Almost 30 years ago, computer-aided design revolutionized the building and infrastructure design process and created an important vehicle for accurate and often automated documentation. In addition, using a computer as a drafting board enabled the effective flow of a large amount of data from design to construction, promising a revolution in the industry.

Fast forward to 2016, and it could be argued that the promise of this revolution may not have been fully realized. Construction reports and the quantitative metrics point to projects with high risk, low margin, productivity inefficiencies and labor shortages. This has driven some governments to completely reform the construction sector, and for some to tie efficiency targets back to large-scale digitization.

In the drive to solve some of these challenges, technology is helping bridge the gap between the office and the construction site. Modular or prefabricated construction is making inroads to closing the productivity gap in part due to optimized integrated project delivery, improvements in collaboration technology and the proliferation of the cloud for information management across the entire project life cycle.

Having a deep understanding of the supply chain is critical to the success of modular construction projects. A surge in work that incorporates advanced fabrication technologies will radically change the entire industry in the near future.

Automated Labor
One of these technologies is automation. U.S.-based Construction Robotics has developed a Semi Autonomous Mason (SAM) that can lay as many bricks as three men in a day and does not require any of the additional cost associated with labor. Ultimately, SAM solves the age-old problem of labor supply, which is a critical issue in a construction industry struggling with retention brought about by economic peaks and troughs. SAM could be the beginning of restructuring the way contractors automate manual tasks when technologies like prefabrication are deemed unsuitable.          

3-D Printing
As with automation and prefabrication, technologies that have been the traditional domain of factories are now being brought into the construction domain. Dubai is placing an enormous emphasis on 3-D printing and has set an ambitious goal that 25 percent of buildings in the country will be 3-D printed by 2030. This goal is part of a much wider strategy, including targeting the medical, product manufacturing and construction sectors.

According to the Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, 3-D printing in construction could be worth more than $800 million by 2025. Statements such as these from governments send a message to the engineering and construction industry that construction reform is imminent.

3-D printing is one part of a much larger ecosystem of technolgies that need to work in unison to be effective. Materials science is one of those technologies. 3-D printing has extended beyond plastics to more advanced material such as metal and concrete. In particular, work being done by Behrokh Khoshnevis in developing a system that he terms “contour crafting” is essentially a robotically controlled nozzle that “squeezes” concrete into the shape of a building. Contour crafting can create a 2,500-square foot house in 20 hours. The applications for this process are far reaching; however, the obvious one is rapid affordable housing, helping to overcome one of the world’s biggest challenges of mass urbanization. 

Generative Design
3-D printing allows the industry to fabricate structures and objects that couldn’t be created using traditional construction technologies. The model-to-construction workflow removes the need for large-scale documentation and introduces a radical new way of thinking called generative design. Imagine a designer or engineer is tasked with designing a building project, feeding into a piece of software all of the goals that he or she has for the project, including the vision of the client, the goals for the urban design and so on. Couple that with the constraints in terms of materials limits, maximum height of the building, the allowable scale for the floor plates and the local legislative framework.

Generative design will process this information using the enormous horsepower of the cloud and generate not one, not five, but potentially thousands of iterations all meeting the requirements, and the designer or engineer may choose the design that best suits the needs of the project. Typically, generative designs look complex, organic and almost impossible to document, let alone construct.

Airbus is currently using this technology to redesign the rear cabin partitions on the A320 aircraft. Because generative design produces the most optimal design for the object, Airbus has been able to halve the weight of the partition but maintain the structural rigidity. In aerospace, weight equals fuel, which equals cost. Any savings to be made in terms of weight will be a welcome gain for the industry. This is where 3-D printing will come into its own with the ability to form those complex shapes—something that existing construction techniques could never achieve.

In Amsterdam, research and development company MX3D is realizing the fusion of generative design, robotics and 3-D printing. For several years, the team has been researching the feasibility of 3-D printing a fully functioning bridge over a canal, and it has developed a system where the construction robots will print material in midair. Additionally, extensive use of generative design has been used to design the supporting structure. The coming together of all of these technologies will set the bar for the entire industry.

Brett Casson is Autodesk’s digital infrastructure leader in APAC. For more information, visit