Technology is helping builders renew their push beyond the limits. With the latest developments at their disposal, they are making skyscrapers rise ever higher, bridges stretch over bigger voids, tunnels run deeper underground and trains course along tracks at ever faster speeds.
Computers that can quickly analyse huge amounts of data and drones that conduct land surveys are just a couple of the tools that are bringing change to the construction sector, one of the most traditional in the world.
But the process is slow because the companies that embrace the latest that technology has to offer are few and far between. McKinsey, a consultancy, estimates that the sector invests less than 1% of its revenues in research and development worldwide. That compares with 3.5% by the car industry and 4.5% by aerospace. The amount that the construction sector invests in information technology is just as paltry: less than 1%.
In a world in which $57 trillion worth of infrastructure is estimated to be needed by 2030, McKinsey deems this lack of investment as a grave error.
«This (the estimated need for investment in public works) is a massive incentive for players in the construction industry to identify solutions to transform productivity and project delivery through new technologies and improved practices,» it says in a report dedicated to the subject.
Meanwhile, productivity - a good measure of the sector’s adoption of technology to improve the way it does things - has declined - on average - since the 1990s, according to McKinsey. More than 20% of projects are completed late and 80% at a higher cost than budgeted. These are signs that the sector is too slow in modernizing itself.
The issue is so prevalent that it has come to be known as Construction 4.0.
Another consultancy called Roland Berger says productivity in Germany has risen 11% this past decade, while that for the construction sector has been merely 4.1%.
Of the fields in which modernization can help improve work, Roland Berger mentions logistics. On any given construction site, workers dedicate only 30% of their time doing their primary activity. They instead spend the other 70% on other activities like transporting people and materials. The use of new software would help reduce the amount of time lost during the day and improve the efficiency of transporting people and materials. By having vehicles talk to each other, workers would know in real time how best to allocate them. Guaranteeing a better coordination of workers.
Communications is a second field that stands to benefit from technology. Roland Berger estimates that project managers spend 90% of their time communicating both internally and externally. The use of drones and fiber optics would allow for the gathering of data from the construction site in real time and make it readily available for the project manager and his or her collaborators.
A third concerns geological surveys. It is in this field that are found the main reasons for delays and cost overruns to a project. Drones and unmanned aerial vehicles can improve knowledge of the terrain of a future construction site and reduce the discrepancies sometimes found between the actual conditions and those forecast.
Building Information Modelling (BIM), the most widely used software for planning, executing and managing a project, has gone a step further with the introduction of the use of five dimensions. In addition to the traditional three dimensions, the latest development allows for cost and time analysis. So the client and its contractor can easily identify and analyse the impact of any change made to a project.
But KPMG says there are few companies that show familiarity with these new technologies. Only 8% of them are deemed cutting-edge visionaries, while 24% are industry leaders and 36% industry followers and 32% behind the curve.
The Americas have the most advanced companiesm, with 10% cutting-edge visionaries. In Asia and Europe, only 7% brandish the title, while Africa has none whatsoever.