Predicting how new innovations and technology will transform an industry over time is no easy feat. Construction today looks very different than it did even a decade ago, with more changes happening all the time. Technology tends to have a cumulative effect, so predicting another 10–20 years out into the future seems an even bigger challenge.
Futurists and analysts look at trends and forecast outcomes for a living, so they’re uniquely qualified to weigh in on construction’s technological future. What they see is an industry ripe for innovation. We can already see glimmers of that; there are always new technologies that seem right on the verge of getting huge, like electric machinery and advanced robotic workers, for which there have been many advances in the last decade. As technology becomes an even more inseparable part of our lives, it stands to reason it will permeate everything we do.
The last two decades brought about unprecedented transformation in the construction technology landscape. The internet alone has revolutionized the industry. If trends continue, the next two decades are poised to bring about even more substantial change.
Here are some of the dramatic shifts futurists and analysts believe the industry should prepare for in the coming decades.
Robots Lend a Hand (and an Eye)
Robots are sure to come up in any conversation about construction technology. Since the advent of the robotic assembly line nearly 50 years ago, companies have had grand visions of a future workforce populated entirely by steel and aluminum humanoid robots. This has so far been mostly confined to the realm of science fiction. However, according to technology forecaster Glen Hiemstra, it could very well become our reality one day.
“We’ll see more humanoid robots emerge in approximately 10 to 20 years, and they will be quite sophisticated,” Hiemstra told ForConstructionPros. “They will be under human supervision at first, as their artificial intelligence won’t be quite as flexible as humans. They may be controlled by virtual reality or some other new remote-controlled operator techniques.”
“We’ll see more humanoid robots emerge in approximately 10 to 20 years, and they will be quite sophisticated.”
In addition to some new robotic coworkers on the ground, others are expected to take to the air. Unmanned drone aircraft can already be found zipping overhead at construction sites, surveying and capturing data and images for inspections. We may also see smaller special-purpose robots roving tight spaces behind walls or other building recesses and reporting back on their findings.
TV shows and movies like The Jetsons and Blade Runner supplied our imaginations with a steady diet of futuristic cityscapes. While they may now seem improbable, the skyline of the future might look more like those visions than you think.
As computer processing power increases, modeling and simulation capabilities will vastly improve. Architects will eventually be less tethered by traditional building design as new production methods allow the construction of nearly any shape imaginable for structures of the future. Most tall buildings that went up before the last decade still look relatively traditional in style, but that could change.
“Better computing intelligence and simulation will allow for a new playfulness in architecture, introducing more strange angles, swoops, curves and cutouts into buildings, creating exciting visual impacts,” said Hiemstra.
Construction Companies Offering Technology
Construction technology could even advance to the point where companies themselves are including technology products in their service offerings. This change will be driven in part by the continued search for diversified revenue streams, providing an opportunity for companies to offer a low-cost, high-margin upsell.
A recent McKinsey study said these offerings could include either platforms or services, such as energy-saving building fixtures, connected building management systems, and more. By broadening services to include installing and maintaining high-tech building systems, construction firms will be better equipped to weather unpredictable market fluctuations that affect their bottom line.
Prefabrication and 3D Printing Will Speed Up Projects
Construction has seen an increased reliance on prefabrication and offsite construction over the past decade, and this trend is expected to grow even more in the wake of COVID-19. As buildings of the future become more ornate and intricate, new construction methods will be explored to make it possible.
Entire rooms can now be fabricated entirely offsite, transported, and then installed with a crane, with any plumbing, electrical, and ductwork to be added later, either by robot or human. Large-scale building projects of the future will become increasingly modular, and as urban centers grow denser, more and more work will need to be done offsite.
3D printing is expected to be a boon, particularly in the residential construction market. Even now, fully livable 3D printed homes can already be produced in about a day for a fraction of the cost of traditional brick and mortar construction methods. There is great hope that 3D printed homes could be a future solution to global homelessness, providing affordable housing to a rapidly increasing population.
Nobody has a crystal ball, but sometimes an educated guess can be surprisingly on point. We’ve already seen a seismic shift in the construction industry’s relationship with technology in recent years. Still, if these and other bold predictions about the future of building hold up, we may have seen nothing yet.