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Construction industry must embrace technological change

by Richard Lyall on 06 Apr 2022

Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus, a pioneer of wisdom who lived around 500 BC, once said, "Change is the only constant in life."

He was right, of course. Fail to change and you fail to thrive.

Today, the construction industry is living in a golden era of change – a time of accelerated technological progress. 

As American business magnate Bill Gates put it, “Never before in history has innovation offered promise of so much to so many in so short a time.” 

It is critical that construction embrace and adopt technological change. We are already seeing how it can help.

Exoskeletons are now being sported by masonry trades in Montreal who work for the Atwill-Morin Group to help them lift heavy loads.

A tool called the Material Unit Lift Enhancer, or MULE, has also been developed to assist masonry workers. The unit has a gripper that is air actuated and can lift 135 pounds. 

3D printing is making its debut on a residential construction site in Windsor. Habitat for Humanity Windsor-Essex, with the help of the University of Windsor and Invest WindsorEssex, is building Canada’s first 3D-printed residential home. The pilot project will result in four self-contained units in a building.

Virtual reality software is now being used in tandem with computer-aided designs to help spot issues and enable designers to take corrective actions faster.

Meanwhile, Boston Dynamics has developed a product called Spot, a robotic dog that can be used on construction sites. It carries high-tech cameras or laser scanners that can capture and document data and report it back to a user.

Despite the technological advances, though, construction is lagging other major industries in its adoption and attitudes towards new technology in the workplace.

Surveys by KPMG and Statistics Canada found low digital maturity in the Canadian industry. A Canadian Survey on Business Conditions in the first quarter of 2021 revealed that only seven per cent of construction businesses had adopted software or databases for purposes other than telework or online sales.

A report called Laying foundations: Technological maturity in Canada’s construction sector that was done by Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship noted there are three main reasons the construction industry is failing to adopt technology. 

One is the fear of a physical mishap. Second, long project timelines with high costs mean that the trial-and-error of technological innovation and adoption is seen as a superfluous cost rather than a necessity. Third, fierce competition, thin profit margins and high liability create a contractual environment that leads to a lack of co-ordination and information sharing across the industry. 

However, there was some good news in the Brookfield report. Of the Canadian construction companies that were interviewed, all were in the process of improving their technological maturity.

As the report suggests, we should draw on international best practices and build policy that addresses digital maturity in construction. In the U.K., for example, the Centre for Digital Built Britain educates the industry on how the construction and infrastructure sectors can use a digital approach.

  1. We can also encourage innovation by requesting that new technologies be integrated into government-funded projects. Another suggestion in the report is to encourage more youth to join building sciences and skilled trades programs to elevate the number of qualified people in the field.
  2. The report highlighted that low technical maturity is having a detrimental effect on both labour and capital productivity, which is hurting our economic competitiveness. So, we must get on board.
  3. As American writer Stewart Brand points out, “Once a new technology rolls over you, if you're not part of the steamroller, you're part of the road.” 

Richard Lyall is president of the Residential Construction Council of Ontario (RESCON). He has represented the building industry in Ontario since 1991. Contact him at [email protected].



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