David Johnson, Pre-Construction Director at Volumetric Building Companies, looks at artificial intelligence and why the construction sector should be embracing this new technology.

The construction industry has been a vital driver of economic growth and development throughout history, shaping

the cities and infrastructure that define our modern world. However, despite its significance, the construction sector has inherent issues with too many buildings still delivered late, over budget and to sub-standard quality.

Digital technology has already transformed the way we design buildings. The use of BIM and digital twinning has added significant value to the process of design, providing solutions to better manage supply chain integration and avoid potential issues post-design in how a building comes together.

The advent of artificial intelligence (AI) could potentially revolutionise the built environment, empowering it with enhanced capabilities, precision, and optimisation.

Transforming Construction

The construction sector has broadly welcomed artificial intelligence and the benefits it can bring. As a global modular manufacturing business, we have the opportunity to embrace this new technology to create even greater efficiencies in our processes and we firmly believe it will further enhance the quality and reliability of our modular building solutions.

There is a global housing crisis, and particularly in the UK, the lack of productivity in construction is a huge issue. Productivity is going down but the cost per square metre is going up.

If by integrating AI we can begin to address the issues and make productivity improvements, then we really have to embrace it.


Opportunities for AI in Construction

Technology and people concept man use AI to help work, AI Learning and Artificial Intelligence Concept. Business, modern technology, internet and networking concept. AI technology in everyday life.

We are evaluating AI on a number of fronts and looking at how we can integrate it into our processes and modular solutions.  We certainly envisage using it more in the future.

As with all automation and the associated integrations, we need to assess the potential benefits, such as cost, accuracy and time savings against any potential security or professional liability implications to determine the most effective way forward.

There are opportunities for AI at every stage of the construction process – from planning, regulations, compliance and documentation to the automation of manufacturing, transport and construction. And there are applications post-completion, such as building occupancy and energy performance monitoring and predictive maintenance. We also see opportunities in training, health and safety management, market research and marketing.

The construction sector historically has been slower to adapt to technological innovation than other sectors. However, it is important to analyse and determine both the positive benefits and any potential negative implications that AI can have on the value stream and move forward with the opportunities for improvement.


Addressing the Construction Skills Gap

The increasing shortfall in skilled labour in construction is alarming. There is an ageing workforce globally and yet the need for new housing continues to rise. It is predicted that the UK construction sector alone will need an extra 950,000 workers by 2030 (source: Make UK Modular 2023). This means housebuilding could decline even further.

Housebuilding has already stalled despite rocketing demand. In the 1970s, the UK was building more than 300,000 homes a year, but in the 2010s this had fallen to an average of just 165,000. The current Government made a manifesto pledge to oversee the construction of 300,000 new homes by the mid-2020s – but looks certain to miss that target.

If embracing AI gives us the opportunity to close these gaps, then the construction industry should be looking very seriously at how it can integrate AI-related solutions wherever possible.


AI and Modular Construction

AI certainly has a role to play in helping VBC to further increase quality, precision and the methodisation for installation. It can also enhance training in how the different components and interfaces for modular come together both in the factory and on site.

This technology can also be very helpful in data collection which can then be used for virtual reality training to increase productivity on site.

Pre-construction is another area where AI can enhance what we do. It is now possible to use AI, enter parameters such as site size and tenure mix, and configure a building solution almost instantly using VBC’s pre-designed components.

The construction industry as a whole is too fragmented. At VBC, we industrialise construction using a kit of parts and that works very well with AI.

While digital solutions have historically been developed to maximise land use for developers, they have been relatively simple algorithm-based applications. AI brings the possibility of integrated machine learning and risk analysis to truly optimise solutions that consider many aspects that are typically only resolved at a much later stage in the design process. It also automates continuous improvement to ensure solutions evolve and improve over time.

We are very much a data-driven business and that data informs all our decisions, starting with building design. AI will allow us to use that data more precisely and time efficiently. We are also committed to collecting meaningful data to inform our future decision making.


Applications for AI in Wider Construction

AI has the potential to revolutionise the estimating process and allow a building to be priced at concept design stage, considering huge amounts of data to help manage potential price fluctuation and cost risk. VBC can already do this to an extent but in order to speed up the notoriously slow project gestation periods in the UK, the wider industry should also embrace these technologies.

We think AI will help address skills shortages by devaluing higher education – because the cost of degrees simply isn’t providing a viable return on investment. That will mean more talent is attracted into construction trades.

And there will be a shift in the type of jobs in construction, which will open the door to more women, people with disabilities and a new generation of tech-savvy construction workers.

The potential for AI is clearly very promising. The transformational benefits seem to outweigh challenges like data privacy, integration and workforce reskilling which do have to be addressed.

There is certainly an excellent fit with offsite manufacturing which as a sector is more technology-driven than traditional construction. We already widely use digitisation, robotics, VR and platform design to power our business. AI will take that technology to the next level to the benefit of our customers and the wider community in which we live and work.

Find out more and join BOS at UK Construction Week for an exciting seminar session. https://www.ukconstructionweek.com/birmingham-2023-seminar-programme

Volumetric Building Companies Website

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