Why civil engineering contractors need to embrace more technology

Civil Engineering

The civil engineering industry faces intersecting global challenges, including high inflation, worker availability, the supply chain crisis, and a volatile investment climate. However, as the post-covid-19 recovery picks up pace, civil engineering and construction companies that embrace innovative technologies should also find extraordinary growth opportunities. 

In the United States, the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), signed in November 2021, is the largest public investment in American infrastructure in at least a generation. The IIJA authorizes $1.2 trillion USD in total spending to upgrade the nation’s electrical grid, expand access to clean water, rebuild America’s bridges and roads, improve access to public transportation, and upgrade the country’s ports and airports. The European Union also plans to invest billions of euros in green and digital infrastructure improvements through 2027, via the recently approved Global Gateway and NextGenerationEU initiatives.

Companies around the world have an opportunity to bring needed expertise and skills to the anticipated boom of both public and private investment in infrastructure. Civil engineering firms that think strategically about how to leverage the power of technology will be the most likely to thrive in the new normal. 

Advancements in civil engineering and technology

Clayton M. Christensen, a Professor at the Harvard Business School, developed the theory of disruptive innovation in the 1990s. He argued that disruptive innovations either create new markets or enable new entrants to transform existing industries and displace slow-moving incumbent firms. Disruption is a result of innovation and, in turn, creates new openings for nimble market players. 

Technological advances are a major disruptive force in any sector. Uber, for example, used a digital networking platform/app to disrupt monopolized taxi services in cities around the world. In the education sector, Udacity and other online course providers continue to disrupt the university’s gatekeeping role in granting degrees and professional certifications. Healthcare, retail, journalism, and manufacturing have all seen 20th century legacy firms die out in favor of companies more suited to a hyper-digital age.

In the early 1960s, large firms such as General Electric and IBM started using computer-aided design (CAD) systems to speed-up and streamline the civil engineering and design workflow for large projects in critical sectors such as aerospace. By the late 1980s, the availability of software such as AutoCAD and ArchiCAD for home computers began to disrupt the industry, as well as adjacent areas such as interior design. 

Today, a recent analysis by Market Research Future estimates that the civil engineering market will have a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.7 percent from 2022 – 2030 and will reach a valuation of $12.05 trillion USD. Innovations such as 3-D printing, advanced robotics, and green materials are propelling this growth. Contractors can meet client demand for sustainable and affordable housing, transportation, and urban environments by embracing rapid innovation and technological investment.

Information technology in civil engineering

Advances in information and digital technologies will reconfigure civil engineering from the training/education stage through delivery of the final output. For example, the use of drones is rapidly escalating as firms need precise maps of geographical sites and quick analysis of topographical information. Data visualization tools such as Building Information Modeling (BMI) gather real-time information from on-site cameras, and even sensors embedded within building materials, to allow the civil engineer to track the progress of a project across its lifecycle. 

Cloud computing means that individuals and firms no longer need to invest in physical infrastructure to house and manage data. Computing services ranging from analytics to storage to networking can be delivered by the vendor to the client over the Internet (the “cloud”), while pay-as-you-go pricing enables firms to find flexible and bespoke options that maximize efficiency and vendor spend. 

3D printing, also known as additive printing, allows anyone with access to software and the right printer to make safe and durable materials and products from a digital prototype. The ability to make small batches of products allows creativity to flourish while bringing down the cost of mistakes and design flaws. It also allows companies to untether themselves from big, expensive manufacturing warehouses. For example, in the maritime industry, the move towards autonomous shipping is being enabled, in part, by the ability for a small human crew to rapidly board the ship and prototype, print, and repair malfunctioning parts. 

In the 21st century, civil engineering, like the rest of society, has conclusively entered the era of “big data.” The amount of digital information collected each minute by social media, sensors, computers, and mobile phones rapidly overwhelms human comprehension. Yet in this information age, gleaning insights from this daily tsunami of data is essential for reasons ranging from public safety to competitive advantage. 

Machine learning and predictive analytics are the answer. Essentially, machine learning is the process, enabled by artificial intelligence, via which an algorithm begins to mine data iteratively and improve its predictions without additional human intervention. To use a simple example, machine learning is one reason that your Amazon account makes clever personalized recommendations for products to buy or books to read, or Spotify seems to know what song you might like to hear next. Machine learning is also the enabling technology for the new era of connected construction.

Importance of technology in the construction industry

Construction is the largest industry in the world, equivalent to approximately 13% of global GDP. Yet the industry consistently underperforms due to low productivity, risk aversion, and lagging uptake of digital technologies. Profitability hovers around a 5% EBIT margin.

Investments in information technology and digitization promise to realize significant gains in construction productivity, profitability, and customer satisfaction. These various technologies and approaches unite under the emerging paradigm of connected construction.

Autodesk University defines connected construction, at its core, as “open communication between technology to make sure that project teams have the right information at the right time, leading to better project outcomes.” Connected construction integrates a suite of disruptive technological tools such as augmented reality/virtual reality (AR/VR), computer vision, machine learning, and predictive analytics to transform civil engineering and the building industry.

In its report Winning with Connected Construction, Deloitte concludes that “connected construction is a solution that has the potential to help improve project planning and execution efficiencies as well as margins.” Via the skillful use of advanced technology, connected construction actually improves the human aspects of building and engineering by improving safety, maximizing efficiencies, cutting waste, and encouraging bespoke creative solutions rather than one-size-fits all design.

Connected construction will unlock significant new value streams and generate additional opportunities for innovation in an era of smart cities, green materials, and massive public and private investment in cities and infrastructure. Connected construction will transform the civil engineering and construction workflow by enabling information access and data sharing across all workers and organizations involved in a project.