ft. mall has taken two years to construct that would have normally taken five years,” says Bhardwaj.

Katerra is also building offices for technology giants like Infosys, Microsoft and hospitals in India, a portfolio that has opened the road for similar projects in the Middle East.

One level of inefficiency that Katerra has encountered in the construction industry is the multiple software used by different players, across different activities that don’t often work together. To reduce that, it’s creating a new software package, Apollo, integrating construction projects end-to-end. The company and its clients use Apollo on certain aspects of current projects and Bhardwaj expects this to ramp-up in the coming year.

With the gloom facing the construction industry and the economies in general with COVID-19, Bhardwaj’s concludes by highlighting the need for technology in all sectors more than ever.

“Projects that have faced delays due to the crisis will need to speed up deliveries and this has made Katerra’s fast technology driven construction more necessary.”

“Interest for partnerships and new projects have definitely increased. More people are now interested in how we can support them.

 “We have also designed a permanent quarantine hospital that can be built in 2 weeks and are in talks with several hospitals that are looking at quick expansions to existing units.”

Katerra has 700 projects and a global turnover of around $2.5 billion.

The construction technology boom is waiting to happen and Katerra seems to be leading the way.

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