New Technology and the Future of AEC: What it Means for Students, Educators, and Practitioners
As with any industry, technology is changing the future of architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) as we know it. We are at the beginning of a Fourth Industrial Revolution, an era when advancements like the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, robotics, and virtual reality are dramatically changing how we live and work. As with previous industrial revolutions, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is also disruptive. We have to change how we learn and perform our work.
While innovation is driving the need for new and different skills, many traditional tasks are being replaced entirely. Primary and secondary students should be introduced to these innovations early, and college students must be prepared to meet the future demands of a changing industry.
Below I consider how present and future innovations are posing new demands for the next generation of AEC professionals. I explore four key areas where technology is rapidly changing our day-to-day tasks, as well as the implications for educators.
Many industries now leverage geographic information systems (GIS) and other geospatial technologies for a wide variety of applications, from mapping and real-time data gathering to logistics and data visualization. Drawing from many potential capabilities, geospatial technologies are making projects more efficient, more cost-effective, and safer.
For example, pavement condition surveys, used for highway asset management, can be very challenging on high-speed roads and on active runways. Vehicles can now be outfitted with the Global Positioning System (GPS) and cameras to survey the pavement and determine pavement conditions using vehicles that are compatible with the speed of traffic. These surveys support early intervention and efficient maintenance to extend the performance life of roads.
Geospatial tools are also changing surveying and mapping for the better. Traditional surveying requires a crew of 3 to 4 surveyors. Now, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) can supplement surveying crews to help verify and convert data using an automated software. UAVs can reach dangerous or hard-to-access locations like runways and railroad tunnels, supporting safety, efficiency, and cost savings. Georeferenced data points can be used to build 3D models and more.
Since geospatial skills are touching so many areas of the AEC industry, they are valuable skills for recent graduates competing for the best jobs. Depending on their fields, students may need to know how to pilot drones, read and interpret data, georeference data points, use complex software, and more. Academic programs in all AEC fields should be reviewing and, if necessary, revising their curricula to include study in geospatial technologies.
3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is used to make three-dimensional solid objects from a digital file, usually with the material added layer by layer. Among many applications, 3D printing helps a project team visualize structures and systems in layers; using time lapse, they can see how a building will be assembled floor by floor. Because owners can visualize the construction process, the team can get important feedback from stakeholders earlier in the process.
3D printing also helps contractors and tradespeople, such as steel fabricators, understand how building elements are connected, such as the major piping systems for a water treatment plant. This supports construction site logistics planning, and detailed constructability reviews can be ready to go before a project goes out for bid.
Capabilities in 3D printing are also leading to more prefabrication; we can print steel, metal, and concrete structures and pieces. Perhaps we are only a decade or two away from printing a whole building! In all, 3D printing is changing the way things are made. A recent study found that integrating 3D printers into classroom curricula had a positive effect on creativity, design, and critical thinking skills development and increased student engagement. There are multiple benefits to introducing this technology to students early, as well as ensuring that college students know how to operate 3D software, prototyping, modeling, and machinery effectively when they graduate.
Virtual/augmented reality and visual innovations
Architects are now using virtual reality to “walk” users through a building before it is built. Transportation engineers use virtual reality to simulate driving experiences on roadways. Tools adapted from video-game technology can create lifelike, interactive experiences that help project stakeholders make decisions faster. And connecting building information modeling (BIM) to virtual reality and augmented reality tools may be the next step in gaining the biggest benefits from going beyond 3D modeling.
Virtual and augmented reality capabilities are changing our industry, as are valuable and impressive new visual capabilities, even in a “simple” tool like construction hard hats. Before the advent of virtual reality, traditional construction inspections required engineers to visit the field if there was an issue during construction. Today, hard hat cameras (featuring 360-degree navigation, HD video recording, photography, and 3D mapping) can stream video to remote team members so they can provide recommendations or solutions faster. This is safer for the inspectors, because they aren’t carrying a camera.
Students studying these fields may benefit from skills in software coding, graphic design, photo editing software, animation, storytelling, user experience, and more. Multidisciplinary approaches may be ideal for preparing students to undertake the next level of visual and virtual capabilities.
Robotics and artificial intelligence
Artificial intelligence (AI) implies the use of a computer program for tasks normally requiring human intelligence or intelligent behavior, while robotics uses machines to complete complex tasks. AI and robotics have different applications in different fields, but both technologies are growing rapidly.
One of our previous blogs examined the vast potential of AI in geotechnical engineering to solve complex problems related to rock and soil properties; constitutive relationships; prediction of settlement, bearing capacity, and liquefaction; long-term performance of pavements; and rock fall and slope stability evaluations.
Some construction tasks have now become fully automated through robotics and AI. For example, SAM100 is a commercially available bricklaying robot for onsite masonry construction. Robots can work continuously without becoming tired or impacted by hot and cold weather conditions. Leveraging robotics and automation can also protect human construction workers from unsafe conditions.
One blogger considers that ways that AI and robotics are both improving and disrupting the construction industry in 2019. While robots and AI can improve efficiency, cost-effectiveness, collaboration, logistics, and more, we will continue to need humans on construction sites.
So, while adopting these new technologies does not mean the end of construction jobs, it does mean changes in the construction industry as we know it. And it also means educators must prepare students to navigate the modern technologies and digital experiences expected with AI and robotics when they enter the workplace.
The AEC community and educators need to collaborate to make sure our students are prepared for the technical challenges the future holds. Volunteering with students and networking at conferences and other events are excellent ways to share insights and expertise with students and educators. In turn, educators must prepare students to use and understand the technology that is changing our field (for the better!).
Kunal Gangopadhyay is a senior associate and founding principal of EBA Engineering, Inc. He is an advocate of STEM education in secondary schools and junior colleges and serves as a STEM advisor to several educational institutions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on LinkedIn.