Contech: Improving the building site

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As Dubai wrapped up the Middle East’s largest construction exhibition - The Big 5 - last week, it became clear that new technologies are transforming the region’s construction sector, introducing new working practices that will boost productivity, improve safety and re-skill the low-paid labour force.

Construction is among the most important non-oil sectors in the Gulf, yet unlike more dynamic major industries such as retail and finance, the region’s builders have been slow to innovate. Construction is among the least digitised industries globally, averaging productivity gains of just one per cent annually over the past 20 years.

That is slowly changing, however, with venture capitalists (VC) investing a record $1.1 billion in construction technology (contech) firms in the first half of 2018, according to a report by real estate consultants JLL that describes construction as an industry plagued by cost fluctuations and labour shortage issues. This is creating “what many venture capitalists view as a prime opportunity for disruption”, JLL wrote.

Despite having one of the biggest construction industries relative to the size of the rest of the economy, the Gulf has yet to attract significant research and development (R&D) investment into solutions to improve on-site performance.

Smart Helmets

Yet, there are some regional startups that are developing applications that could have global significance, and one such company is Dubai-based WakeCap Technologies, which was co-founded by Saudi engineer Hassan Albalawi. The company won The Big 5’s startup city competition, taking home a $25,000 cheque.

Its proprietary technology enables workers, tools and equipment to be connected via a mesh network that takes about an hour to install on-site and does not rely on WiFi or 4G. Workers’ helmets and other equipment include a sensor that can send and receive data, enabling contractors to automatically clock attendance records as well movements on-site.

“It’s not just entry points – we connect the entire site, so we can go to the zone level and get check-in and check-out times so firms can know exactly how much time each worker spends in a particular zone,” says Ishita Kochhar, cofounder and chief operating office at WakeCap Technologies. “We’re not invading privacy. We’re just trying to improve safety and productivity. Once you install this solution, this process is automated and instead of employing 20 foremen for every 100 workers you’ll only need maybe seven to 10.”

She estimates that 90 per cent of on-site accidents are due to unauthorised access.

“Our technology will prevent that,” says Kochhar.

The technology also promises to improve how site evacuations are conducted. Currently, sirens will sound across a site and once evacuated, the contractor will complete a manual headcount of its workers.

Instead, with WakeCap’s helmets, an alert will be issued which the worker must acknowledge and then leave the site immediately. The system will show the contractor how many workers entered the site and how many remain after evacuation.

“The market is ripe for this kind of technology – all contractors are looking for ways to improve productivity. They work at very lean margins so need to look at external technologies or invest in R&D themselves to find new solutions,” said Kochhar.

According to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 64 per cent of construction sector fatalities are due to four causes - falls, electrocutions, workers being struck by objects, and workers getting caught in machinery.

Should a worker fall onsite, WakeCap’s in-helmet sensor will trigger an alarm to alert the safety staff, specifying the location of the fall. The same process will occur should a worker’s helmet get hit by a falling object. Additionally, WakeCap provides workers with a panic button to use in case of an emergency.

The company’s investors include Consolidated Construction Contractors (CCC) and HAX, the world’s largest hardware start-up accelerator, Graphene Ventures and Inspire Ventures, plus two angel investors, which combined have invested $700,000.

CCC and WakeCap are currently running a pilot scheme involving 400 workers in Dubai’s under-construction Opera Grand Tower. The product should be market ready by the first quarter of 2019.

“Since we invested in WakeCap in May, the company has made leaps forward in terms of its technology – new hardware, longer battery life, bigger range, improved mesh network,” said Aref Boualwan, manager of management information System and business process re-engineering at CCC. “It’s improving every day but hasn’t yet reached full maturity yet. We’re on the right path – any startup wouldn’t be a startup if they had already reached maturity.”

3D Printing

Dubai made global headlines when it unveiled the world’s first 3D printed building in 2016, but using additive manufacturing – the more accurate term for 3D printing – for large-scale construction remains in its early stages.

In particular, 3D printed concrete is yet to be technically or financially viable, although that has not stopped some construction companies including CCC from hiring Dubai-based Immensa Technology Labs to explore the concept. 

“We’re probably a couple of years away commercialisation of concrete 3D printers,” said Immensa CEO Fahmi Al-Shawwa. “The value that 3D printing can bring to the construction sector is massive – it could be worth billions of dollars.”

Making concrete via 3D printing requires a special quick-drying cement mix that includes components not recognised in standard building regulations.

“For it to really catch on, the first step is for the regulatory process to change. If I want to 3D print a building, there’s no one to sign off on it as of yet,” said Al-Shawwa.

There are many other 3D print applications for construction aside from concrete such as to make fixtures, fittings and tools.

“Interiors also offer massive potential,” said Al-Shawwa. “Over the next two to three years we’ll see this being rapidly adopted by construction and fitout companies.”

Immensa, which employs 14 engineers, has filed a patent to 3D print concrete moulds.

“We’ve found a way to make it very cost-effective for our region – it takes a fraction of the time of traditional moulds and is much more environmentally friendly,” said Al-Shawwa. “We’re not using tonnes of wood or plastic. It reduces your carbon footprint, reduces the amount of waste material and substantially reduces the time and labour required.”

Robotics

Dr Jorge Dias, a professor at the Centre of Autonomous Robotic Systems at Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa University, is investigating how robotics can improve the construction industry.

“People often see robotics as a threat – taking jobs from humans, but I see it as an opportunity to make these jobs different, more rewarding,” said Dias. “Robotics can empower the worker to physically support their efforts while doing manual labour.”

Robots can work 24/7 with a precision and accuracy that humans cannot match, increasing construction quality and shortening build times.

“The car industry before automation was a very dirty place. Nowadays, factories are pristine. Less materials are wasted to perform the same tasks. We’ll see the same in construction,” said Dias. “Eventually, construction won’t need so many on-site workers. The sector will become more agile. Workers will be retrained to use the robotic machines.”

By 2025, robots will be used for all logistics supporting the construction sector.

“Fewer resources will be lost. It’ll be easier to lift and transport materials – there will be less physical effort for workers,” added Dias. “Human beings will have tools to do the same jobs as before but less strenuously.”

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