Construction

The Launch of Smarter Construction

The construction industry cannot keep up with the demand for housing. This is largely because construction sites are not efficient enough. New technologies and business models could succeed in cutting this Gordian knot.

09/2020


Vision for the construction sector: Construction sites of the future are clean, quiet, sustainable, and efficient. Porsche Consulting/Andreas Mass

There’s no doubt that the short­age of hous­ing in major cities will increase all the more over the next decades. The UN esti­mates that by 2050, seven bil­lion of the world’s ten bil­lion peo­ple will be liv­ing in cities. New met­ro­pol­i­tan cen­ters of unprece­dent­ed size will arise. There are cur­rent­ly more than thir­ty megac­i­ties of more than ten mil­lion inhab­i­tants. Liv­ing space is becom­ing ever more scarce. Accord­ing to an analy­sis by the World Eco­nom­ic Forum, around 1.6 bil­lion more homes will be need­ed in the next thir­ty years alone. More­over, peo­ple in many urban cen­ters are at a turn­ing point. They no longer want urban plan­ning to focus on cars, but instead want green­er and more sus­tain­able poli­cies. At the same time, build­ings are fac­ing ever greater demands—they are sup­posed to be smarter, more ener­gy-effi­cient, and offer uni­ver­sal access. All these con­sid­er­a­tions are direct­ly linked to the fol­low­ing ques­tion: What should con­struc­tion be like in the future?

Con­struc­tion sites of the future will pro­duce hard­ly any exhaust gases or noise pol­lu­tion. They will be much safer and more order­ly. Above all, they will be faster and more effi­cient. Elec­tri­fied exca­va­tors con­trolled remote­ly by cam­era will be con­nect­ed with con­struc­tion machin­ery fea­tur­ing sophis­ti­cat­ed sen­sor sys­tems that let them proac­tive­ly noti­fy man­u­fac­tur­ers of any tech­ni­cal prob­lems. Drones will fly over­head to reg­is­ter progress at the site. And dri­ver­less trucks will deliv­er entire pre­fab­ri­cat­ed build­ing mod­ules just in time, which will be assem­bled in short order by robots. A large part of the work will be done in fac­to­ry halls before the ground is bro­ken. Skilled work­ers at the site will assume large­ly coor­di­nat­ing func­tions or work “hand in hand” with the robots. And vir­tu­al dash­boards will always be avail­able to let them mon­i­tor and guide con­struc­tion progress in real time.

Most buildings are made on a craftsmanship basis.

Uwe BrühlUwe Brühl
Vice President Digital Building Solutions, Sto Group

Lego construction principle

Much of this is still a long way off. “Lit­tle has changed at con­struc­tion sites for decades, and the teams often lose track of the over­all pic­ture,” says Uwe Brühl, vice pres­i­dent of dig­i­tal build­ing solu­tions at the Sto Group, a leader on the inter­na­tion­al mar­ket for inno­v­a­tive con­struc­tion mate­ri­als based in the Black For­est town of  Stüh­lin­gen. “Con­struc­tion machines are becom­ing more effi­cient and new process­es are tak­ing root, but most build­ings are still made on a crafts­man­ship basis.” The abil­i­ty to adhere to sched­ules depends on weath­er con­di­tions and fre­quent­ly also on chance, and con­struc­tion defects have a neg­a­tive effect on the com­pa­ny image. Although price-adjust­ed pro­duc­tiv­i­ty per work­ing hour has increased by an aver­age of 44 per­cent rel­a­tive to work vol­ume from 1991 to 2018, the con­struc­tion indus­try has essen­tial­ly stag­nat­ed, with a 4 per­cent increase dur­ing the same peri­od of time. In Brühl’s opin­ion, the his­to­ry and tra­di­tions of the trades are act­ing like a brake on progress. “For a sim­ple sin­gle-fam­i­ly house, you need dif­fer­ent pro­fes­sion­als to do the exca­va­tion, shell con­struc­tion, tiling, san­i­tary facil­i­ties, win­dows, and roof, so you end up with thir­ty or forty spe­cial­ists, each with their own plans and views. This results in new line­ups for every project, and these con­di­tions often make it impos­si­ble to have effi­cient process­es.

