For the film buffs amongst you, 21st October last year signified the date in which Michael J. Fox’s character, Marty McFly travels into the future from the year 1985 in the blockbuster movie franchise, Back to the Future. While we may still be a few years away from flying cars or abolishing lawyers, the film did in fact accurately predict a number of technologies which are now commonplace today such as drones, mobile payment technology, biometric devices, hands-free gaming and live video chat.
Indisputably, the past thirty years have seen some of the most profound technological leaps in human history, so it begs the question, why hasn’t the same level of progress been made in the engineering and construction sector? According to a paper published earlier this year by World Economic Forum, E&C has been “slow to adopt new technologies, and has certainly never undergone a major transformation. As a result, productivity has stagnated over the last 40 years, or in some cases, even declined.”
It would seem that while other sectors such as ICT and manufacturing have made steady progress, E&C has been left lagging, only till recently. In general terms the common theme shared between all progressive sectors has been digitisation, and construction is no different. In the past few years there’s been a pick up in the usage of digital sensors, bespoke software and the integration of our ubiquitous mobile devices, each of which has been designed to make progress on and off site faster, safer and more cost effective. The E&C industry has also seen a wider usage of building information modelling (BIM), a centralised platform that enables all major stakeholders to see the physical and functional characteristics of a project in real time.
The true importance of digitisation can be understood more clearly once you take a step back and look at the life-cycle of a building and how technology can be applied to the E&C value chain from conception to demolition. While still being slowly integrated, the optimum application of tech in today’s construction life-cycle might work as follows: by using BIM the tendering process is made more transparent, while potential design clashes and constructability issues are spotted early on therefore eliminating the requirements for corrective work. The centralised nature of BIM also means that all essential stakeholders are kept up to date in real time, meaning highly complex projects become faster to implement.
Once entering the construction phase, drones are able to inspect the site from the air, while prefabrication technology such as 3D printing can help to keep build costs down and site space clear. Workflows can be optimised through the use of GPS and RFID by tracking material, equipment and workers, while robots and autonomous vehicles can be guided to engage in the actual labour. From an operational perspective, built-in sensors provide an ongoing flow of information ensuring corrective measures can be implemented at the earliest possible opportunity, while harvesting big data from site, including traffic movements and energy consumption, means these can be analysed, the information from which is used to improve general efficiency.
While this list only scratches the surface of the potential technology in the E&C market, the pick up for implementing such changes has been slow. In the words of McKinsey’s ‘Imagining Construction’s digital future’ report, “The construction industry is ripe for disruption.” Statistics from The McKinsey Global Institute estimate that the world will spend $57 trillion on infrastructure by 2030, so in order to give you an idea of the scale of construction in the GCC, a study published by EC Harris estimates the combined infrastructure spend of U.A.E, Saudi Arabia and Qatar alone to be $710.8 billion by the same year, or 1.247 %. The question remains, to what extent will the GCC implement E&C technology, and what will be the residual effect? In April 2016, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum declared that 25 % of Dubai buildings should be 3D printed by 2030, as part of the Emirate’s 3D printing strategy. A month later he opened the world’s first 3D printed office at the foot of Emirates Towers, commenting to the media that, “the UAE has emerged as one of the major incubators of innovation and future technology in the world today, and its focused initiatives to shape the future have become global models that can be emulated in all sectors.” Measuring 20ft in height, 120ft in length and 40ft in width, the labour cost of the building was reduced by 50 % when compared to a conventional building of the same size and took just 17 days to print.
While this example may only apply to Dubai, statistics released by International Data Corporation (IDC), indicate the sector is growing across the MENA region, with spending estimated to grow by $830 million between 2015 - 2019. One of the more unanimous tech-centric movements in the GCC construction sector would be a drive towards improving building performance. While typically a building’s construction cost would represent just a small percentage of the building’s lifecycle cost, the various state visions have led to a drive towards region-specific Green Building regulations, building-retrofit programmes and nearly zero-energy buildings. According to statistics published by United States Green Building Council (USGBC), the U.A.E has increased the number of LEED certified buildings from 10 in 2010 to 170 in 2016, Qatar from 12 in 2012 to 25 in 2016, Saudi Arabia from 2 in 2012 to 37 in 2016, Oman from 3 in 2015 to 4 in 2016, Kuwait from 1 in 2014 to 2 in 2016 and Bahrain remaining stationary with one since 2013.
While clearly there is a staggered level of progress across the region, the aggregate movement is a positive one, and one which will have profound effect on the region’s future in terms of sustainable development, in particular towards energy consumption. Another area that will likely see an increase in usage is the application of higher-definition surveying and geolocation. Cited by McKinsey’s ‘Imagining construction digital future’ report as “a major reason that projects are delayed and go over budget,” the increase in use of high-definition photography, 3-D laser scanning, and geographic information systems will help to expose “discrepancies between ground conditions and early survey estimates and in so doing prevent costly last-minute changes to project scope and design,” the added benefit of this technology being it can be integrated with project planning tools such as BIM.
Overall, there is a clear movement in the E&C sector to play catch-up and apply the increasing array of technology that is available to it. According to estimates from the World Economic Forum, “fullscale digitalization will lead to huge annual global cost savings. For non-residential construction, those savings will be $0.7 trillion to $1.2 trillion (13 % to 21 %) in the Design & Engineering and Construction phases; and $0.3 trillion to $0.5 trillion (10 % to 17 %) in the Operations phase.” In terms of how this will apply to the GCC, a combination of forward-thinking leadership, better-than-average-liquidity and a blank canvas for its major infrastructure projects will make it an ideal region to adopt and implement technology faster than many other economies, and perhaps even be a pioneer in the future.