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High carbon emissions, low productivity and increased costs in the construction industry could be addressed with greater understanding and adoption of cutting-edge 'Construction 4.0' technologies

Construction 4.0 technologies key to improving sustainability of sector

Technologies forming part of the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ can improve the economic and environmental sustainability of an industry that contributes around 11% of all global carbon emissions, a new study shows.

Researchers including from the University of Exeter Business School examined how these Construction 4.0 technologies, including the Internet of Things (IoT), blockchain, drones, AI and self-healing materials, could impact on the sustainability of the construction industry.

By creating the first ever Construction 4.0 framework and testing it in a real-world setting, the researchers concluded that industry concerns such as high carbon emissions, low productivity and increased costs could be addressed with greater understanding and widespread adoption of these cutting-edge technologies.

The researchers expect their framework will help policy-makers develop interventions and support mechanisms to increase the deployment of Construction 4.0 technology while addressing any negative impacts.

It was tested through a case study of the construction industry in the United Arab Emirates, a country enjoying an unprecedented 9% growth in construction per annum, and where 75% of all solid waste comes from construction.

Informed by all available academic research on Construction 4.0 over the past 10 years, the authors’ framework identified which technologies are in use, categorising them under the headings of ‘digitalisation’, ‘automation and advanced manufacturing’, ‘integration and collaboration’, and ‘intelligent environment’.

Through interviews with senior industry professionals, academics and government officials and a survey sent to 1,000 industry professionals they established that the use of Construction 4.0 technologies is likely to increase by around 20% in all categories in the next five years.

The study highlighted several technologies as likely leaders in the transformation of construction over the next five years.

The Internet of Things (IoT), used to keep track of materials and equipment, as well as in smart sensors that can continuously monitor dust, hazardous fumes, noise, vibrations and motion detection, is likely to become more widespread as construction moves towards digitalisation.

‘Automation and advanced manufacturing’ technologies such as robotic technology, drones and 3D printing will also become a mainstay of the industry, as well as ‘integration and collaboration’ technologies such as the 3D modelling system BIM (building information modelling) and ‘intelligent environment’ technologies such as machine learning, artificial intelligence and smart materials.

Construction 4.0 was found to have a mainly positive impact on the environment, with real-time data through IoT and analytics cited as key to gathering accurate information on material usage and waste.

The study also highlighted new 3D modelling software as a way of reducing paperwork, the role of VR and AR in reducing carbon emissions, and a reduction of waste through a move towards prefabricating building components off site.

These environmental benefits were also found to translate into greater economic sustainability, with savings in energy, water, materials and human resources reducing the cost of construction projects and operational costs of buildings.

One of the main benefits of Industry 4.0 technology was found to be the potential reduction in costs, including manual labour, inspection and supervision and savings from the automation of routine administrative tasks.

However, respondents were wary about the amount of computational power required for technologies such as machine learning and AI algorithms, as well as the electronic waste generated at construction sites, and there was a more mixed reception for Construction 4.0 technology when talking about the social implications, with the likelihood of improvements to health and safety balanced by warnings of job losses.

Nazrul Islam, Associate Professor of Innovation/Entrepreneurship at the University of Exeter Business School, said: “This research demonstrates that Construction 4.0 has enormous potential to transform the sector and address some of its most pressing environmental and socioeconomic problems.

“Our comprehensive Construction 4.0 sustainability framework has huge potential to be adapted and applied to other countries, with several trends, conflicts, approaches, methods and gaps identified, all of which help to understand better and improve the adoption of Construction 4.0 technologies and guide future research.”

Construction Industry 4.0 and Sustainability: An Enabling Framework’ is published in IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management.

Date: 3 February 2022

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