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The construction site of the future

By Andy Kane
Portfolio Manager Construction

Drones, augmented reality, technology is changing construction sites. Will our homes be built by robots in the future? What will be the effect on risk profiles? QBE's construction portfolio manager Andy Kane considers the developments that will transform the construction site as we know it.

Technology and design have always helped to widen the envelope of possibility for the construction industry. From the use of climbing harnesses to the creation of the first travelling shield, or using computers to design buildings; builders have always been under pressure to keep up with change.

I recently attended the 50th annual IMIA conference in Munich, where the Global Engineering and Construction Insurance industry come together to discuss trends and share technical information, and the topic of “Construction 4.0“ was at the forefront of the debate on the challenges facing our industry.

Therefore, today, more than ever, revolution is bubbling on almost every front. The construction industry is utilising not just one new technology, but hundreds, almost every instance of which is transformative in some way. The struggle is to decide which of the new technologies is the most important; which to focus on first, as well as to understand how they all might interconnect and what the multiplier effect might be.

Meanwhile, this is an industry that has also traditionally been a slow adopter of new technology, and one that is anxious about the changes it brings. The results of the Willis Risk Construction Risk Index for 2017 demonstrate how acute concerns currently are, with 40% of the key risks for construction risk managers residing in this category.

Concerns raised include the failure of critical IT systems, new liabilities arising out of the use of Building Information Modelling (BIM - see below) and over-reliance on technology leading to increased capacity for human error. It should be noted; the risk managers in the Willis survey also cluster many different technology risks equally, indicating they do not yet fully understand the specifics. As the author of the report comments “respondents don’t yet understand the complexities of technology risk, and likely have not yet singled out the particular threats to their business or ranked them by importance.”

Simultaneously, the report’s author points out that, “by 2020, technology will be mission-critical for the construction industry, and demand will grow for digital innovations.” How can construction firms identify and stay apprised of new technologies they should be adopting and, how do they know which ones to avoid? To help answer this question, as an underwriter, I have chosen to look through the lens of risk management; focussing on which of the new technologies has the most potential to materially affect risks; impacting the methods and costs of keeping a site safe.

This article is the first of a three-part series. In part one I will consider what is happening now, how sites and techniques are changing as we speak, and how this affects risk.

In part two I will discuss the longer term, and examine what the construction site of the future might look like when the second wave of technology that looms is in daily use.

In part three I will examine how technology is changing the types of insurance required for construction, and the levels of cover that a site needs.

We begin with the changes that are arriving here and now.

As it stands, what is the biggest single technological change that is occurring on sites? The elephant in the room, of course, is BIM. BIM is not a system or software but a process that requires a project team to work together using a single digital storage centre for all design and build documents. It brings different groups together in a single collaborative working space, giving them access to current documents, from architect to sub-contractor. So far, a useful enhancement to all. But it is BIM level 2 that starts to show real technological change. Level 2 BIM envisages everyone on a site using the same 3D virtual model of a building, fed by the data within the aforementioned shared documents. BIM is in force on government projects now, and with its advent, suddenly the whole way in which we visualise and access information regarding a site is going to change.

The effects should be helpful, and Construction News noted in September 2017 that this could drive positive change, with closer communication between design and build teams potentially cutting costs and improving margins for all sides.

With BIM, the responsibilities for information failure, and hence building errors on a site could change. We await policy clarifications regarding who will be responsible for shared documents on a BIM system leading to construction faults that have a financial impact. This is one area of risk to watch very carefully as country specific protocols are yet to be defined, and very much one construction firms should discuss with their insurer.

Running alongside BIM is the development of the construction industry’s own ‘Google glasses’ – augmented reality headsets. The devices allow those on site to stand in position, seeing how parts, or all of the building could look from their perspective – in effect overlaying the model building onto the reality of what they see before them. Using such systems in conjunction with BIM brings a major new element to site planning and execution.

Problems are more likely to be highlighted earlier, allowing people to imagine solutions in real-time, document and solve them, as well as see and share all the impacts that changes could have on a site. This system has already been trialled by Laing O’Rourke on the Crossrail project, and the results have been so successful that a consortium of interested parties has been formed to develop the system commercially. As it stands, the effect on risk of the use of virtual reality looks almost entirely positive, although the system is still very much on trial.

But what about the build side of things? In the very near future, the printing of small components on site by 3D printers is going to become a reality, making instant access to parts possible on every site.

Elsewhere, the old builders’ rule that: ‘the cranes rule the site’ is also no longer valid: the era of the construction site drone is approaching. Soon, drones will be as important as cranes on building sites; with many potential applications. Already companies such as Komatsu are using drones to help position and steer their heaviest site vehicles, and drone-directed crane steerage will soon be commonplace on UK building sites. Drones can do more than just steer a single vehicle, however. They can also take a turn as big brother, flying daily over large sites, documenting developments and reporting back to the project management team on how progress matches up to plans. Project managers are consequently provided with early warning of where minor delays might have a larger impact; visual data that can be fed into BIM models.

Drones can be workers too. Trials are already taking place on the use of drones to move cables on high voltage lines; part of a larger theme of using remote-controlled vehicles to undertake high-risk works on site. In my opinion, this represents the biggest safety enhancement for all. From the ability to remotely build tunnels too small for humans to enter, to the current trial of a driverless vehicle for dropping down roadwork cones on motorways, there are certain jobs where removing the human element is preferable. Very soon, we won’t have to rely on people to carry out these tasks; making the world of construction a safer place.

Technology is also impacting worker security with the advent of retinal scan technology to check-in workers onto a site. This technology can ensure that the individual who checks into the job is the man the firm has hired, not a stand-in. The replacement of trained and experienced team members by ‘swap-ins’ can be completely eradicated by this simple use of technology, and the safety and accountability of the whole team is improved as a result.

Everywhere you look, site techniques are changing and being changed – rapidly – by technology. As insurers, we welcome the changes above, because we believe that, broadly, they make construction sites safer and more efficient places.

But of course, we consider the developments in a constructive fashion. Our job is to look at some of the less obvious risks that such changes might bring. At QBE, this includes technology studies, risk assessments and changes to policy wordings to reflect advancements as they happen. We are evolving our policies and risk management guidance to match the modern world. So far this has helped us see a welcome pattern of reduced claims and therefore lower risk transfer costs for our construction clients. At present, our advice is to get to grips with this new technology quickly and use the tools to enhance collaborative working in ways that can reduce risk and promote better health and safety.

In the next in this series of articles, I will look at some of the more extreme future technologies that could be coming our way, and consider what their effects on risk could be. The final piece in this series of articles will then form a detailed assessment of the overall impact of technological change on insurance policies, risk management and approaches to claims.

Do not hesitate to contact me if you would like to arrange a discussion on this topic. You can sign up for the other articles in this series by completing our online form.

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