Yet anoth­er prob­lem lies in the short­age of skilled work­ers, both now and in the future. This sit­u­a­tion is evi­dent across the indus­try. Large-scale con­struc­tion projects in indus­tri­al coun­tries are no longer pos­si­ble with­out the help of migrant work­ers. But these work­ers tend to con­cen­trate only in the boom mar­kets of cer­tain regions. In addi­tion, high­ly qual­i­fied young pro­fes­sion­als such as engi­neers and archi­tects are switch­ing to other indus­tries after a few years. And con­struc­tion costs have been ris­ing the world over. These fac­tors are prompt­ing investors to search for alter­na­tive solu­tions. Replac­ing a pure­ly project-ori­ent­ed atti­tude with a mass pro­duc­tion approach fea­tur­ing high­er lev­els of stan­dard­iza­tion and mod­u­lar­iza­tion could achieve the sought-after level of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty at con­struc­tion sites. The advan­tage of this method lies in the abil­i­ty to put build­ings togeth­er like Lego blocks. An aston­ished world wit­nessed how the prin­ci­ple works in early 2020 in the Chi­nese city of Wuhan at the start of the corona­virus epi­dem­ic. Two com­plete­ly equipped hos­pi­tals were set up there by mod­u­lar means in only ten and twelve days, respec­tive­ly. Yet the indus­tri­al pro­duc­tion of homes is an issue that has divid­ed experts since the begin­ning of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Its crit­ics fear a “McDonaldiza­tion” of archi­tec­ture.

We’re moving construction sites into factories

Mikael HedbergMikael Hedberg
CEO Admares

“Mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy has taken mod­u­lar con­struc­tion to new heights. We can pro­duce build­ings in more indi­vid­u­al­ized ways and on con­sid­er­ably high­er lev­els than ever before. We can reduce com­plex­i­ty by a fac­tor of ten, and over­come some of the tra­di­tion­al divi­sions of labor among the trades and replace them with strong value-adding part­ner­ships,” says Brühl. In the USA and Cana­da, the Sto Group and its net­work of part­ners have been mak­ing mod­u­lar inte­ri­or walls and façade com­po­nents since 2013, which are fur­nished with insu­lat­ing mate­ri­als, plas­ter, paint, brick­work, nat­ur­al stone, or stuc­co ele­ments and then deliv­ered for assem­bly. What does this mean for total con­struc­tion times? “It short­ens the con­struc­tion time for some­thing like a hotel project from one and half years to six months,” says Brühl.

Inspired by the shipbuilding and automotive industries

Accord­ing to Mikael Hed­berg, CEO of the Finnish Admares start-up, con­struc­tion sites should essen­tial­ly become assem­bly sites as soon as their foun­da­tions and base­ments are com­plet­ed. “We’re mov­ing con­struc­tion sites into fac­to­ries, because auto­mat­ed pro­duc­tion of mod­u­lar­ized build­ing com­plex­es is the only way to sig­nif­i­cant­ly improve the qual­i­ty and reduce the costs in the real estate sec­tor,” he says. He expects this approach to cost up to 30 per­cent less than con­ven­tion­al con­struc­tion meth­ods. It would shift 80 to 95 per­cent of the value-adding process­es from con­struc­tion sites to indus­tri­al pro­duc­tion facil­i­ties, and bring enor­mous changes to the tra­di­tion­al build­ing sec­tor.

