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Leveraging digital technology in construction

Leveraging digital technology in construction

The use of digital technology to enhance construction processes and operations has become popular all over the world. Only few countries including South Africa are at the forefront of its adoption in Africa while countries like China and Saudi Arabia, Canada, Brazil and Turkey are leading in adopting digital technologies in construction in other parts of the world. Despite the popularisation of digitalised technologies such as artificial intelligence, virtual Reality, drones, 3D printing, robotics, smart buildings, smart cities, digital twins, and the metaverse, Africa is yet to up with this new concept due to major factors such as lack of awareness of digitalisation, poor power supply, lack of adequate digital training facilities, high cost of digital infrastructure and lack of research in digitalisation. To improve the effectiveness of construction operations and project performance through the adoption of digital technologies, poor power supply has to be addressed by the government, professionals need to be trained on digital tools, regulations should be put in place for the digital technology industry, professional bodies need to create awareness of the benefits of digitalisation and built environment stakeholders should organise conferences and seminars to encourage their members to adopt digitalisation.

Technology has been used for the advancement of the activities of humans from times past. The advancement in technology has also been applied in different industries for the maximum benefit of these industries. In the construction industry (CI), the application of technology to advance construction operations has been brought to the limelight as a result of the epidemics and pandemics that the world has experienced recently, ranging from Ebola to COVID-19 and most recently, Monkeypox. However, despite that the CI is one of the oldest; it is still considered one of the most conservative in the world where the adoption of technology is still at low ebb. The approach, techniques and tools applied for its operations are often traditional. New methods and technologies are often not embraced as rapidly as in other industries. Technological advancement and the adoption of digital tools applied for the enhancement of construction operations and processes are often neglected. Digitalisation of the CI is, therefore, slow and not as popular as it should be especially in Africa, despite its adoption in other countries of the world especially Singapore, Malaysia, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, China, and Canada. The popularisation of digitalisation in manufacturing, information technology, financial services entertainment, and the media has also not been reflected in the CI. Africa is, therefore, not benefitting from the opportunities the digital world brings to the CI despite being the second biggest continent in the world with an area covering about a 30.3million Km2 and a population of about 1.216 billion (Wikipedia, no date).

Most African countries are considered developing compared to countries of other continents, especially Europe and Asia. Europe, for instance, is described as the most developed continent in the world (Shvili,2021) with all the countries within Europe classified as developed, while most African countries are classified as least developed countries (LDC) (Pariona, 2019). Furthermore and within Africa, some countries are considered more developed than others with Mauritius, Seychelles, Algeria, Tunisia, Botswana, Libya, South Africa, Egypt, Gabon, and Morocco listed as the top 10 most-developed countries in Africa (World Population Review, 2022). However, Nigeria, despite having a population of about a 216million (Worldometer, no date) and ranked the second-largest economy in Africa with a GDP of $1.14trillion (Egscholars, 2022) is still a developing country alongside others including Ghana, Benin, Cameroun, Togo, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania(Worlddata, no date).

Several definitions have been given to “digitalisation”. (Gartner, 2022) defined digitalisation as “the use of digital technologies to change a business model and provide new revenue and value-producing opportunities; it is the process of moving to a digital business”. It is the process of changing data into a digital form thatcan be easily read and processed by a computer (Oxford Learner’s Dictionary). Similarly, (Veldhuizen et. al, 2019) went further to define digitalconstruction (DC) as “utilising digital technologies to construct more efficiently with higher quality”. Digitalisation in the CI can, therefore, be described as the application of digital tools to enhance construction processes and operations. Irrespective of the definition given to digitalisation, it can be said that it makes the construction process easier, faster, safer, sustainable and efficient. This offers a lot of opportunities for the future of the youths in Africa whose interest lies in the use of digital technologies. The United Nations asserted that “Africa has the youngest population in the world, with 70 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa under the age of 30. Such a high number of young people is an opportunity for the continent’s growth – but only if these new generations are fully empowered to realise their best potential”(no date). The African Youths with their high number in the continent is an advantage to the CI if they have the right training to explore the opportunities that DC brings.

