The construction industry (CI) has been reluctant to incorporate many innovative technologies into its daily practices, despite the radical changes demonstrated by other industries. It is vital to understand that numerous issues may arise in implementing certain types of technology; moreover, not all innovations will be equally applicable in the construction business. By analyzing case studies of various technologies, this paper aims to evaluate their importance in the CI and highlights some of the most valuable suggestions.
Offering new products and services allows businesses to compete for excellence. The construction industry is currently pressed to modernize and improve its efficiency (Bogue, 2017). Despite the global CI being valued at nearly $10 trillion a year, it suffers from a severe shortage of workers, weak use of new technology, and little or no productivity growth (Bogue, 2017). Moreover, most large construction projects are over budget; there is a poor use of materials and high accident rates (Bogue, 2017). The growing demand emphasizes the construction business’s timely, effective, and predictable performance (Gledson and Greenwood, 2017). Nevertheless, the CI is historically reported as the second-lowest sector to have adopted innovative technology (Perera et al., 2020). These factors reinforce that the industry could benefit greatly from more innovative approaches and techniques. Lastly, according to Alaloul et al. (2020), sustainable and innovative construction may aid in preserving what is left of the environment and reverse some of the impacts of prior industrial revolutions. Therefore, the construction industry must advance from both business and sustainability perspectives.
It is important to define the modern boundaries for what is considered technological innovation in the 21st century. Perera et al. (2020) tally four industrial-era revolutions: water and steam, electricity, digital, and the last one, which blurs the lines between physical, digital, and other modes of reality. The last industrial revolution, sometimes referred to as IR 4.0, emphasizes viable and sustainable construction, embracing the integration of cyber-physical environments (Alaloul et al., 2020; Perera et al., 2020). Some of the key IR 4.0 technologies in the CI can be subdivided into several categories. The first category is the “smart factory,” which includes cyber-physical embedded systems, internet of things, automation, modularization or prefabrication, additive manufacturing, product-lifecycle-management, robotics, and human-computer interaction (Alaloul et al., 2020). Cloud and cognitive computing are used for data storage and decision-making. Additionally, the internet network and cyber-physical systems allow the construction sites and design facilities’ automated machinery to be interconnected, operating and exchanging information without human presence, thus increasing efficiency (Alaloul et al., 2020). These technologies hold untapped potential for use in construction.
In addition to the ‘smart factory technologies, there are two other, less explored, categories. The second category, simulation and modeling, includes simulation tools, building information modeling (BIM), and augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) (Alaloul et al., 2020). Lastly, the digitization and visualization category includes cloud computing, big data, mobile computing, social media, and digitization (Alaloul et al., 2020). Alaloul et al. (2020) argue that the benefits of IR 4.0 technology are clear, as it improves product quality, shortens time to market, and improves performance. Overall, the implementation of innovative technology can enable more effective production.
Building Information Modelling in Construction Planning
The first case study will discuss the adoption of BIM technology within the construction planning practice. According to Sun et al. (2017), BIM technology is already changing the CI, with the market research showing that future building design and construction will rely on it increasingly. Currently, BIM is applied in many stages of the construction project lifecycle, creating significant benefits for the stakeholders and society (Sun et al., 2017; Chen et al., 2019). Gledson and Greenwood (2017) state that an organization’s top management typically makes decisions to implement BIM; moreover, they highlight that the lack of decisive managerial motions has slowed incorporation. Overall, Gledson and Greenwood (2017) found many functions and steps in the construction planning process to be more effective using BIM compared to current practices. For instance, using BIM to communicate the construction plan was relatively advantageous to other communication methods (Gledson and Greenwood, 2017). Overall, the wider application of this method seems advisable in the planning process.
There are, however, some barriers to the implementation of BIM technology. The major ones are BIM’s high complexity and the lack of observability, compatibility, and testability (Gledson and Greenwood, 2017). While complexity and observability remain important aspects of adopting any innovation, Gledson and Greenwood (2017) point at compatibility and testability as being more significant. Perera et al. (2020) state that while BIM technology was expected to provide a swift change for the CI in the last decade, its infiltration is yet to be seen. Overall, the CI may face some adjustment issues in adopting this technology, but it is nonetheless advisable.
Blockchain Technology in Construction Management
The second case study will discuss the adoption of distributed ledger technologies (DLT), also referred to as blockchain, specifically in construction management. Construction projects involve multiple stakeholders and organizations, and the process’s complexity leads to separation problems between professionals and organizations (Perera et al., 2020). Simultaneously, current construction management processes suffer from various problems related to trust, information sharing, and administration (Perera et al., 2020). However, blockchain technology allows for trust, immutability, accuracy, security, and transparency, which provides an opportunity to solve these problems (Perera et al., 2020). DLT is applicable across a wide range of construction management scenarios.
The case study for DLT’s usefulness is exhibited through inter-organizational collaboration. For instance, Perera et al. (2020) identify a need for construction drawings to be released at different stages and all stakeholders to be notified. Since the stakeholders may belong to different organizations, identifying the most recent drawings’ set, their releaser, whether it was included in the structural sketches may become a problem (Perera et al., 2020). Implementing a blockchain-enabled smart contract system can update the latest information and make it available to the relevant parties (Perera et al., 2020). Perera et al. (2020) argue that due to the exponentially increasing use of DLT, the investments attracted, and several start-ups contributing to IR 4.0, its potential in construction is considerable. It could lead the CI to a full-scale change in how construction materials are procured, complementing the current shift from onsite to offsite construction (Perera et al., 2020). Overall, blockchain technology can be successfully applied for management in the CI.
