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Conventional thinking says the Industrial Revolution ended more than a century ago. Yet one crucial industry has lagged behind revolutionary changes stemming from the transition from hand production methods to the use of machines and rise of factory systems. In the 1800s, these transitions caused an influx of people to urban centers, where the majority of those changes were centered. The outcome? Not enough capital or time to build adequate housing, pushing low-income newcomers into overcrowded, unsanitary slums, resulting in increased death rates and endemic levels of contagious diseases. While other industries mechanized and surged, construction remained stagnant in comparison to demand. 

Fast forward to the 21st century where the U.S .benefits from a developed and industrialized world. Monumental gains in technology, combined with regulations designed to protect communities from polluted waters and disease, have drastically improved quality of life. Yet one similarity remains – the industry still struggles to build enough housing for a growing population. Urban centers have been neglected for decades while the rate of urbanization increases annually. Communities still have no access to clean drinking water and many suffer from crumbling infrastructure. Home ownership is out of reach for an entire generation, with metropolitan areas unable to keep up with demand for housing. At the very center of this lies the staid construction industry. Lagging behind the rest of the industrialized world in terms of technology advances, it has severely impacted the ability to maintain a livable nation and world. 

As 2019 begins, despite market volatility, demand for built space continues to explode. Yet construction capacity is constricted, resulting in skyrocketing construction costs and shortfalls in adding much needed square footage. With the global population expected to reach 10 billion by 2050 (including 100 million in the US alone), the population is currently living and working in buildings with an average age of 35 and 50 years old respectively, many in dire need of refreshing. A meaningful revitalization will take much more than addressing chipped paint and cracked foundations. The construction industry is facing a five-alarm fire and a new industrial revolution must start now.

The construction industry hasn’t been hiding its head in the sand for the last century. Far from it. Advances in technology have allowed the industry to grow, but for the most part, technology has been a point solution, addressing one small problem among a sea of others. While any innovation helps, throwing software at existing practices won’t solve these problems. What is missing is the convergence of industrialization and software solutions to drive the construction industry to truly industrialized construction. Now is the time for the industry to realize the goal of mechanization and systemization.

Ailing Infrastructure

The construction story is all too familiar, but today it’s become a perfect storm. There is a need for more built space. Lack of sufficient investment over the past half century means existing infrastructures must be updated or replaced. The world is facing devastating natural disasters – hurricanes, fires, flooding, earthquakes – with increasing frequency. Each requiring repair or rebuilding of structures. And the well-known lack, or exodus, of skilled labor compounds the challenges the industry faces. Today’s construction industry is not poised to keep up with demand. So how will it provide and update housing and rebuild the nation’s infrastructure at an affordable cost?

What if the current supply of skilled labor could go farther and buffer the industry from future economic ups and downs? And what if it could be done while also building at a level delivering a surplus of renovation and infrastructure projects? What if the industry could harvest the $1.6 trillion productivity opportunity, cited by McKinsey & Company, through industrialization and software? The key pillars of change are already in place, what’s lacking is the glue, or more specifically, the software to tie it all together.

Facing Challenges, Meeting Demand

During the Industrial Revolutions of the 1700s and 1800s, the world saw new steel fabrication processes, large-scale manufacture of machine tools and other goods and, most importantly, use of increasingly advanced machinery in steam-powered factories. In just the last decade, the construction industry has started to adopt a factory-like approach to building – manufacturing modules off-site for assembly, or just placement on site. This focus on a factory setting will enable huge gains to be made. Moving manufacturing of building elements into controlled environments, while at the same time designing standardized repeatable processes, will unlock the ability of vertically integrated teams of engineers and labor to optimize and continuously improve outcomes. This change to off-site drives a shift of field knowledge to the design and engineering of components, reducing dependency on a specific pool of skilled labor.

There’s a reason factory-built construction has not “broken out” and scaled. Historically, the industry’s approach to off-site construction conjures up visions of trailer homes and temporary classrooms – repetitious floor plans, limited or no architectural design options or flexibility, poor quality materials and a limited life expectancy. It’s this lack of flexibility to meet individual customer requirements that impacts the ability to be competitive. To be successful requires the flexibility to design meaningful solutions that meet customer demands.

Each construction customer is unique, and each segment demands enormous variation in their choices and requirements. In order for modular, prefabricated, or flat-packed building solutions to remain competitive, the industry needs both the ability and the flexibility to deliver mass customization solutions.

There is a tremendous opportunity to bring industrialized construction to life, but that requires a single, critical ingredient – software. By integrating software solutions into processes and shifting elements upstream into the manufacturing environment, it enables the next level of innovation to flourish. The right software solutions can increase speed and offer scalability from design to manufacturing and assembly. Today’s status quo advancements in automation and digital fabrication, and robotics in automotive, aerospace and consumer electronics industries offer great opportunity for construction as well.

The Future of Construction

Over the past few years, the centers of digital innovation have begun to wake to this opportunity, and realize the future of construction will be digital and driven by data. From 3D drone-captured photogrammetry to 5D BIM platforms hosted in the cloud, companies are starting to adopt and adapt digital data flows to improve project productivity and predictability. Though the adoption of digital technology has been historically slow in construction, the signs of revolution are clear: sizable investments and acquisitions in digital technologies; executive hiring in digital strategy and operations; and a race among practitioners to showcase and market fluency with data rich innovation.

To reap the benefits of industrialization, the industry must go beyond taking construction off-site, adding cool new tools or throwing software at current practices. Contractors must fundamentally change the way they build buildings, connect workflows and leverage data at the epicenter in order to reshape the way they “construct.” Only then will the construction industry be able to realize flexibility and mass customization. Consider technology advances such as Virtual Reality or Augmented Reality. Individually fascinating, yet when adopted alone they remain point solutions. It’s amazing to use VR goggles to immerse oneself in a new building, but what happens when the goggles come off? How does that experience tie back into the dataflow? Replacing a hammer with an air gun makes nailing faster and less labor intensive, but its impact is finite if not connected to the larger workflow. For the convergence to begin, software must seamlessly allow all users within a system to contribute to the data flow while simultaneously benefiting from other user’s data across the entire platform. 

The Future is Bright

This convergence of industrialization and software technology will radically change the way buildings are designed, modules built and assembled on site, all while managing processes and data. Buildings will be assembled from components and modules manufactured off-site, bringing standardization and simplification to the whole building process – from the architecture studio, to the factory and finally to the jobsite. Design, manufacturing and assembly – using rich metadata – will start at concept and flow seamlessly through the field, offering massive amounts of data across users and devices at every step in the process. With a software solution powering the industry, there will be new solutions and approaches to industrialized construction never before thought possible. 

The industrialized construction revolution is no different from other fundamental shifts in any industry. Tremendous opportunity poses another chance for creation of new software solutions to efficiently, effectively and rapidly span, and connect, key elements of the industry – design, engineering, manufacturing and field trades. 

While the industry is in the relatively early phases of this industrialized construction revolution, the key ingredients for the industry’s transformation are already present. The movement will allow increased efficiency and leveraged technology to build for the future, fix aging infrastructure and drive the creation of new jobs and growth across sectors. Never has the industry been so needed, yet so unable to meet demands. Coupling innovation and revolution using elements developed centuries ago, industrialized construction will blaze the path forward.

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