Now, digital technologies are gradually entering the construction industry, changing how infrastructure, real estate and other built assets are designed, constructed, operated and maintained. Those technologies include building information modeling (BIM), prefabrication, wireless sensors, automated and robotic equipment, and 3D-printing.
The economic and social impact could be substantial, as the construction industry accounts for 6% of global GDP and employs more than 100 million people worldwide. Within 10 years, full-scale digitization could help the industry save an estimated 12-20%, equal to between $1 trillion and $1.7 trillion annually, according to The Boston Consulting Group.
THE Singapore government's Industry Transformation Map (ITM) for the construction sector is more than a vision for the sector's future. It is a survival plan. It is a timely and necessary response to the technological changes taking place in Singapore and around the world.
Mr Desmond Lee, Second Minister for National Development said when launching the construction ITM: "Essentially, we are speaking about transformation of the whole construction sector - the entire process and value chain, from end to end."
With the reduction in access to cheap foreign labour coupled with growing competition, Singapore's construction sector only has one way forward. It must adopt and master the technology now available to drive productivity and efficiencies at every stage of the construction cycle.
Internationally the Singapore construction sector has an excellent reputation for technology adoption, with credit due to the efforts of the Building and Construction Authority (BCA). Following the pattern seen in other developed countries, the design teams and larger general contractor companies have been the first to move. Given their size and scale, the integration of technology has an immediate financial benefit. They gain the ability to compete against their global competition.
The adoption of technology requires investment in the technology itself as well as the training of staff. So some smaller and specialty contractors have shown hesitation, partly due to cost, and partly due to the need to upskill their workforce.
The ITM's ambitious plan to train 80,000 tech-ready construction professionals by 2025 is good news for smaller contractors. It gives them access to a pipeline of trained talent which is unavailable to them now. Hopefully this new direction will encourage smaller firms to join the revolution, rather than waiting for the larger companies to force technology adoption on them.
So what are the latest technologies driving change in the construction sector? How do they work and which ones should Singapore companies adopt to get ahead of their competition? Here are some of the most exciting ones for Singapore companies to explore:
5-DIMENSIONAL BUILDING INFORMATION MODELLING (5D-BIM)
Most people understand what a three-dimensional model of a building is. It shows the structures, or what will be built and where. This is called a 3D-Building Information Model or BIM, containing enough detail to show all the components needed to create a structure from floorboards to beams, to columns, pipes and sheet products.
A more recent advancement is 4D BIM, which incorporates data on time such as building schedules and production constraints.
We are now entering the era of 5D BIM - which means it tracks costs as well as time. With a 5D Building Information Model you can see exactly what the progress of construction will be, and the total cost incurred on a future date - in a week, a month or a year.
5D BIM technology comes into its own when you need to make changes to a design. For example, if the project requires more underground parking, you modify the 3D design to include another level of parking, run an automatic 5D analysis, and immediately see what this change has done to the schedule and total cost of the project.
In construction no plan ever mirrors reality. Weather delays, late crews or material shortages inevitably happen. Things change so fast even the best construction managers cannot revise their forecasts fast enough. This is what makes 5D BIM so powerful. An integrated 5D BIM can yield answers to critical questions as fast as the inputs change in real life.
MIXED REALITY AND THE HOLOLENS
Mixed reality is where the real and virtual worlds merge to create new ways of visualizing and experiencing a building. We are in a new era where buildings will be designed as holographic models with which architects, builders and clients interact.
Microsoft's HoloLens is a wearable computer that lets you see holograms superimposed over the real world. One can experience the full-scale hologram of a building or project a scaled-down model onto a tabletop for viewing. Both experiences improve the understanding of the design and intended use, and both experiences can be shared by more than one HoloLens user.
So why is this important? Imagine you want to understand how a building is going to look from a specific viewpoint. You could read a drawing on a piece of paper and use your imagination. You could view a 3D computer model and better visualize what it will be like. Or you can put on a HoloLens and actually experience it to scale. It's the stuff of fantasy, but the technology is here now.
DRONES, PHOTOGRAMMETRY AND IMAGE RECOGNITION
A drone is little more than a camera mounted on an aerial platform. Drone hardware is interesting for the construction industry, but the software that renders the images and videos is more exciting. With the hardware and software together, we get data from previously unavailable vantage points.
Drones can be used for photogrammetry which uses imaging devices and digital algorithms to produce 3D models of terrain, roads and buildings. Beyond photogrammetry is the field of image analysis and object recognition. Here the software can piece together images of a building to automatically create a 3D image. And beyond image analysis is the use of structured light to produce very accurate 3D models from so-called point clouds.
All of these technologies have applications in construction, from gathering data to inform design, to monitoring construction progress to better manage schedules.
THE INTERNET OF THINGS
The ability of people on the project to respond to changing conditions has always been limited by the tools they use to determine what is going on.
Let's say the electricians fail to show up and you need to determine how many guys you will need next week to make up ground. The best project managers have developed good instincts for this type of decision, because they have never had time to wait for data. They must make a call and get going.
The Internet of Things will bring a range of sensors to the job site. In real time, data from the site can be sent to the office (or trailer) where your team can assess the impacts on the schedule, cost, and material or labour requirements, make an informed decision and communicate that decision to crews on site. Superintendents and project managers will still decide quickly, but with some real data and analysis helping them make the right call.
The building construction sector is not the first industry to face a technological transformation. The digital revolution has forever altered the way business is done in manufacturing and financial services, to name just two.
Now it is the construction sector's turn. The onset of change in the construction sector is so rapid that inevitably those capable of responding to change and integrating technology will be the winners, while those who do not adapt risk being left behind.