Working with Porsche Consulting

Admares: Digitalizing the Construction Industry

58 Grattan is a typical ground up, commercial urban development in Brooklyn, New York. It will be manufactured in a factory in Philadelphia and assembled on site in Brooklyn: This visualization shows what the Admares project will look like when completed.Coughlin Architecture
Can a modular approach help to produce buildings faster, more economically, and with higher quality? The founder of the Admares company is convinced it can. Mikael Hedberg wants to manufacture buildings in the same way that cars are currently produced in factories. In 2021, the first pilot project will be launched in the New York borough of Brooklyn. A three-story commercial building with a rooftop terrace will be made on the basis of fully digitalized planning. Admares’s modular approach will enable production of 95 percent of the building’s sixteen modules at the factory. Connecting the modules at the site is expected to take only forty-eight hours. Experts from Porsche Consulting are supporting the young company (founded in 2016) in designing the product, processes, and organization, and in planning its smart factory.

Hed­berg sees numer­ous advan­tages to that. “There will be less noise, traf­fic, and dirt for near­by res­i­dents,” he notes. “And we’ll reduce con­struc­tion waste by 60 to 70 per­cent.” There are pos­i­tive effects for con­struc­tion work­ers and trades­peo­ple as well. Employ­ees with­out spe­cial­ized knowl­edge can be trained quick­ly. And they can work in fac­to­ry halls that are pro­tect­ed from wind and weath­er, and where large num­bers of com­po­nents are made under indus­tri­al con­di­tions in accor­dance with a log­i­cal sys­tem devel­oped by archi­tects and engi­neers. By 2022 at the lat­est, Hed­berg wants to start up the world’s first fac­to­ry that will pro­duce entire ready-to-use hotels, res­i­den­tial build­ings, and hos­pi­tals. All sec­tions of the build­ings will be pro­duced in the fac­to­ry, along with key prod­ucts such as fixed fur­ni­ture, win­dows, doors, and bath­room mod­ules. All pre-fab­ri­cat­ed sec­tions will then be joined on the main assem­bly line before being trans­port­ed to the con­struc­tion site. At the site itself only the final minor steps will be car­ried out, such as con­nect­ing the building’s room mod­ules and core ele­ments. That com­pris­es only 2 to 10 per­cent at most of the entire con­struc­tion process.

Mod­ern ship­build­ing process­es gave Hed­berg his inspi­ra­tion. Cab­ins are pre­fab­ri­cat­ed and lift­ed onto lux­u­ry lin­ers by cranes, deck by deck, until all the sec­tions are then joined into a whole. Anoth­er exam­ple is the auto­mo­tive indus­try. “When cus­tomers order a Porsche sports car, they can choose one of a large num­ber of pos­si­ble con­fig­u­ra­tions,” he says. “You won’t get iden­ti­cal 911s rolling from the pro­duc­tion line. Our cus­tomers should also be able to use a con­fig­u­ra­tion sys­tem to design their build­ings indi­vid­u­al­ly, and see the price and timetable for any given vari­ant.”

BIM: Top-value twin

Dig­i­tal­iza­tion is rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing plan­ning process­es in the con­struc­tion sec­tor for both the trades and indus­try. “There will be fun­da­men­tal changes to our plan­ning and design work in the future, and we’ll ben­e­fit from other sec­tors’ dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies in the process,” says Brühl. As the Sto Group’s vice pres­i­dent of dig­i­tal build­ing solu­tions, this expert is deal­ing direct­ly with the trans­for­ma­tion him­self. As he notes, “Most con­struc­tion sites still base their plan­ning on 2D-sup­port­ed doc­u­ments.” A more mod­ern approach is to have a “dig­i­tal twin” of each build­ing project, gen­er­at­ed by a process known as BIM (build­ing infor­ma­tion mod­el­ing). The core of BIM is a three-dimen­sion­al dig­i­tal model that con­tains all the con­struc­tion details and doc­u­ments all the process­es through­out the building’s life cycle, includ­ing every­thing from progress at the con­struc­tion site to sub­se­quent mod­ern­iza­tion. With inter­faces to all the skilled trades and stake­hold­ers involved, work can take a more con­cert­ed form. BIM plat­forms will also soon be offer­ing dock­ing options for con­struc­tion machin­ery and their data. Sys­tems of these types open up enor­mous oppor­tu­ni­ties. As just one exam­ple, Ger­man com­pa­nies could guide con­struc­tion sites in China with­out being phys­i­cal­ly present.

