Over the next 3 years, the construction industry is planning to invest $18.2 billion in autonomous technology. This figure is taken from the Autonomous Construction Tech Outlook, a survey of over 1,000 industry professionals conducted by Hexagon into the key challenges, priorities and mentalities behind adopting autonomous technology.
Such an amount shows that construction firms are increasingly turning to autonomous and automated technology to meet their business objectives. However, for these investments to prove valuable, there must be more awareness industry-wide on how and which specific technologies can aid in remedying a company’s primary challenges.
By taking a strategic approach to implementing autonomous technology for particular short- and long-term priorities, firms can overcome key pain points in their workflows, improve their bottom line, and stay competitive in the rapidly changing landscape of commercial construction.
TOP SHORT-TERM PRIORITIES
When asked about the most challenging areas of their operations, technology leaders pinpointed the three most common obstacles:
- Procurement and supply chain issues
- Communication and collaboration
- Inefficiencies and waste
To resolve these, investing in emerging technologies was cited as the number one area of focus.
The short-term business priorities (12-18 months) reflect these obstacles, with the top priority being the improved management of materials and supply chain, followed by increasing efficiency/productivity and finding solutions to address labor issues.
Autonomous construction technology can help firms achieve short-term priorities in several ways. For example, autonomous materials management workflows can efficiently handle supply chains. These automate much of the effort in the ordering and tracking of materials, optimizing delivery schedules, and streamlining the process of receiving and processing materials. Additionally, autonomous reality capture systems (robotic drones, reality capture, UAVs) can reduce cumbersome or repetitive manual labor for site surveying, progress tracking, mapping and deviation monitoring, thus increasing the speed, accuracy, and value of data collection.
An example is Turner Construction Company, which implemented autonomous reality capture into their workflow with one of Leica Geosystems’ autonomous laser scanners mounted on a Boston Dynamics mobile robot. This combination of technology captures real-time data of site conditions and progress. Thanks to this, the company reported improved flexibility and a notable reduction in repetitive tasks and scanning time. They were also able to hand over data to the field teams more quickly, enabling better-informed decision-making with highly accurate datasets. With this actionable data, construction firms can ensure tasks are performed correctly, in the proper location, at the appropriate time and on the first attempt.
SUSTAINABILITY IS KEY
In contrast, the study revealed that in the long term (3-5 years), the focus on sustainability and environmental social governance (ESG) shifted from being the last priority to becoming the foremost concern. While the jump is significant, this may not come as a surprise. Beyond the requirements for construction firms to deliver a job on time, on budget and to a high-quality standard, sustainability has evolved as a fourth demand. According to Dodge Data & Analytics, 42% of GC firms reported client requirements as the top reason they are adopting more sustainable practices.
In an industry where profitability is a constant concern, sustainability has often been regarded as a hindrance. However, by embracing greener practices, firms can reduce operating expenses by minimizing material, labor, and rental equipment costs.
The dual importance of profitability and sustainability means that for firms to deliver on their sustainability promises, it is essential that the changes made also improve cost, quality, and efficiency. Some autonomous technologies that can contribute to this include measurement tools that will enhance the accuracy of the construction process and optimize resource usage and verification tools that aid in avoiding rework and ensuring the project is compliant. By using these autonomous solutions and collecting the data, companies can identify key inefficiencies in their processes and make intelligent corrections, reducing resource usage and waste. Thus, with autonomous technologies, construction firms can improve both sustainability and profit.
With an $18.2 billion investment forecasted in autonomous technology, the question remains of where to dedicate this money and how each company can make the right investment choices for their needs.
First, it is essential to have a clear idea of the primary issue and the best solution to resolve it. For example, in terms of fulfilling sustainability goals, 37% of respondents found that fully autonomous robotics drove sustainability benefits. However, only 17% of firms are investing in this technology. This suggests a disconnect between understanding the potential of autonomous technology to solve critical issues and investing in the best solutions. To overcome this, an in-house or external technology consultant could help outline the right technology and the right combination of technologies in order to derive business value.
A significant obstacle when investing in new technology is workforce acceptance, especially when autonomy is introduced, as it may meet with resistance. One way to approach this is to ensure that any new technology is one that provides direct benefit to the workforce. This can be done by investigating what the most repetitive, uninspiring, or unenjoyable tasks are throughout the workflow and identifying the autonomous solutions that help remove them. The right technology solution is the one that improves the experience of the employees as well as the construction process through the automation of low dexterity tasks so that focus can be placed where human value can be added.
With investments set to increase, the use of autonomous technologies will continue to rise as construction firms seek out the best solutions to their critical short- and long-term priorities. However, for new technology to have the most impact, it is vital to first understand the top challenges for employees and the business and plan the investment accordingly. By doing this, the disconnect between understanding the importance of autonomous technology and understanding the right kind of technology for a specific problem is reduced, allowing construction firms to solve their most pressing priorities, improve the experience of their employees, and achieve their broader business goals.
About the Author:
Taylor Cupp is senior manager of Building Solutions at Hexagon’s Geosystems division, which provides a comprehensive portfolio of digital solutions that capture, measure, and visualize the physical world and enable data-driven transformation across industry ecosystems. Hexagon is the global leader in digital reality solutions, combining sensor, software and autonomous technologies. For more, visit hexagon.com.
Modern Contractor Solutions, September 2023
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