Read also: Technology, capacity building vital in Nigeria’s energy transition – SPE

Trends in digitilisation

Artificial Intelligence (AI). (Copeland, no date) defined AI as “the ability of a digital computer or computer-controlled robot to perform tasks commonly associated with intelligent beings.” In order words, AI enables machines to think like humans. According to Great Learning Team, 2022, AI is the simulation of natural intelligence in machines in such a way that they are programmed to learn and copy the actions of humans. The use of AI in construction is enormous and it has been used over time. For example, it can be used to address safety concerns, labour shortages, cost and time overruns on construction projects, design a building better, risk mitigation, project planning, increasing productivity, and use in post-construction.

Virtual Reality (VR): VR is the use of wearable devices, usually on the eyes to access a virtual world that seems real to the wearer of the device. University of Toronto, 2021 defined VR as the use of computer technology to create a simulated environment that can be explored in 360degrees and places the user inside the virtual environment to give an immersive experience. VR has become increasingly popular in Africa; its popularity is only limited to shopping centers and malls for the purpose of recreation and games only. Its awareness, benefits and application in the CI in solving problems are far being explored. VR is seen as a game and not a tool to enhance construction operations or learn new techniques in construction technology. Brooks, 2022 opined that VR is useful as an effective tool for training, safety and avoiding costly overruns on construction projects. Furthermore, VR enables project stakeholders to have an overview of what to expect early at the design stage of construction before the execution of the project, therefore, allowing changes to be made early enough to adjust the scope and budget of the project to meet the expected reality. VR use for training and enhancement of safety is useful during pandemics such as COVID-19 when movement was restricted.

Drones: (ImperialWar Museum, 2022) reported that the earliest use of Drones was in the Vietnam War where Reconnaissance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), later known as Drones, were first deployed on a large scale. Its use has, however, surpassed wars alone. For example, in the African construction industry, Drones have been used to take aerial photographs and videos to report the status of construction projects. Its use can, however, be extended to monitoring site activities remotely and promoting safe construction. Some drones have sensors that can alert project managers of potential hazards. Drones can also be used to monitor construction, especially in dangerously high-rise structures and very risky areas. Wingtra (no date)stated the benefits of drones as fast in producing images on sites, producing accurate data, assisting in cost and time saving, remote access to sites, and increased safety.

3-Dimensional Printing: This is also commonly referred to as 3D printing. Designing buildings, 2022 described 3D printing, sometimes referred to as Additive Manufacturing (AM)) as the computer-controlled sequential layering of materials to create three-dimensional shapes. Its application has been widely used in the manufacturing industry to produce replacement parts for machines. Its popularity and application in the CI have, however, been recent. Automated machines are programmed to produce buildings at a speed and accuracy much faster than that of using manual labour. It has been reported that the use of 3D printing in homes saves time, reduces waste, promotes sustainability, and reduces construction costs. This was buttressed by Ennomotive, 2021, who confirmed that a Shanghai-based Decoration Design Engineering Win sun built 103D printed houses in under 24 hours with each of the houses costing only about $5,000 to build. Ennomotive, 2021 also stated that 3D printing has been appliedin the printing of bridges and canals. There has also been evidence of 3Dprinted homes in Africa, with the first 3D affordable printed in Malawi, costing $10,000 and walls completed in 12 hours (Fleming, 2021).3D printing application in Africa where there is an abundance of human resources and a high unemployment rate is subject to the argument of whether its application is best for the continent or not.

