By Richard Lyall
Construction industry must embrace technology and digital toolsCanadian Contractor Technology
Change is the only constant in life. Those are the simple, yet prophetic words of wisdom from sage Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus, a pioneering thinker who lived around 500 BC.
The pre-Socratic intellectual obviously wasn’t referring to our present-day construction industry, but the saying could certainly apply today in light of the technology being rolled out.
The Canadian construction industry is presently living in a golden era of change – a time of accelerated technological progress. It is critical that we embrace new digital tools, technical aids, artificial intelligence, digital twinning, and virtual reality software, as other industries have done.
New technologies won’t suddenly solve all of our immediate problems, but they could play a pivotal role in addressing the housing supply and affordability crisis.
All the technology we need – building information modelling (BIM), geographic information system (GIS) mapping, augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI), along with tools like drones – are literally at our fingertips and we must began adopting them.
Countries around the world are integrating innovative BIM-based processes, but Canada is the only G7 country without a BIM mandate. Instead, the BIM momentum is being driven by the design community. If we are left behind, this will result in a drag on our productivity.
Collecting quality data is another important piece of the puzzle, as it allows for better forecasting, decision-making and subsequent market agility. Reliable data and rational information allow developers to know whether changes can be made to a project for the better.
But disturbingly the construction industry is lagging other industries in its adoption and attitude towards bringing new digital technology and tools onto worksites.
A survey of 275 companies by KPMG found that while Canadian property developers are keen on new digital construction technology, known as con-tech, many are not making it an investment priority.
Nine in 10 construction companies say that digital technology can help make their labour force more effective, but the survey noted relatively few are actually trying the advancements. While 80 per cent of firms are excited about the possibilities of con-tech and believe that technology will make them more competitive, only 46 per cent indicated they plan to spend more than 11 per cent of their corporate operating budgets on technology and digital transformation in the near future.
Much of the new technology being used in Canada today is for designing projects, often in 3D, but extending it for such things as computer-aided fabrication of materials, is not happening widely.
There are reasons for the slow uptake.
Technology changes so fast that the industry must play a constant game of catch-up. The price tag is also a factor. And it can be costly for small- and medium-sized contractors to invest in digitization.
Some technology is now making its way onto worksites.
Exoskeletons that fit onto workers’ shoulders, for example, are now making an appearance amongst masonry trades to helpworkers lift heavy loads and do overhead work.
3D printing has made its debut. Habitat for Humanity Windsor-Essex, with the help of the University of Windsor, built Canada’s first 3D-printed home. The technology can be used to lay concrete.
Drones, meanwhile, are starting to be used for surveying and assessing repairs needed to masonry work atop tall structures and buildings.
Boston Dynamics developed a product called Spot, a robotic dog that can be used on construction sites. It carries high-tech cameras or laser scanners that can capture data and report back to a user. The techno-pooch was deployed by PCL in 2021 at a 47-storey tower built along Front Street West in Toronto.
AI is being used but not nearly enough. It is a tool that can reduce building times and material waste, especially for modular construction. It can also improve communication among team members, forecast deliveries, anticipate transportation problems, optimize how prefabricated components are loaded on trucks, and determine the number of workers and types of equipment needed on site.
Digital twinning, whereby a virtual replica is made of a structure, is another tool that is starting to be used. The futuristic technology was recently used to solve construction issues on a Canada Post processing centre in Toronto. Digital twins can help developers, architects and engineers figure out better ways to build a structure and test changes on the fly that can speed up and improve construction.
A $1.32-million, five-year pilot is now under way in Simcoe County that will explore how digital twinning technology can help with visualizing land and building investments, predicting affordable housing needs, developing sustainable cities, and aiding in municipal operations.
RESCON and other groups, meantime, are pushing for digitization and streamlining of the development approvals process. Reports have indicated that lengthy processing times for development applications have added up to $50,000 to the price of condo apartments since 2020.
I am hopeful that the adoption of technology and digital tools will pick up steam in the construction industry. The sooner the better. Construction is too important an industry to be left behind.
Richard Lyall is president of the Residential Construction Council of Ontario (RESCON). He has represented the building industry in Ontario since 1991. Contact him at email@example.com.