At a Glance

Building Information Modeling—The Digital Twin

Pipe systems, doors, electrical sockets, cables, energy efficiency, thermal insulation, elevator speed—BIM (building information modeling) platforms register every detail of a construction project and use the data for simulations. Ideally, they involve all participants in the project, including specialized trade businesses, suppliers, and regulatory authorities. The modeling process offers site owners and clients a virtual inspection experience. With the help of VR headsets, they can explore all the rooms as if they were actually present. They can view structures from all sides and zoom in to examine details. This gives them a better sense of the planning. BIM is already common in Scandinavia, the UK, and the USA. As of 2020, this method is now required for new public infrastructure projects in Germany.

Insight

White Paper: Top-Value Twin


Excavators without excessive noise

When things final­ly get mov­ing at con­struc­tion sites, exca­va­tors, wheel load­ers, bull­doz­ers, cranes, dump trucks, and other spe­cial­ized con­struc­tion machines get to work. Many man­u­fac­tur­ers envi­sion a future busi­ness sec­tor con­sist­ing of clean­er, qui­eter, and more effi­cient machin­ery. All the lead­ing mak­ers have already pre­sent­ed ini­tial pro­to­types. “Elec­tric mobil­i­ty and alter­na­tive pow­er­trains are an increas­ing­ly sig­nif­i­cant field not only for cars and vans,” says  Patrick Scherr, senior vice pres­i­dent of Schaeffler’s Offroad Europe busi­ness unit. “The mak­ers of con­struc­tion vehi­cles and machin­ery are advanc­ing elec­tri­fi­ca­tion of their own prod­ucts. They’re installing elec­tric dri­ves espe­cial­ly in small­er con­struc­tion machines and lower per­for­mance cat­e­gories. Hybrid dri­ves are also increas­ing­ly of inter­est. There’s a high demand for sys­tems that sup­port sim­ple activ­i­ties and also offer a sec­ondary power source when high per­for­mance lev­els are need­ed, such as for exca­va­tors or medi­um-sized wheel load­ers.” Scha­ef­fler offers fric­tion-opti­mized and robust roller-bear­ing solu­tions for chal­leng­ing oper­a­tional con­di­tions.

Dr. Rüdi­ger Kaub empha­sizes the role of gov­ern­ment actors and reg­u­la­tions in pro­mot­ing zero-emis­sions con­struc­tion machin­ery. As chair­man of the man­age­ment board of Bauer Maschi­nen, he vis­its con­struc­tion sites on a daily basis. Clients inter­est­ed in the spe­cial­ized exca­va­tion machines from this Bavaria-based leader on the world mar­ket read like a who’s who of con­struc­tion cor­po­ra­tions. “Calls for con­struc­tion project pro­pos­als from our neigh­bors in the Nether­lands, for exam­ple, or in Sin­ga­pore, require the machin­ery to leave a min­i­mal CO2 foot­print and pro­duce very lit­tle noise,” says Kaub. After all, in many places these machines run essen­tial­ly around the clock. And elec­tri­fi­ca­tion is not always pos­si­ble. “Heavy-duty exca­va­tors with around 1,000 horse­pow­er run on diesel engines, and that’s not going to change all that quick­ly,” says Pro­fes­sor Sebas­t­ian Bauer, man­ag­ing direc­tor for R&D at Bauer Maschi­nen. “There could in fact be elec­tri­cal solu­tions for medi­um-sized exca­va­tion machin­ery, but they would need spe­cial wiring and facil­i­ties or all the lights would go out at the con­struc­tion sites.” A down­siz­ing trend is also evi­dent. “For decades our fleet was get­ting big­ger, heav­ier, and more pow­er­ful, but there will be greater calls in the future for more com­pact, light­weight, and trans­portable machines more suit­able for the tighter space in urban con­texts. We can prob­a­bly lower noise lev­els by a sub­stan­tial amount with devel­op­ments in mechan­i­cal engi­neer­ing,” explains Kaub. The com­pa­ny is also study­ing the use of fuel cells and hydro­gen dri­ves.

