Three Emerging Trends in the Construction Industry
Challenges in the construction industry, including a declining workforce and the cost of materials, combined with some incredible technology and manufacturing breakthroughs, are changing today’s construction sites in ways that will make them unrecognizable in the future. The three trends making the most impact are: modular construction, 3D printing construction, and robotic bricklaying.
Prefabrication is a broad term that describes the practice of building all or portions of a home or commercial building off-site – maybe even in another state or country. The components are transported to the construction site for incorporation into the structure or to make up the structure itself.
The most intriguing of these prefab options is “permanent modular construction,” or PMC. Specialized prefabrication companies can build rooms or entire suites offsite, complete with pipes, fixtures, wiring, tile, and countertops. They’re shipped to the construction site by truck and off-loaded with massive cranes. The modules are held in place while workers scramble to connect them with other elements of the structure or stack them on top of or next to another module.
It’s not quite snap in place but it’s not too far off.
While modular construction represents around 4% of commercial and residential projects in the U.S., that number is already significantly higher in China, Japan, and some European countries.
Modular projects offer incredible efficiencies and implications for quality. Fabricating modules at a climate-controlled indoor site transforms the work into more of a repeatable factory job than a craftsman task. Plus, in order to withstand the rigors of the transporting and off-loading steps, modules tend to be built to sturdier specifications, which make the resulting buildings better able to survive the worst that nature can throw at them.
A recent industry analysis found that developers see the most promise for the modular technique with healthcare facilities, hotels/motels, multifamily residences, schools and colleges, and low-rise offices.
3D Printing Construction
Before dismissing the idea of a “concrete house,” check out this one by a builder in New York. The company’s robotic construction system built 40% of the structure – the windows and walls – before finish workers came in to take care of the rest. The final cost of the house was approximately 20% less than a comparable, traditionally built home.
The technical term for 3-D printing is “additive manufacturing”. Framing a 2,000 square foot house using this technology can take as little as three days. 3-D builders are moving beyond the use of normal concrete to reinforced composites that can further reduce the price and make the homes even more secure from fire, pests, water damage, and mold.
The overall cost reduction of 10-50%, faster construction speed, and increased durability makes 3-D printed homes very attractive as affordable starter homes.
Even greater efficiencies are possible when the printing is combined with modular construction. This planned community in California will have 3-D printed homes that are built in a fabrication facility and then shipped to their new neighborhood.
Printed homes can be designed and constructed in all styles, from traditional to downright space age, as with these futuristic-looking styles.
From an environmental perspective, additive manufacture of homes is a win as well, since the process doesn’t produce any scrap.
3-D homes could be ideal in remote, impoverished locations around the world. If the truck and supplies can be brought in, there’s little need for too many more construction
specialists, especially if the designs are quite simple.
Robotic Bricklaying Construction
What would be more futuristic than a competition between a robotic arm that’s printing a wall vs. a robotic arm that’s building a brick wall? The concepts are similar – the layer-by-layer construction of the interior and exterior framing guided by pre-programmed design plans.
Today’s truck-based, robotic arms can load, cut, route, and place bricks, framing a house in as little as two days. Human bricklayers lay 300-500 pieces per day on average. In contrast, the leading robotics alternatives can place 200 much larger bricks per hour – and that’s expected to increase to 1,000 in future models. These robots also apply a special mortar or adhesive that dries faster than standard mortar.
Just like the other construction technology solutions, robotic bricklaying is evolving and making tremendous strides in improved speed, safety, and quality. The benefits and economies related to this approach to bricklaying are even greater when the technique is applied to multi-story structures.
The Future of Housing
Residential and commercial construction in the U.S. is a $1.3 trillion industry. Hundreds of thousands of construction workers were laid off during COVID and the Census Bureau estimates that 60% of them won’t return, in spite of the expected resurgence of the industry in 2021.
In the U.S., state and local budgets have been squeezed thanks to COVID economic impacts, so less funding is available to subsidize affordable housing projects. And with the hot housing market, more and more people are being priced out of starter homes.
Modular assembled, 3D printed, and robot built homes can bring down housing costs and help address both of those pressing societal issues as we move into the future, leaving plenty of room and demand for all three of these technologies.