A home is constructed with a 3D printer in 48 hours. A drone identifies a miscalculation before a $400,000 block of concrete is poured. A full walk-through of a building before ground has broken eliminates work order changes and saves millions. Concrete infused with bacteria fixes itself when cracks form. No longer Jetsons-like fantasies, futuristic innovations in the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) industry are swiftly becoming reality.
Traditionally an industry slow to change for both structural and cultural reasons, AEC embraces innovation reluctantly. Structural reasons for slow adoption are plentiful—small changes in a project yield compounded complexity and additional cost, safety ranks well above experimentation as a priority, and regulations are abundant and stagnant. In terms of culture, any industry with such a complex value chain and structural issues, combined with diverse and plentiful stakeholders, is prone to avoid risk-taking. In the past, the benefits of pursuing innovation and changing quickly have not always been obvious.
That is likely to change in the future.
Emerging AEC technologies are on the threshold of fundamentally altering the industry. While AEC will never adopt Facebook’s motto of “move fast and break things,” incremental shifts are likely to occur and spread faster than in the past because the productivity gains and cost savings are too big and tantalizing to ignore.
Technologies ripe for adoption include: drones on construction sites; 3D printing; new building materials with science fiction-like biological and chemical properties; and immersive media (IM) including virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality (VR, AR, MR).
Some drone applications are more fantastical than others. Substituting cranes for drones may be unlikely today, but drones are already being used to bring significant cost savings by surveying construction sites and gathering data for making maps, weighing design considerations, and even inspecting hazardous spaces.
Not only do they do this faster than traditional methods, they eliminate the need for costly and bulky surveying equipment. The combination of greater productivity and cost savings is difficult to resist. Add the plummeting costs for ever-more sophisticated drone technology to the equation, and you have a winning formula.
The most obvious application for 3D printing may appear at first glance to be for building models, but the real potential lies in printing buildings or portions of buildings directly. Models will soon be replaced by IM technologies (see below), leaving the most promising application to be directly printing structures. Initially 3D printing was considered a possibility only in the context of pre-fab, but recent innovations have fostered dreams of printing structures in place. This is achieved through contour crafting, a technology that employs a large gantry to print a whole structure, using high-tech materials like quick-setting concrete to build layers. It can even include elements such as plumbing and electrical.
Compare the prospect of building an entire home within 48 hours versus the current 12-month average timeframe it takes to build. Imagine the simplicity of everything being built entirely to specification without the need for any coordination or communication—it’s almost like waving a magic wand.
Bringing this to scale and removing the regulatory hurdles will take time, but the promise is too tantalizing to ignore. Companies investing in this futuristic technology include the Dutch firm MX3D and the California-based Contour Crafting Corp.
Perhaps the category with the broadest range of innovations, the new generation of materials being invented today is dynamic and awe-inspiring. From self-healing concrete to ultra-lightweight nano materials stronger than steel, the disruptive potential is clear. Considering that materials constitute about 50% of most project budgets, and the impact is difficult to gauge, especially for materials that can be produced at or below the cost of the traditional materials they may replace.
Several versions of self-healing concrete are in development, including mixes that use tiny capsules of bacteria, glass, or polymer. When concrete cracks, these microcapsules rupture and release healing agents to fill in the cracks. Whichever product can be produced most cost effectively is likely to come out on top.
Other game changers include carbon nanotubes and a foam-like substance called Aerogel. Carbon nanotubes—still in early stages of development—are as strong as steel but ultra lightweight. Aerogel has come to market and has powerful insulating properties—making it a great substitute for fiberglass and foam—as well as the ability to hold its shape. Comprised of mostly air when installed, it is also extremely lightweight.
Possibly the most futuristic material is the “digestive brick,” which acts like a photosynthesizing plant, extracting energy and other resources from sunlight, waste water, and the air.
The greatest hurdle for materials is likely to be cost. AEC is extremely sensitive to materials costs, and commodities markets are volatile, making investment in these materials risky. The potential becomes clear however, by looking at an adjacent market. In agriculture, a price sensitive commodities market, biologically manipulated seeds have yielded handsome profits for the global firms that have invested in them. The same will likely be true for this new generation of building materials.
The arrival and triumph of some form of virtual reality has been heralded for decades, but the recent explosion in less costly and better hardware and software is a good sign, this time it’s for real. In this arena, the array of VR/AR/MR terminology can make your head spin, no matter how savvy a consumer you may be. Yet each flavor of immersive media has something to offer the AEC industry.
Virtual reality is a fully immersive experience where you could theoretically do a full walk through of a building with a client before it is even built. Take off your headset, and you’re in an empty room. Put it back on, and you’re inside the structure where you can open doors and windows, walk through hallways, and interact with others. Mixed reality superimposes virtual objects into an actual setting—imagine a realtor using mixed reality to stage an apartment in 5 different furnishing styles, allowing clients to walk through the actual space while experiencing what different arrangements might feel like.
Immersive media have immediate potential to shift key dynamics in AEC and positively affect revenue, cost, and team dynamics. First, as a marketing tool, there is little doubt that a well designed immersive experience will have an edge over traditional presentations and generate revenue for early adopters. A VR walk-through enables visualization and spatial understanding that are difficult to achieve with 2D screens and 3D scale models. Second, the workflow benefits are difficult to overestimate. From enabling better team cooperation and communication, to stronger stakeholder engagement before breaking ground, the potential for more satisfied clients and cost savings resulting from reduced work order changes is significant. Finally, immersive media could enhance safety and training programs.
The Ever-Shifting Relationship between Cost and Technological Innovation
Technological growth and projects that are priced by cost to complete in AEC are in a never-ending cycle of competition with each other. New technologies are usually more expensive to adopt when they first launch. It’s one of the reasons AEC firms are cautious of fast-moving change. But technology has the upper hand in that it’s an industry known for innovation. And over time, innovation leads to less-expensive and higher quality projects. In this age, technology that drives down short-term costs is likely to be adopted quickly—if a 3D-printed home costs 50% less than a hand-built home and the quality at handover is comparable or better, then contour printing will be a winner.
The biggest winner for AEC right now is the applications that lie with VR and MR utilization. Headsets for VR are already moving past prototype and first generation stages. Building on feedback from an avid group of consumers, Oculus will release the newest iteration of their popular Quest headset with new features in early 2020. For MR, Microsoft’s Hololens 2 is soon to be released with much anticipation from the community. Regardless of the time to market and the speed of adoption, the application of VR and MR hardware and software in development today show incredible promise and will leave an indelible mark on the industry.