Data, Facts, and Figures

The Construction Boom in Numbers

  • The global volume of construction work is estimated at $9 trillion, and is expected to reach $15 trillion by 2025.
 
  • The highest volumes are seen in China, India, and the USA.
 
  • Construction activity increased by 15 percent in the EU from 2014 to 2019.
 
  • Germany is the largest European construction market, with a nominal volume of €430 billion in 2019.
 
  • The world’s 100 largest construction companies had a combined overall revenue in 2019 of more than $1.463 trillion.
 
  • Chinese corporations account for 44 percent of revenue in the top 100, and six Chinese companies are in the top ten.

All con­struc­tion experts agree that in order to increase pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, con­struc­tion machines need high­er lev­els of automa­tion and the abil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate with each other. That will make these expen­sive machines more effi­cient, and allow them to be used around the clock. “Numer­ous assis­tance sys­tems are sup­port­ing dri­vers today, which means the machines are already par­tial­ly auto­mat­ed,” says Kaub. “These dig­i­tal assis­tants make it pos­si­ble for less expe­ri­enced work­ers to oper­ate the machines too.” That could be one answer to the short­age of skilled con­struc­tion work­ers. Many parts of the world now use dri­ver­less dump trucks to make rounds and trans­port raw mate­ri­als on set routes, for exam­ple at mines in Aus­tralia and South Amer­i­ca.

We provide tested technology for driverless construction machines.

Patrick ScherrPatrick Scherr
Senior Vice President, Offroad Europe business unit, Schaeffler

Tested key technologies

Auto­mat­ed func­tions not only improve safe­ty lev­els at con­struc­tion sites. They also reduce dri­ver fatigue and help com­par­a­tive­ly inex­pe­ri­enced users be more pro­duc­tive. Scha­ef­fler Par­a­van, a sub­sidiary of Scha­ef­fler, has devel­oped a suit­able base­line tech­nol­o­gy for this pur­pose, name­ly, its Space Drive drive-by-wire dig­i­tal con­trol sys­tem, which assumes all the dri­ving and steer­ing process­es with­out mechan­i­cal con­nec­tions. It process­es elec­tron­ic sig­nals with­in nanosec­onds and trans­mits them via actu­a­tors to the axles. Elec­tron­ic sig­nals con­trol accel­er­a­tion, brak­ing, and steer­ing. Tra­di­tion­al steer­ing wheels, ped­als, and steer­ing columns are no longer need­ed to trans­mit com­mands mechan­i­cal­ly to the wheels. The advan­tage here is that con­struc­tion vehi­cles can be oper­at­ed via tablets, apps, or remote con­trol sys­tems while the oper­a­tors stand off to the side or in com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent loca­tions. “Schaeffler’s Space Drive sys­tem has been used suc­cess­ful­ly for many years now, both on the roads and in vehi­cles like min­ing trucks,” says Scherr. “It’s a proven tech­nol­o­gy that we’re pro­vid­ing to run con­struc­tion machin­ery autonomous­ly.”

“It will be anoth­er fif­teen or twen­ty years before we see fully auto­mat­ed dri­ver­less machines at typ­i­cal con­struc­tion sites,” esti­mates Bauer. “When we reach that stage, the dri­vers will take on dif­fer­ent jobs such as super­vis­ing and coor­di­nat­ing the autonomous machines from con­trol rooms, and being ready to inter­vene and make cor­rec­tions at any time.” As chair­man of the board of the Research Asso­ci­a­tion for Con­struc­tion Build­ing and Mate­r­i­al Machines (FVB) and pres­i­dent of the Otto von Guer­icke Fed­er­a­tion of Indus­tri­al Research Asso­ci­a­tions (AiF), his research takes place at the inter­faces between peo­ple and machines. “Inde­pen­dent con­trol as a semi-autonomous step will relieve dri­vers’ work­loads over the next ten to fif­teen years and help achieve greater lev­els of safe­ty and per­for­mance,” he says, adding that “this will be accom­plished with tech­nol­o­gy in the form of AI, 5G, GPS, cam­era sys­tems, radar, and soft­ware.”


