The Construction Site of the Future Will Look Very Different–And So Will its Risks

city of future

An unmanned drone hovers high overhead, pausing momentarily as quick bursts of light flash from its metallic belly. It dips once more then silently zooms off beyond sight. Just a few yards away, a metallic snake-like contraption slithers down a tall silver beam, blinking and beeping as it effortlessly computes and calculates its surroundings.

Meanwhile, on the ground below, several large vehicles roam around with exacting navigational precision, but without drivers. One such vehicle edges around a steep, wide pit while another pushes the ground beneath it into neatly measured piles. One of the vehicles, a driverless bulldozer, sits idle off to the side. It is being serviced by a specially trained mechanic. The mechanic is one among a few senior designers, robot technicians and a small maintenance crew—the only human presence on the scene.

Forty miles away in a nondescript office building, a gathering of business professionals observe this scene with casual disinterest, distracted by the 3D city being constructed in front of them.

This scene is not a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie, or an excerpt from a science fiction novel. It is the reality of a very probable construction site in the not-so-distant future. In fact, the drones described above are already being used in construction sites around the world, and unmanned machinery is currently on the market.

Japan’s construction-equipment maker Komatsu Ltd has recently developed intensive construction equipment (ICT), which includes machine-controlled bulldozers and hydraulic excavators. These pieces of machinery are part of a program that will transform a job site into a manufacturing plant.

“Hydras,” a technology designed by a couple of Virginia Tech University engineers, are snake- looking robots that can gather important structural data via ultrasound scanners and digital cameras. Clad with alternating joints that allow them to move up and down and side to side, they are able to grip to poles previously climbed by tethered construction workers.

Systems like CAD and BIM have been incorporating digital 3D imagery for years now, but 3D printing and rapidly advancing technology around LED displays and holographic 3D imagery will soon bring modeling to an entirely new level. And of course all of this collected data can be automatically and instantaneously sent to smartphones, computers and myriad other internet-based devices around the world.

The innovations described above are only a few examples of the trending construction technologies. We are also seeing digital data being leveraged in the construction industry with things like equipment monitoring and repair and GPS navigation.

Robotics is being coupled with prefabricated modular components resulting in an environment where robots essentially build the modular components offsite, which are then delivered to the construction site, ready for assembly. Just recently, a Chinese developer built a 57-story building in 19 days.

You can also add to the list 3D printing, and of course, the familiar mobile devices, whose benefits we experience on a personal level will imminently be realized on the construction site.

The Benefits of This Technology Are Undeniable

In an industry that has historically not been known for its technological innovation, construction appears to be making up for lost time. The benefits of these advancements are potentially staggering.

The information and data being collected via these emerging technologies may prove one of the most significant benefits.

New technology has the potential to bring efficiencies, improvements in quality, and advances in safety among others. BIM and CAD technology have revolutionized the planning stages of construction projects—and will continue to do so. Driverless machinery will not only make job sites potentially more efficient but may also help address a potential shortage of construction workers in places like Japan.

Drones will provide a way to obtain real-time data on job progress, identify potential hazards or quality issues, and help acquire other useful information in a very expeditious and cost-effective manner.

In fact, the information and data that is being collected via these emerging technologies may prove one of the most significant benefits. In a phenomenon that is more broadly described as The Internet of Things (IoT), a new reality in which data is collected and managed from a network of devices and sensors, processed, and then shared with other connected “things” will undoubtedly lead to more informed and strategic decision making, on and off the jobsite.

And finally, but perhaps most importantly, such mechanized equipment will lead to safer inspections and progress reports, allowing managers to see higher elevations or hard-to-reach spots for inspections by placing machines and not humans in workplace conditions that are all too often unsafe .

These Advances May Drastically Change a Project’s Risk Profile

But like most change, it is not without risk. In fact, the degree to which these technologies are revolutionizing a typical construction project will be accompanied by an equally dramatic shift in said project’s risk profile.

Some risks will likely lessen in severity. For instance, as drones and other automated machinery replace certain job functions that today humans exclusively perform, this could conceivably lead to a significant reduction in workers’ compensation claims. However, the new or evolving risks that this new technology brings may outweigh those that it diminishes if the risk is not properly managed.

Embrace the Future?

61% of construction industry respondents say they expect modular building to grow more than 5% a year over the next three years.

While the technology is there and in some cases already in use, the industry as a whole has a long while to fully embrace and leverage these innovations. 2014 reported no industry-wide practical, fully adopted technological breakthroughs. Rather, its progress has proved mostly incremental and sporadic.

In fact, many in the construction industry have their reservations around some emerging technologies—particularly contractors. Take prefabricated and modular building, for example. According to a FMI report,

  • 61% of construction industry respondents to a survey about this type of building say they expect it to grow more than 5% a year in the next three years.
  • 81% of mechanical/electrical contractors say they already own prefab facilities.
  • 33% are thinking about acquiring them.

But only 40% of contractors consider prefabricated and modular building capabilities a key part of their company’s strategic initiatives.

All this being said, it is likely that at some point in the near future those reticent contractors will have no choice but to embrace technological developments like prefabricated and modular building. Pressures on construction companies to lower prices, increase productivity, stay competitive and deal with a dwindling skilled labor force will force their hand.

And while embracing the advances can certainly make the contractor more competitive, the technology alone will not do the trick. The value lies in how the technology is used. The use of and potential benefits from these innovations need to be considered in concert with the entirety of a company’s business model, current work flow, and the associated risks of integrating the new technology into this inherently intricate process.

While the futuristic construction site described above may not crop up tomorrow, the technology is here, and moving more quickly than the thinking, planning and even legislation around these technologies. But where there is uncertainty there is opportunity, and the firms that are able take advantage of the new opportunities while proactively identifying and mitigating the associated risks will most certainly have the competitive edge in this radically new environment.


This post was written by the Willis Global Construction Industry, main contributors including  John Roberts, Mike Phillips, Jeff Burns & Kathryn Harb.

About John Roberts

A professional Mechanical Engineer by training, John Roberts joined the insurance industry in 1979.  In 2008 he jo…
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