While uncertainty around labor, supply chains, and economic conditions persist, the global construction industry continues to work its way through economic instability – and the outlook for 2024 remains mostly optimistic. Spending should improve, in large part due to the realization of federal programs such as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). In a recent press release, Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) noted that profit margins and staffing levels remain high, factors that suggest growth over the next six months.

As we look ahead to 2024, we have identified six key areas that we think will help shape the construction industry, both for the coming year and into the future.

1)    Expanded Focus on Sustainability

According to Deloitte’s 2024 Engineering and Construction Industry Outlook, sustainability continues to be a business imperative for the construction industry. We expect this to remain the case both in 2024 and well into the future.

Engineering and construction companies face a multidimensional challenge on this front as they adapt to evolving market trends, environmental regulations, and meeting customer demands for greener buildings, while also preventing construction costs from accelerating too rapidly.

For years, sustainable construction focused primarily on reducing energy consumption during the operations phase of assets, with less emphasis on the construction process itself. While operational carbon emissions are of primary focus, the importance of more sustainable design methodologies and material considerations. As we look at the next year, we expect to see more manufacturers, producers, and construction firms putting these principles to work, through advancements in concrete, cement, and carbon capture, as example.

Sustainable actions are making their way onto jobsites as well. This year, Saunders Construction, working closely with Trimble, demonstrated and dramatically improved its concrete cast-in-place practices while delivering sustainable outcomes for its One River North project in Denver, Colorado. With a progressive virtual design and construction approach, the Saunders team realized enhanced project predictability and operating margins, reduced rework and material waste, and delivered better environmental outcomes for an ROI that is as eye-opening as the exterior walls of this impressive structure. The ROI of the entire virtual design and construction process was estimated at 1,164% for this project, with a total project cost savings of $505,000 and a total CO2 savings of 144,221 kg.

We expect sustainability to remain a top priority for the entire industry – from materials producers to subcontractors—throughout 2024 and for decades to come.

 2) Artificial Intelligence On and Off the Jobsite

Artificial intelligence (AI) exploded on the construction scene in 2023 and will remain a hot topic in 2024, with capabilities that range from generating real-time insights from vast amounts of data to optimizing and automating processes.

AI is already being used to classify objects and assets in point clouds, as well as to derive insights from reality capture solutions, develop safety systems for worksites, and automate invoicing solutions. It can track the real-time interactions of workers, machinery, and objects on the site and alert supervisors of potential safety issues, construction errors, and productivity issues; translate freehand drawings into 3D content and automatically find existing models that match a point cloud; and much, much more. I also see more growth in NeRfs (neural radiance fields) and Gasps (Gaussian splatting) as an AI-enhanced photogrammetry method to convert 2D images into super high-resolution 3D scenes. NeRfs and Gasps are an interesting way to drive better contextual experiences for non-technical people in construction.

The Deloitte 2024 study noted that the rise of generative AI could mark a pivotal moment in the industry’s digital transformation, building on the momentum gained during the pandemic. Watch for continued innovation in AI, and for industry leaders to continue to fine-tune the right use cases for this wide-sweeping technology in the coming year.

3) Fully Autonomous Solutions Continue to Advance for Efficiency and Safety  

Innovation around autonomy and autonomous solutions will continue their slow but steady march forward in 2024. In 2023, Trimble completed one of the industry’s first tests of a fully autonomous soil compactor on a live jobsite, on the Site C Clean Energy Project on the Peace River in northeast British Columbia. The self-driving machine completed 37 hours of real compaction work, operating alongside a mixed fleet of compactors.

“Autonomy plays an important part in Samsung’s vision of a more sustainable future, so it was thrilling to have a fully autonomous compactor being put to the test alongside our fleet of equipment with an operator on this project,” said Yunki Kim, group leader of the construction automation team at Samsung C&T about the benefits of the solution on this project and the construction industry overall.

The industry can expect to see the continued testing, development, and integration of autonomous robotics technology into construction workflows, making building construction projects more efficient and cost-effective in 2024 and into the future.

4)  Digital Twins Take on New Life

Digital twins aren’t new to construction, but they take on new life with mass data collection capabilities such as real-time sensors and AI.

In particular, the evolution of the Internet of Things (IoT) is helping transform digital twins into “living” – and adapting – digital environments with important uses in the real world. When supported by connected sensors, digital twins can even become intelligent reflections of physical things in motion, duplicating physical orientation, shape, position, gesture, or motion.

The rapid rise of low-cost reality capture solutions will also give digital twins new life. I’m seeing a growing number of startups offering iOS-based Lidar solutions to enable point cloud capture via iPhones and iPads.

Low-cost reality capture becomes especially beneficial when combined with a tool like SketchUp on an iPad app to automatically generate an intelligent 3D model that’s layered and synced to the cloud. Similar capabilities are emerging in other tools such as Connect AR and SiteVision.

Bottom line, easily accessible reality capture will drive the value of the digital twin.

Sophisticated digital twins have begun to use AI and machine learning algorithms for predictive learning. For instance, one of the possible uses of a digital twin is to virtually track the real-time movement of materials through a supply chain with help from IoT sensors. With AI and machine learning, that same system can now support process improvements throughout the rest of the construction lifecycle.

Watch for digital twins to continue to become more sophisticated, more adaptable, and more useful in 2024, which could result in improved collaboration, centralized information delivery, physical asset optimization, and more.

5) Subscriptions Add Flexibility, Access To Technology

The ability to subscribe to construction technology provided big benefits to both small and large contractors in 2023, and we expect even more hardware, software, and support to become available via a subscription in the coming year.

Subscription programs allow contractors to invest in the latest hardware and software without the high upfront costs, and the fixed monthly fee typically includes installation, hardware and software upgrades, full factory warranty and repair or replacement of accidentally damaged hardware, and support.

Colorado-based Stutsman-Gerbaz shifted a majority of its fleet to a subscription-based package earlier this year. According to Shay Stutsman, president of Stutsman-Gerbaz, “The subscription option was a real opportunity for our firm to equip the majority of the fleet, with some additional benefits that go well beyond the availability of 3D grade control on a job.” Stutsman’s subscription includes a total station, a rover, and Trimble Earthworks on a dozer and multiple excavators.

Watch for technology providers to make more of their offerings available via subscription in 2024, and for more contractors to rely on this method for managing their technology investments.

6) Labor Shortage Remains a Challenge

Much like 2023, the labor shortage is likely to create challenges for the construction industry in 2024. Technology will continue to help offset these challenges, both by making construction workflows more efficient and by helping attract new workers to companies that are investing in innovation. Watch for task automation, jobsite connectivity, and technology solutions that help existing workers become more proficient, faster to continue to gain popularity in the coming year. In addition, innovative technology solutions such as robotics, augmented reality, and 3D modeling have real potential to introduce new recruits to the construction industry.

Like sustainability, the ongoing labor shortage is a problem that will be most effectively solved with industry collaboration. We also expect to see academia and various industry players continue to offer innovative programs that expose students to the technical roles available and the specialized skills needed to succeed on the job today.

Even without a crystal ball, it’s easy to see that 2024 will be another dynamic year as construction technology innovators work to solve some of the industry’s biggest challenges. I look forward to the year ahead and seeing which of our predictions come true and where we find surprises along the way.

About the Author

Nathan Patton is a product marketing manager at Trimble Building Construction Field Systems. For more information, visit: https://construction.trimble.com.