Insight

Study: The Future of Construction Machinery


Data as a new business field

Pre­dic­tive main­te­nance will play a key role in autonomous and con­nect­ed machin­ery at future con­struc­tion sites in areas like safe­ty, pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, and machine avail­abil­i­ty. While some sen­sors on mod­ern dredgers, wheel load­ers, and exca­va­tors scan the sur­round­ings, other sen­sors will mon­i­tor inner com­po­nents of the machines such as bear­ings and valves and detect even the slight­est devi­a­tions from nor­mal oper­a­tions. They will reg­is­ter engine speeds and noise lev­els as well as the tem­per­a­ture of oils and other oper­at­ing mate­ri­als. The com­bi­na­tion and analy­sis of these data will yield infor­ma­tion about the state of con­struc­tion machines. That in turn will pro­vide early infor­ma­tion on when cer­tain com­po­nents will wear out and should there­fore be replaced in order to pre­vent repair costs or unex­pect­ed out­ages. For predictive—as opposed to preventive—maintenance, the inter­vals are not spec­i­fied in advance. Instead, they are deter­mined on the basis of sen­sor data. Schaeffler’s Optime already offers an eco­nom­i­cal, wire­less, plug-and-play way to mon­i­tor sta­tion­ary assem­blies. Its sen­sors mon­i­tor vibra­tions at mea­sure­ment sites and fully auto­mat­i­cal­ly pro­vide oper­a­tors with analy­ses and rec­om­men­da­tions for action. Based on this expe­ri­ence and with dig­i­tal ser­vices in gen­er­al, Scha­ef­fler is superbly equipped to meet the chal­lenges in the con­struc­tion machin­ery sec­tor.

The engi­neers at Bauer can cur­rent­ly switch into around one thou­sand pieces of machin­ery regard­less of where they are being used. The machines reg­u­lar­ly send data pack­ages wire­less­ly to com­pa­ny head­quar­ters. “We use big-data appli­ca­tions to help our cus­tomers eval­u­ate and con­tin­u­ous­ly opti­mize our prod­ucts with updates and fine­ly tuned main­te­nance, which means we can increase qual­i­ty and func­tion­al­i­ty and length­en prod­uct ser­vice lives,” says Kaub. In the future it should be pos­si­ble to switch into the cab­ins in real time to sup­port dri­vers. High lev­els of data are chang­ing the busi­ness mod­els for com­pa­nies like Bauer. They are becom­ing ever more impor­tant sources of rev­enue and lay­ing the ground­work for new data-based ser­vices. Bauer is also giv­ing older machines a sec­ond chance by enhanc­ing them as far as pos­si­ble with soft­ware and new hard­ware. This lends new mean­ing to an old con­struc­tion site motto: What doesn’t fit will be made to fit.

At a Glance

The Construction Sector and Covid-19

The repercussions of the Covid-19 crisis for the construction industry are not yet clear. The industry’s cycle is such that the impact will come relatively late, so the full effects will only be felt over the coming years. In the middle of 2020 many companies are still living off order books that were already full. Furthermore, the construction industry was not shut down as completely as other sectors. Only regional sites were closed, on account of disruptions in supply chains or shortages in personnel due to quarantine regulations, border closures, and canceled flights. However, more than half of the construction companies in Germany anticipate long-term risks to their contracts for commercial real estate. They also expect a large share of government-funded projects to be postponed. The global market for construction machinery and vehicles will slow down and rental models will become more popular. Yet at the same time, the Covid-19 pandemic could promote greater use of new industrial and digital technologies such as modular construction and building information modeling.
Read the next topicThe Benefits of Being Different