Late last year, the Economist had a wonderful article on the construction industry. The most poignant point was that among all major industries, the construction industry has experienced the slowest rate of increase in productivity since the Second World War–less than 1 percent! (By contrast the agriculture industry experienced a 1600 percent increase in productivity during the same period.) Given the importance of the construction industry to the global economy this is both surprising and disturbing.
From my perspective as a futurist this is about to change in a major way. For starters, in 2017 investment in “Construction Tech” increased to $375 million–a quadrupling over the previous year. But then, just last week (January 24) that number doubled again as Katerra, a promising three-year-old Silicon Valley startup, received a whopping $865 million investment from some of the world’s leading technology investment funds and venture capitalists. Katerra, which handles everything from design to construction, hopes to reduce the time it takes to build a building from “foundation to keys” to 30 days–saving developers a great deal of time and money in the process. To appreciate how disruptive this could be to the construction industry it helps to understand that most large commercial projects currently take about a full year to complete.
Katerra, however, is not alone in its quest to shake up the construction industry. Here are six other promising technology startups poised to revolutionize the field:
#1. On January 23, 2018, Doxel revealed it has received a $4.5 million investment. The company’s robotic platform utilizes cameras, lidar and artificial intelligence to scan construction sites on a daily basis in order to identify objects that are out of place or haven’t been completed on time. On one construction project alone, Doxel claims to have increased productivity by a staggering 38 percent.
#2: In December, Kespry, a company focused on applying drone technology to construction sites, raised $33 million. Video footage from Kespry’s drones can now be accessed and reviewed by construction site supervisors to speed up certain jobs–such as inventory checks. One of the construction industry’s greatest challenges is finding and retaining younger workers. If certain tasks can be completed in minutes instead of hours it might make construction jobs more appealing to the next generation of workers.
#3: Equipment Share, which bills itself as the “AirBnB of construction,” received $26 million in early 2017. It’s business model is simple: instead of purchasing and owning every piece of equipment necessary to complete a construction job, builders can now save thousands of dollars by “accessing” equipment on an as-needed basis instead of purchasing and owning the equipment outright.
#4: Artificial intelligence is transforming every field from banking and healthcare, and the construction industry is no exception. This past July, SmartVid.IO received seven million in funding to build out its technology which applies sophisticated algorithms to study the video footage of construction sites. For example, if a worker isn’t wearing a hard hat or a set of stairs doesn’t have a safety railing, the system alerts the site supervisor. The technology is like having a job site inspector who never sleeps. Even if it prevents one accident, the technology more than pays for itself.
#5: Advances in robotics are getting insanely good. One innovative application comes from Built Robotics which received $15 million in venture funding in October of 2017. Among the technology’s more unique uses is its ability to excavate foundations. Instead of using equipment operated by human drivers, why not employ a system that can work around the clock without sleeping or taking coffee breaks?
#6: Finally, there is Daqri Technologies. In 2017 it raised over $200 million to help build out its “smart helmet” technology. Mortenson Construction is already employing the technology to allow construction workers to overlay digital information onto actual construction site locations. In a hands-free manner, the technology allows pipefitters, electricians, plumbers, and other construction professionals to better understand how to most efficiently complete their jobs.
These companies, of course, are the not only ones revolutionizing the construction industry. NorDan, Apis Cor, and Laing O’Rourke are employing 3D printers in innovative ways; Tesla and others are looking to employ solar technology to radically lower energy costs; Schneider Electric is doing much the same with microgrid technology, Etch is using blockchain technology to pay subcontractors, and SkyCool is now deploying an innovative new nanomaterial that will dramatically lower HVAC costs for buildings. Moreover, continued advances in the Internet of Things, data analytics, cloud computing, 5G technology, and artificial intelligence will continue to converge and, in the process, transform the construction industry.
These are exciting times but only those construction companies with the courage to embrace new tools of productivity will survive. As a futurist, the one thing I am absolutely sure of is this: a one percent annual increase in productivity will not be sufficient to compete in the world of tomorrow.
Jack Uldrich is a leading global futurist. He has addressed dozen of organizations and companies in the construction industry, including the Construction Industry Roundtable (CIRT), Parson BrinckerHoff, Mortenson Construction, Kraus Anderson, Jacobsen Construction, Henkels & McCoy, and Knutson Construction.