2021 Outlook: Emerging Technologies Impacting the Construction Industry

In 2021, look for accelerated adoption of digital fabrication, real-time visualization, VR, AR, AI, robotics, generative design, reality modelling, IoT and digital twins.
By Chris Ruffo
February 20, 2021

While the AEC industry has largely transitioned to BIM over the last decade, it’s only been more recently where new design technologies have emerged for the built environment, further extending what’s possible with BIM. These new technologies include digital fabrication, real-time visualization, virtual and mixed reality, artificial intelligence, robotics, generative design, reality modelling, IoT and the development of digital twins. In fact, the industry is already seeing accelerated adoption of these emerging technologies out of necessity.

With the challenges of working remote coupled with project delays, the entire building industry is looking for creative ways to maximize project efficiency. What technology trends can be expected to dominate this space in 2021?

Convergence of Manufacturing and Building

Efficiency is going to be a buzz word this year, as firms look to modernize the way buildings are designed, built and used. Technology adoption and the use of automation has allowed manufacturers to build products at an industrial scale. This has been a topic of discussion in the AEC industry for years, however the pandemic may help accelerate a convergence of manufacturing and building. In fact, many buildings of the future will likely be manufactured rather than built. A glimpse of the future can be seen in the work of Dutch Design firm DUS and architectural fabrication company Aectual, who envision a future where building products are 3D-printed on demand in a sustainable and circular manner. Aectual already produces a portfolio of 3D-printed building products such as floors, facades, millwork and even small homes - with potential to grow into a full digital platform for the AEC industry.

Mobility is the New “Norm”

The work from home mandate has impacted virtually every business. One of the biggest trends that has emerged is the demand for mobile workstations. Even prior to the start of the pandemic, employees voiced the desire for thinner, faster, lighter mobile workstations, packed with the powerful GPUs needed to work on large BIM datasets, collaborate with remote teams and visualize at the same speeds as in the office. What will emerge in 2021 is the need for users and IT teams to further optimize the workstation experience to truly meet the changing needs of employees and their respective workflows. Many AEC IT departments are accelerating their roadmap for implementing 1:1 and 1:n virtualization, which will allow users to connect from a workstation at home, or to a host workstation back in the office, datacenter or the cloud in order to get the performance needed to run complex workflows.

AI and Smart Building

Smarter, more automated and informed buildings are also emerging through the use of artificial intelligence, IoT and the development of digital twins. Accelerated by the global pandemic and the reality of a more remote workforce, the adoption of digital twins enables a data-driven approach to decision making to help grow efficiencies in the way structures are designed, developed and deployed. In the future, AEC firms will look even more closely to manufacturers to better design, fabricate, maintain and operate buildings and infrastructure. By using AI and digital twins to design, architects and building owners can make smart structures more automated, but also more adaptive.

For example, MX3D teamed up with a consortium of mathematicians and IoT specialists to build the world’s first stainless steel 3D printed bridge. Leveraging smart sensor technology to monitor the bridge’s health in real time, data from the sensors will then be input into a ‘digital twin’ of the bridge allowing the ‘as built’ to be compared against the design spec at any moment. This data delivers access to valuable insights that will inform designs for future 3D printed metallic structures and smart city initiatives. These new building processes will ultimately lower costs and improve operational efficiencies.

Job Safety

There are many safety concerns when it comes to a construction site including navigating potentially unsafe terrain, cleaning up a job site and evaluating build projects. But for those implementing automation and AI through the use of robotics, some of these concerns can be minimized. For example, robots can be programmed to execute tasks in high-risk industrial environments, providing a huge advantage for the construction space. This can include deploying robots to clean up work areas and pick up and return tools - so that crews can return to a clear and secure work environment. Additionally, some firms are exploring their use to take on potentially dangerous jobs such as heavy lifting and repetitive tasks. Last but not least, robots can be equipped with lidar scanners and programmed to perform reality capture scans of construction sites providing valuable data to feed into a site’s “digital twin.”


Dramatic improvements in hardware performance, compute power and graphics are driving more widespread adoption of technologies such as virtual and mixed reality and real-time rendering as reliable visualization tools. The collaborative nature of virtual and mixed reality technologies has become effective communications platforms for remote work. They allow design and engineering teams to come together in a virtual environment to walk through ideas or review prototypes in real time - a process that was not possible even a few years ago. In addition, real-time rendering is making it possible for architects, designers, engineers, contractors and building owners to see and make changes regardless of location.

The rapid adoption of improved visualization tools means designers and architects can continue making decisions outside the confines of the office, while even improving on quality and efficiency. One company putting this technology to work is Neoscape, a leading architectural visualization agency. Being able to create physically accurate renderings in real time allows the agency to get instant feedback and decisions from their clients virtually, without the need of a round trip to the render farm.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and this couldn't have been truer in 2020. Companies in the construction space showed determination and resolve as they incorporated emerging technologies and developed new workflows to ensure projects continued to move forward amid all the chaos. But that was just the beginning. In 2021, expect the AEC industry to invest in and innovate further on the trends and technologies mentioned above, particularly as the building industry continues to grapple with working in a more sustainable manner as the pandemic fades into the past.

by Chris Ruffo
Chris Ruffo has more than 20 years of experience working in the CAD, Media and Entertainment and digital media sectors. Partnering with senior management at companies like Lenovo, Epic Games, The Foundry, Autodesk and Alias|Wavefront, Chris has a passion for bringing new products and services to market. 

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