Innovation and the future of construction

According to a report by McKinsey and Co., the construction industry lags behind others in adopting innovations. In fact, less than 1% of construction companies’ revenue goes back into technology research and development. Compare this to the 3.5% invested in innovation by the automotive industry and 4.5% by aerospace companies.

In addition, almost two-thirds of architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) professionals responding to AECOM’s own Future of Infrastructure Report believe that the industry is not evolving fast enough to meet society’s changing needs. Exacerbating this situation is a perfect storm of circumstances: worker shortages, denser urban environments, rising material costs, acute needs for infrastructure improvements, and increasingly complex project scopes are among the challenges affecting productivity.

This is a critical juncture with only two outcomes: adapt or suffer.

Now that other industries have experienced their own sweeping digital transformations, it’s become clear that the first organizations to embrace new technologies have a strong competitive advantage. Mindsets are changing as those in the AEC project lifecycle – from owners to operators, and everyone in between – start to understand the benefits of driving innovation. This has led to the positioning seen in the industry today. Companies large and small, new and old, global and local, are touting their pioneering efforts to drive innovation. This is a good narrative – one that needs to continue for systematic change to take place.

But, beyond positioning, what are the tools that are actually leading to innovation? It’s true that technologies are increasingly prevalent – such as BIM, artificial intelligence, and drones – but their adaption is inconsistent and siloed across the industry. The real questions that need to be addressed are: how are existing technologies being used in new ways, what revolutionary approaches are reinventing the dynamic, and, how are we moving towards a data-driven, analytical industry?

Here are three ways to drive innovation in the construction industry.

  1. Early Collaboration

In order to systematically and seamlessly integrate innovation on a jobsite, the process must begin early. Structures are increasingly complex and difficult to build. Being able to see the whole picture from the beginning allows us to implement more efficient, safer, and cost effective solutions. Everyone on a project must be open to this early collaboration.

For example, realizing that the traditional coordination process for a building’s mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) infrastructure often leads to conflicts in the field, AECOM developed a proprietary process called OneDesign, which focuses on coordinating these systems sooner. OneDesign mitigates the potential for costly field changes, but requires an upfront investment. It mandates the use of clash detection software – such as Revit, Revizto, or AutoCAD – as well as the hiring of independent draftspeople. This cost would typically be included in the subcontractors bid, but when using OneDesign, must be paid before any subcontractors are hired. However, the result of these initial costs are bids that are 50% tighter, coordination processes that are three times faster, and more favorable financing terms that are locked-in sooner.

Investing in innovation is key – the savings in the long run more than outweigh these upfront expenses.

  1. Testing Ground

A construction site can be a proving ground – a real-time lab for testing new ideas. That’s how some of the industry’s best solutions – from new processes to new technologies – were created. But, everyone on site has to be open to experimenting and questioning. An instance of a construction innovation that was a direct result of testing on project sites are self-climbing safety cocoons.

From wearable technology to drones, huge advancements are being made to protect workers onsite. A decade ago, one such pioneering development was a safety cocoon. Wrapped around the highest floors of a building, cocoon systems fully enclose the perimeter with pre-fabricated steel mesh panels installed on a lightweight steel rail system.

Several years later, safety cocoons hadn’t advanced. In fact, while a solid investment due to their life-saving implications, they actually require a lot of manpower and time to be raised with the height of a building. So, an Italian-based firm reverse-engineered equipment originally intended for top-down demolition into a self-climbing safety cocoon. We’re currently using these self-climbing cocoons on two projects in New York and have found they use 57% less manpower and make jumps from one floor to the next four times faster. In addition, the cost is comparable to that of a tradition cocoon system.

Technologies are infinitely adaptable. The only way to figure out if an innovation or process can be implemented or altered in an exciting way is to create an environment that allows for experimentation.

  1. Culture of Innovation

At the end of the day, it’s about establishing an innovation culture.

Innovation is about impact. An idea can be progressive, but it isn’t innovative until it is incubated, accelerated, and carefully crafted into a service, product, or technology. An impactful way AECOM fosters our culture of innovation is through our Global Challenge, which encourages employees to showcase their entrepreneurial spirit by submitting innovations that enhance our ability to design, build, finance, and operate global infrastructure assets. This year’s Global Challenge had 470 initial submissions, ten of which made it to the finals and have been given the opportunity to accelerate their ideas from paper to prototype, and beyond.

From client solutions to internal efficiencies, the entries are a direct response to the challenges faced by the industry. For example, looking to improve the time-wasting process of sifting through thousands of construction documents to locate the exact one needed, one entry seeks to employ location-based mapping to push relevant material to mobile devices, based on users’ exact location onsite. Another entry proposes a way to turn data into actionable insights through the use of artificial intelligence, creating a systematic process to capture and analyze progress over the entire course of the project. The outcome of both of these entries is improved delivery of projects by increasing productivity, identifying and addressing problems, and compiling fact-based best practices.

We’re on the precipice of a new wave of innovation. It doesn’t have to be a radical breakthrough to be ground-breaking – even the smallest advancement applied correctly can have a big impact. While no one knows for sure where it will lead us, it’s safe to say that as innovation continues to disrupt our industry, the precedent will continue to shift.