Robotics and Automated Systems in Construction Processes
With the growing use of automatization, the question of using robotic power and automated systems in CI arises. The current level of their adoption in the CI is very low (Davila Delgado et al., 2019). Many different classes exist or are in advanced stages of development for various uses in the industry (Bogue, 2017). While automated systems may be applied to traditional methods, they may also redefine and create new construction concepts, such as concrete printing robots (Bogue, 2017). Like bricklaying robots, some may not be fully adopted due to their high cost and complexity; however, others, particularly drones and 3D-printing robots, demonstrate clear economic and other advantages (Bogue, 2017). Their use reduces the need for labor and minimizes hazards to workers, speeds up processes, reduces waste, reduces construction time, and lowers costs (Bogue, 2017). While the industry has traditionally been slow to embrace innovation, it is safe to say that robotics and automated systems will inevitably play a vital and growing role in the future of construction (Bogue, 2017). This case study demonstrates that innovation may facilitate building processes atop planning and management.
The process of innovation implementation inevitably has to be governed. Dulaimi (2022) found that the readiness for innovation in construction firms was determined by the ability of senior management to provide tangible support. Dulaimi (2022) suggests helping skilled workers seek better ways of developing creative solutions by providing needed resources. Moreover, Ozorhon and Oral (2017) suggest that the innovation decision is governed mainly by project-related factors followed by the firm- and industry-related factors. Ozorhon and Oral (2017) further found project complexity, business innovation policy, and environmental sustainability to be the main drivers for innovation in construction. Project-oriented firms should manage innovation across organizational boundaries, within interdependent suppliers, customers, and regulatory bodies’ networks (Ozorhon and Oral, 2017). Therefore, executive leadership may positively influence the innovation climate and, as a result, deliver improved business performance. Starting at the project level seems to be the most efficient method, so project managers should aim to address the listed areas to drive innovation.
Addressing the gap between construction theory and practice is crucial for improvement. According to Lavikka et al. (2020), university research efforts have not been effective in developing lasting impacts on operations management in construction because of inadequate coordination between academia and industry. Davila Delgado et al. (2019) provide an example of a fruitful collaboration, saying that while robotics can benefit the CI, there is no sufficiently detailed cost-benefit research. Proposed research should include installation costs, facilities and equipment, maintenance, training, energy expense, health and safety considerations, economic effects, and financing mechanisms (Davila Delgado et al., 2019). Therefore, a solid industry-university relationship is required to facilitate information sharing and relevant research creation for the industry to use.
IR 4.0 Technology Incorporation
The case studies above provided some examples of implementing IR 4.0, but that is not enough. Alaloul et al. (2020) state that the integration of the most recent technological advances offered by the fourth industrial revolution is largely insufficient. While BIM, cloud computing, blockchain, and modularization have advanced significantly, others such as AR, VR, and mixed reality remain underdeveloped in the CI (Alaloul et al., 2020). At the same time, practices that have been implemented demonstrate a significant impact on advancing the construction businesses in the competition game (Alaloul et al., 2020). Hence, stakeholders should comprehensively investigate the implementation of other innovative aspects.
Economic and Political Factors
As with any industry, economic factors play a significant role in its function. When it comes to economic factors on the contractor side, the top priority should be to reduce the level of risk in projects (Davila Delgado et al., 2019). Therefore, the risks should be evaluated separately for each technology rather than lumping them all under the ‘innovation’ title. If a new digital technology does not reduce risk, it is not the right incentive to adopt (Davila Delgado et al., 2019). Introducing many new digital technologies may indeed increase risk, especially for common in the industry small and medium-sized companies, that may not have sufficient financial resilience (Davila Delgado et al., 2019). Hence, the stakeholders are advised to discern and critically evaluate each approach in terms of risks and benefits.
In addition to economic factors, the political and legal aspect plays a huge role. Governments, being the major players, have many tools at their disposal to encourage the adoption of new technologies in the industry. These tools have varying effectiveness and range from developing collaboration with academia and research institutes, economic incentives, additional contract provisions, and mandates (Davila Delgado et al., 2019). Therefore, ensuring governmental support for innovation is vital for successful implementation.
The construction industry should continue to improvise and adapt to the progressing global economy. The demand for quicker and more efficient processes is increasing – yet, the industry is lagging behind despite having various technical solutions available for testing. Some of the reasons for that may be the disconnect between academia and the industry, inefficient management, and economic and political obstacles. The construction companies are advised to consider a broad selection of modern innovations to gain a market advantage. The case studies of BIM, blockchain, robotics, and automated systems in construction planning, management, and execution, respectively, demonstrate these technologies’ wide range of applicability. In order to make the process as efficient as possible, the stakeholders can improve executive management, connect the academic and industry aspects of construction, and embrace the IR 4.0 technology while carefully considering its individual risks and benefits.
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