The days of worksite construction crews are disappearing, and the age of remote-controlled robotic building machines are heading our way. A new report by Balfour Beatty on how technology will impact the infrastructure business says that by 2050, we will see construction sites with robotic cranes, diggers, and automated builders, but not a human in sight.
Balfour Beatty is a company of engineers, builders, analysts, consultants, and project and facilities managers, according to the website. It finances, designs, and manages the development and construction of vital infrastructure projects like roads, bridges, tunnels, seaports, and large health and education facilities.
In this new report called “Innovation 2050 – A Digital Future for the Infrastructure Industry,” it lays out a wildly different picture of how we will get things done in another 30 or so years. It also offers recommendations for individuals and companies who want to remain relevant as smart technology transforms our work methods and strategies.
The future vision is one of a construction site that is managed remotely by humans. The hard work will be done by robots and some of the projects will even be designed to “self-assemble”. Drones will be flying overhead to monitor the work, and to alert the managing humans of potential problems before they occur. 3D and 4D printing will be put to use as designers and architects monitor the controls from a distance. Productivity will increase with the use of artificial intelligence, along with safety for any of the humans involved.
3D printing is actually “old hat” now. If you haven’t heard of 4D printing before, it includes the fourth dimension of time. Objects printed in 4D may have the ability to “reshape” themselves in response to a stimulus, or “self-assemble” over a period of time. The materials may shift and change in response to things like temperature, pressure, chemicals, or light.
Driving the Change
Infrastructure integrity is a priority and with the growing complexity of these projects, smart tech solutions are coming to the rescue. Robotics, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, and mobile technology will help deliver results that are more efficient, accurate, and cost effective than today’s human workhorse.
Balfour Beatty says the new paradigm will facilitate a “build right first time” approach for construction operations. Technology will also help integrate solutions for other important factors such as the effects of a growing and changing population and climate change concerns. The report says we also need to be ready for these changes in terms of regulation, and new skills needed to manage these ultra-smart systems. It says while old jobs may disappear, especially those that need few or no skills, new jobs will be created. Education, of course, will be key.
The changes will be disruptive as a new business model emerges. The report outlines ten predictions for the year 2050:
- There will be more focus on innovation, and less concern about the risk of change.
- The infrastructure industry will adopt new business models, products, and services.
- We will see concrete and steel replaced by new materials “that respond to their surroundings.”
- New jobs and industries will be created along with the elimination of old, low skill jobs.
- Infrastructure engineering will go from design and construction to multi-functional concepts and development.
- Robots will become the construction “norm.”
- Construction will be faster with 3D and 4D printing, and objects that “assemble themselves.”
- New concepts for mass transportation will make transit faster, safer, and greener.
- Wearable technology will be more commonplace.
- We’ll see what Balfour Beatty describes as “direct neural control” over devices and vehicles. Yikes.
Balfour Beatty also has 10 recommendations to share with us to prepare for how we will build our cities in the future:
- Contractors will need to become disruptors. They will need to operate in a business arena that is less defined and less predictable. Companies will need to have various fields of expertise, not just one, but cross-over skills. There won’t be any room for laggards. Companies will need to figure out how to “be” the disruptors and not the disrupted.
- Cyber risk will need to be dealt with. Data will need to be protected as a major asset. Both governments and industry need to scale up and defend themselves. Proper training of employees and solid, updated software will be essential.
- Companies will need to balance data collection with privacy concerns.
- Higher skill levels will be needed. The workforce will need to challenge conventional solutions and come up with new ideas. Students will need to learn how to solve problems that have never happened before.
- Any barriers to innovation will need to be challenged and innovators will need to be rewarded.
- Companies that use a digital approach to construction will need to make this strategy integral to the whole company, not just one team. Adopting it throughout the supply chain, would ensure the value of this digital approach.
- Regulators and regulatory systems need to be ready for the changes.
- Infrastructure owners, designers, regulators, and policy makers need to take into account the impact of energy use and climate change.
- Companies must be prepared to process and use huge amounts of dataLayers of older and newer technologies must be integrated, backwards compatible, and/or upgradable.
The global population is expected to grow from about 7.5 billion today, to 9.7 billion in 2050. Balfour Beatty says two thirds of them are expected to live in cities, and that infrastructure investment will grow as population increases. As this new tech expands and matures, it will attract a more diverse, skilled workforce that know how to use robots and automation. Productivity will likely increase, and cities will be able to upgrade their infrastructure to meet new expectations. This new tech is expected to improve design, construction, life-cycle costs, and performance.
We are already seeing bits and pieces of this new technology. Drones are providing aerial images of properties. Cloud-computing is delivering those images. It’s also eliminating a lot of paperwork and allowing for greater collaboration, better communication and the sharing of information. Over the long haul, smart technology should significantly improve productivity and profitability. It should also make these projects more environmentally efficient with less waste and less impact on the climate.