Can We Uberize the Construction Industry?

Having worked in one of world’s oldest industries, I learned early on that things do not change all that quickly in the construction sector. This is exemplified in the fact that the textbooks I studied 20 years ago are still taught in Civil Engineering schools worldwide today! The design practices have not changed that much - at least not as much as what we see in the other industries. More importantly, the adoption of new technologies in the construction sector is very slow.

In one word, the construction industry is ‘conservative’.

This is to some extent expected and is the result of how things work in this industry. The liabilities associated with the practice of designing and constructing structures are so high that it can make anyone from owners and engineers to contractors extremely cautious about making new decisions that carry with them any form of risk. That is why there are building codes and standard methods that shall be followed in the design, construction, and maintenance stages.

Where is the Gap?

There are many new technologies, test methods, materials, and practices that have been developed by researchers in academia and research centers. Such examples that we have seen in the past few years are that of self-healing concrete and 3D-printed homes. The issue lies in the fact that it takes so much time and effort to standardize these new methods. For example, it may take about 5 years to develop a new ASTM standard through several committee meetings, balloting, and cross-laboratory testing - and this is just the starting point. The adoption of a new standard in the building code (which is what Civil Engineers use to design a structure) may take up to as much as 10 years. Even when it is part of the building code, engineers will have a slow process of changing what they are used to doing and what they are comfortable with. For example, the building codes of Canada and the US allow the concrete maturity method to be used for real-time strength monitoring instead of breaking concrete cylinders. Despite all the time and money saving benefits of the maturity method however, most engineers still prefer to break samples.

This slow process was not so much of an issue when the technology growth was not as exponential as what we are experiencing in today’s world. If we begin standardizing a new construction technology today, we can hope that in 15 years it will be in the building code. However, with the current rate of technology advancement, by the time the technologies make their way into the building code, they will be deemed too old-fashioned to be utilized in the construction industry! In addition, the new generation of engineers are all raised with smart technologies around them. As such, they would not only demand but expect the implementation of latest innovations in the design and construction of future structures. From another point of view, as much as Professional Engineers are required to follow regulations in their practices, they are obligated to safeguard the public interest and address sustainability issues. If there is a new method of testing concrete more accurately, or a novel cement-based material that has less carbon footprint, we are ethically required to look into them and evaluate how they can make our structures safer and more durable.

Technologies Pushing the Limit

We all saw how Uber revolutionized the old-fashioned taxi industry. Our children will talk about the ‘taxi’ the same way they talk about ‘floppy disk’ today. The slow-to-change taxi companies paid the price of not being up-to-date with the realities of today’s world. It seems that we have no option but to embrace technology if we are to avoid falling into the same pot-hole. Some companies in the construction industry seem to be observant about this and are already making necessary changes to decommoditize concrete. GCP Applied Technologies, for example, offers an automation system called Verifi to ensure consistent quality of concrete delivered to the jobsite. PlanGrid and Procore have software solutions and mobile apps that keep everyone in a project synchronized with the up-to-date blueprints as well as other construction details. CarbonCure offers a system to use the recycled carbon dioxide in the production of greener concrete at readymix and precast plants. These are all examples of advanced technologies that are already utilized in the market.

It appears that the fastest and most feasible way to bring new methods to the construction industry is to make sure they are within the scope and requirements the current regulations and guidelines and then push the limits gradually. Unless we totally change the way things are done in this sector, it is not easy if not impossible to make a completely new test method or material widely adopted by civil engineers.

At Giatec, we have developed Smart Concrete, an IoT-based technology that leverages the readymix producer data for contractors and construction companies who want to obtain real-time strength results on their jobsite.

Immediate access to this information helps contractors move faster to the next stages in their process, thus saving significant time and money in their projects. This novel solution combines wireless concrete sensors with mobile apps and cloud. In less than a year since it was launched, Smart Concrete has been implemented by readymix concrete producers including Lafarge Canada, MMC Materials, Stoneway Concrete, Tomlinson Group, Hilltop, Angelle Materials, and Concrete Materials. Here is why this technology has experienced a relatively fast adoption:

  1. We followed the standard method of ASTM C1074 for concrete maturity which is also specified in the building codes of Canada and the US.
  2. We designed a wireless rugged sensor that can be easily installed on the construction jobsite.
  3. We designed an intuitive mobile app to connect to sensor and analyze the data on iOS and Android platforms.
  4. We eliminated the hassle of maturity calibration for contractors by partnering with readymix producers and leveraging their data.
  5. We made it very simple to generate full reports and cut the post-processing time.
  6. And finally, all the results are automatically shared through the cloud between the project collaborators.

If novel technologies are designed to solve a real pain using the simplest possible approaches, customers will drive the adoption and subsequently, regulatory bodies will have no choice but to follow.

Aali R. Alizadeh
CEO at Giatec | IoT Solutions for Construction Industry | Smart Concrete™