Robotics: Robots have been used in construction in recent times. Its use has been, for example, in the inspection of sewers systems, underground tunnels and inspection at dangerous heights. Robots have proven to be effective in providing safe and sustainable construction while assisting tomake up for labour shortages in some countries. ABB, a major player in the automation industry, stated that Robotic automation provides huge potential to enhance productivity, efficiency and manufacturing flexibility throughout the CI. For example, automating the fabrication of modular homes and building components off-site, robotic welding and material handling on building sites and robot 3D printing of houses (ABB, 2021). They further stated that it would make the industry safer and cost-effective and will in turn promote sustainability because less waste will be generated throughout the automated process of the construction which employs the use of Robots. Japan has experimented the use of Robot for construction to help in replacing the declining labour shortage in the country. For example, a type of robot called Humanoid, is being experimented to carry out the works humans would ordinarily do. Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) has developed a prototype of a humanoid robot (HRP-5P),designed to operate autonomously for use in construction sites and environments hazardous to humans (METI, 2019).This use of this Humanoid can be conveniently applied in Africa, especially where dangerous construction activities are to be undertaken and where construction hazards are enormous. It also offers a lot of opportunities for Africa where the majority of the youthful population is not interested in working directly in the CI. In Nigeria, for instance, it is difficult to find skilled labour for construction. Most of the skilled labour come from neighbouring countries such as the Benin Republic and Togo.

Smart Buildings: Digitilisation in the CI cannot be discussed without mentioning the current trend in the development of smartbuildings. Zhou & Yang, 2018 affirmed that a smart building is a type of building with a reasonable investment in efficient energy management, and a comfortable and convenient environment, designed by considering the optimized relationship between structure, system, service, and management. The level of smartness of a building varies and it is not a measure of how much technology is deployed in the building but how the deployed technology is maximised. Hence, it is not uncommon to find a few smart buildings in Africa although the level of smartness of the buildings in Africa cannot be compared to that obtained in other continents such as Europe, Asia and North America. Some of the smartest buildings in the world are located in Singapore, Netherlands, China and Malaysia. Africa countries are again missing in the list of countries with the smartest buildings. However, some minimal smart technologies have been known to be deployed in some buildings in Africa. These technologies include smart security systems, smoke and fire detection system and smart energy consumption systems.

VII. Smart Cities: The concept of smart cities depicts acity which has incorporated some smart technology to run efficiently and sustainably. Lagos, Nigeria was once celebrated as a smart city. The smart technology deployed in Lagos was however limited and not of many benefits to the residents of the state. The smart technology could have used to solve been the endemic traffic problems experienced by the residents of Lagos state. They can also apply to other cities in Africa where smart technology could address waste disposal, crime detection and prevention and environmental management including flooding.

Digital Twins: Digital Twin is a relatively new concept in digital world. It is the creation of a digital image for example of a building or structure that enables it to interact with the environment as though the building or structure is real. In order words, it is easy to predict the outcome of the usage of such building and structure digitally. According to IBM, (no date), “A digital twin is a virtual representation of an object or system that spans its lifecycle, is updated from real-time data, and uses simulation, machine learning and reasoning to help decision-making”. IBM further described digital twin as a virtual model designed to accurately reflect a physical object. The advantages of using digital twin are that it helps in research and development, improved efficiency, and prediction of the end life of the product (IBM, no date). Other advantages of digital twins are that they can help in cost reduction, improve schedules and estimate performance and contract negotiation of infrastructure projects (AfricaSurveyors News, 2022). Similar to other digital technologies, its application has been in the manufacturing industry long before its recent adoption in the CI. (IBM, no date) alluded to the fact that digital twins can be applied to massive structures such as buildings which enables the improvement in the systems, especially during the design stage. Furthermore, IBM stated that digital twins can be applied to urban planning by Civil engineers and professionals in the CI planning activities because digital twins can show3D and 4D spatial data in real-time while incorporating augmented reality systems into the built environment.

Metaverse: The Metaverse is perhaps, one of the most recent, interesting but yet confusing digital innovations whose popularity is gaining traction recently. The simplest explanation is that Metaverse is a virtual world where people come to interact just like they do in the real world. There has been a report of major organisations setting up their stores in the virtual world. For instance, Lee (2022) reported that Gucci, a well-known brand just bought a plot of digital land in the metaverse. This alludes to the fact that in the nearest future, more organisations will establish their presence in the virtual world. This portends a paradigm shift for real estate practitioners, who are familiar with operating in the real world. To confirm that real estate in the metaverse will thrive the nearest future, Finn (2022) observed that visionary real estate practitioners that believe in a digital future are already accumulating digital land in the same way they do with traditional real estate. It was further observed that brokers are already selling luxury real estate plots in the metaverse.