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Real Estate & Construction

Construction 4.0… Seriously?

By Bartosz Zamara Ph.D., senior executive, Europtima
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Most presentations about technology disruption in construction begin with a diagram showing a neutral or negative increase of productivity over years, with other industries gaining up to 100% increase thanks to adoption of technology and automation. How come the construction industry hasn’t seen this jump in productivity?

Many say that technological revolution has arrived to construction – BIM, PropTech, ConTech, Construction 4.0 are commonly used slogans. However, the productivity line is still flat. Despite several years of campaign by BIM preachers, the overall picture of the industry hasn’t improved dynamically. The construction business seems to be slow in adopting novelties. On one hand, it’s nothing new – construction is a very conservative business. On the other hand, expectation that construction will follow the path of mass-production sectors is questionable. Industry 4.0 refers to mass production. The efficiency there has reached another barrier thanks to organisation, robotics and other technologies like IoT. It seems to be impossible in construction. The reason is quite simple. The final product is one and only, unique building.

Automotive and electronics are standardised products consisting of customised elements. A car or a phone is assembled from many individualised and adapted parts and components; the end goal is to reproduce results the same, repeatable way. Construction, on the contrary, is an industry of unique projects. The product is a unique building assembled from standardised parts, materials, components. The difference is fundamental.

Components that make up a phone, car or any other mass product are fine-tuned to create only one product. The scale of production absorbs the costs of design and prototyping of components that fit to a given model only. Some standardisation also takes place here, such as a common floor pan for several models within one automotive group. However, we are still talking about mass production.

Components that make up a building remain the same. There are a few options for changes; each time designers decide how to put them together to best meet certain expectations of the owner or the end user. The designer produces instructions for the assembly of individual materials and devices, which is then implemented at the construction site. The results vary in quality and other aspects.

Are we able to standardise buildings so that the manufacture is more like automated production of cars, with components that fit together perfectly? One of the goals of implementing BIM in design is to avoid collisions at the construction site. This is the equivalent of virtual prototyping. We are able to prepare a digital model of the building for implementation and be almost sure that the elements will fit together. Technology allows us to monitor the progress of assembly, as well as its compliance with the digital model (at least its geometric compatibility). And by unifying the labelling – a common nomenclature – materials and fittings can be tracked back to the source automatically.

So why is the situation on construction sites in terms of efficiency not rapidly improving? After all, we can prepare precise technical design. We can verify the compliance of the building with the documentation. What else needs to happen? Can construction follow the automated assembly of a car? The secret is in the building materials, components, their aggregation, and the means used for assembly. It is particularly important when the industry is facing severe labour shortages. Some forecasts say it will not get any better.

There are two possible ways to increase efficiency through industrialisation.

One is assembly of large-size, ready-made elements manufactured off-site. The other one is automation of the processes on the site, with the help of various types of robots imitating human operations. The first way, called prefab construction, is well recognised and the degree of production automation is the only limitation to efficiency. The second way – making robots imitate people's work – seems to be a blind path. Currently available building materials are of a size and weight to suit the capabilities of the human body. The brick fits in your hand. Blocks are larger, but hollow, so a person can lift them. Plasterboard is 1.2m wide, because it’s easy to grab and stabilise vertically on a frame. Elements of formwork systems meet similar criteria. Is there a point of building robots and have them assemble materials and devices adapted to the size of the human body? After all, technical capabilities go far beyond 1.2m and 30kg.

At this point, the barrier becomes the possibility of delivering the items to the location, but this then is a logistics problem. Another limitation of the dimensions is the architecture itself. All irregularities interrupting the smooth workflow should be limited to a minimum. Those irregularities that require extra cutting, bending and other non-typical operations consume time and generate waste. Construction is a well-known waste generator and this is an important issue as well.

The off-site fabrication path is used quite extensively in industrial, infrastructure and residential construction. The path of on-site automation still seems to be in the R&D phase and will remain so for some time.

To sum up, what was to be achieved with available technologies and project organisation has already been achieved. Improvements in efficiency are not so impressive. Moreover, many projects are run using old methods, hence the efficiency line remains flat. Construction is a process consisting of consecutive tasks aimed at delivering of a unique product. It is the same process as any manual craft, but on a larger scale. Will a clay pot designed in 3D with use of a super-fast computer increase the potter's efficiency? The rapid increase of construction efficiency does not seem available without process integration and without an increase of the share of industrial production methods used. BIM is a fantastic integration tool at all stages; it allows architects, engineers and contractors to prototype and coordinate elements without limiting their complexity. It’s possible to design more aggregated building elements with BIM. It’s possible to manufacture those elements off-site in industrial plants with high precision. Such industrial precision will then allow the fitting of complex elements on-site with minimal labour requirements and no rework necessary. In this situation, the time at the construction site can be significantly reduced, and aggregated elements can be produced simultaneously outside the construction site. This seems like the real and achievable path to Construction 4.0 today.

Nevertheless, more effective project organisation models are worth considering. The process nowadays is troubled by the individual character and a large number of stakeholders at every stage of the building life cycle. And that’s where the industry loses money.

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