There are some absolutely nutty things going on in the construction industry these days. Did you know they built a 57-story skyscraper in China in just 19 days? Or that robots are building a 3D printed bridge all by themselves?
You may still do things the old-fashioned way—you know, having a worker put a brick on top of another brick. That’s worked just fine for years, and you’ve got a long line of happy customers to prove it.
But it doesn’t hurt to have an eye toward the future. Maybe 95% of these innovations are fads or something that doesn’t have any practical value for you, but every now and then you stumble upon a tech that can really change how you do things for the better.
So with an open mind, consider these four amazing tech innovations that have emerged in the last few years—and how they might impact your business in the not-so-distant future.
1. Self-healing concrete
University of Rhode Island graduate student Michelle Pelletier created self-healing concrete in 2010, via URI
Concrete is one incredible substance that we can thank for leaving us 2,000-year-old incredible structures from the Roman Empire, and for being an essential substance in the construction of whole cities today. But it’s got one irritating and often expensive problem: it crumbles over time, damaged by all sorts of external forces.
What if there was a way for concrete to heal itself, without any need to patch it up or destroy it and start from scratch? In 2010, a graduate student at the University of Rhode Island named Michelle Pelletier discovered a way to embed a “microencapsulated sodium silicate healing agent” directly into the concrete.
When tiny stress cracks begin to form, the capsules rupture and fill the adjacent areas with the healing agent. This sodium silicate reacts with calcium hydroxide, which is present in concrete, to form a byproduct that fills in the cracks and pores.
“Smart materials usually have an environmental trigger that causes the healing to occur,” Pelletier said in a statement. “What’s special about our material is that it can have a localized and targeted release of the healing agent only in the areas that really need it.”
Another self-healing method scientists have explored is to use bacteria. While mixing concrete, the bacillus bacteria is added. The bacteria is put inside tiny capsules that open when cracks form and water enters them. By munching on calcium lactate that is also added to the mixture, the bacteria produces limestone that fills in the cracks.
Such self-healing concrete innovations are still in the development phase, so they aren’t really ready for regular use yet. About a year and a half ago, there was a major trial in the UK to further test such concrete, so we are getting closer and closer to practicality.
2. Robot swarm construction
A Harvard University research group’s swarm of robots can build walls on their own, via Self-Organizing Systems Research Group
We all know the incredible structures that tiny creatures like ants, termites, and bees can build when they all work together. What if we could do that with tiny robots?
A group of researchers at Harvard recently showed how robots inspired by termites could build complicated structures without much human involvement.
Termites are fascinating because they don’t take orders from a central location, they simply operate according to their genetically programmed behavioral rules.
So Harvard’s Self-Organizing Systems Research Group has been working on a swarm of small, four-wheeled robots that can build walls by lifting each brick, climbing the wall, and then laying it in an open spot. They have sensors that can detect the other working robots, and they have simple rules to keep out of each other’s way, but they are not controlled by any central command.
These swarming robots have tremendous implications in construction. They could be sent to build an emergency levee in flooding conditions, for example, or to build underwater gas pipelines with swimming swarms.
3. 3D printed structures
A cross-section of the proposed Mars Ice House, which would be 3D printed by robots, via Mars Ice House
The concept of robots building stuff doesn’t have to be limited to tiny robots. The technology could be used for constructing much bigger objects using larger robots.
We all know about 3D printing parts in various industries, but can you imagine 3D printing an entire structure?
Such technology has tremendous potential applications, including building a space station on Mars. Or, for the typical construction manager, it could just make your job a lot easier by putting a wall up overnight while your crew sleeps.
One designer is using robots to make 3D printing possible on a much larger scale by starting with a simple bridge, with plans to increase in size and complexity in future projects.
“By printing with robots, you are not bound to limitations in size of what usually 3D printers have, so we can theoretically print endlessly big,” said Dutch designer Joris Laarman in a video for Autodesk.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently created a robot that can print a basic building structure in just 14 hours. And not a small one either: the building in this case was 50 feet wide and 12 feet high.
MIT calls the system the “Digital Construction Platform,” and the researchers programmed it to create a dome and spray a foam that is commonly used in buildings today. The whole system can be powered entirely by solar panels. The system would be incredibly beneficial in remote regions or in disaster relief areas where shelter is needed quickly.
Steven Keating, the co-author of the paper, says that this process is already practical.
“With this process, we can replace one of the key parts of making a building, right now,” he told CNN. “It could be integrated into a building site tomorrow.”
4. 5D Macro BIM
Dashboard of Destini Profiler
5D Macro BIM? What the heck is that? Well, it’s something that could help you do your job better right now.
BIM (building information modeling) is pretty cool on its own, and it’s been around quite a long time. But 5D BIM takes a big step beyond BIM by creating models that demonstrate how changes to materials, square footage, and other elements of the design will change not only the facility’s appearance, but also its cost and schedule, which are the fourth and fifth dimensions.
This real-time display is a virtual model that combines the visual design with the strategic part of the process, creating total transparency for your construction project. Every detail that a construction manager needs is laid out in one place.
This gives you, the construction manager, way more project predictability so you can immediately see its usefulness on a practical level. After all, if you could see that a proposed change would add 20% to the project’s cost and delay it by six months, it might change your mind before it’s too late.
And there are modeling programs available now that help you do this, like DESTINI Profiler or Vico. At the very least, it’s something worth exploring. Who knows? If you try it, it could totally change how you build in the future.
Is there a cool innovation out there you can’t get enough of?
You’ve seen a lot in the construction industry, and undoubtedly you’ve stumbled across a tech innovation that just blew your mind. It could be a high-tech piece of wizardry, or just something interesting you’ve never seen before. We’d love to hear about it in the comments below.
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