To deliver the infrastructure boom, construction giants must open their doors to startups

December 14, 2021, 12:05 PM UTC
By using computer vision, drones, and A.I., startups can help contractors deliver on time and on budget.
Sam Lafoca—Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images

After much discussion and debate, Congress has finally passed the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package. With big bucks allocated to everything from roadways to bridges to airports, the bill will keep general contractors busy for years as they feast on this building bonanza.

These projects are all funded by taxpayer dollars, and ideally, they’ll be built efficiently. However, the construction industry often doesn’t operate this way. According to McKinsey & Co, 80% of large construction projects are completed over budget. What’s more, these projects take 20% longer than originally scheduled. These are alarming statistics for a sector that represents 10% of global GDP. In what other industry do we accept such a high failure rate?

To make the most of this country’s commitment to improving our national infrastructure, construction companies must accelerate their investment in technologies that drive efficiency. Historically, the construction industry has been slow to invest in new technologies. Comfortable with the tools they know–often the same tools they’ve been using for decades–the large general contractors that build our country’s biggest projects have tended to stick with the “tried and true.”

However, the winds recently began to shift. The construction technology industry, which is driving technical innovation in the sector, is seeing a substantial increase in funding. According to the market intelligence firm CB Insights, the construction tech sector received $5.1 billion in funding for startups between 2015 and 2019. But 2020 will be a record-breaking year for the industry, with $1.3 billion in total funding and 56% growth.

So, in what segments of the construction market are we seeing innovations that could deliver the greatest impact on our ability to build efficiently? A number of start-ups are focused on the build phase itself and are using imaging technology coupled with artificial intelligence to track progress vs. plan.

Versatile, for example, uses cameras mounted on construction cranes to capture images of the job site and help customers track progress compared to their original construction schedule. DroneDeploy is using aerial drones to help construction companies track progress and communicate site safety.

Another promising set of innovators is helping contractors to reduce costs and improve quality through robotics. Robots are ideal for tackling repetitive tasks, and those abound in construction. Australian company FBR has introduced Hadrian X, a robotic bricklaying system that can build brick structures quickly and safely. Advanced Construction Robotics sells an autonomous rebar tying robot that is ideal for work on bridges and manufacturing facilities. Canvas now markets a robot that helps builders efficiently finish drywall.

Other start-ups are looking to help their customers boost their efficiency before they even start building. At ALICE Technologies, for example, we enable large general contractors to simulate and optimize their construction schedules before the cranes start swinging. By creating thousands of potential schedule choices during the pre-construction phase, companies can zero in on a plan that minimizes cost while simultaneously minimizing risk. And if–or rather when– the general contractors fall behind, they can use the ALICE platform to tune their schedules and get their projects back on track. In an industry that has big penalties for late delivery, the ability for contractors to “recover” their schedules is highly valuable.

This country is now committed to spending a boatload of money on critical infrastructure projects, and American taxpayers deserve to get the best possible return on this investment. By embracing new technologies, contractors can radically improve their ability to deliver public projects on time and on budget. With this much money on the line, the time for general contractors to make this essential technology upgrade is now.

René Morkos is the founder of ALICE Technologies and teaches at Stanford University’s Ph.D. program in construction engineering. René obtained his Ph.D. in artificial intelligence applications for construction as a Charles H. Leavell fellow at Stanford. He is a civil engineer with more than 15 years of construction industry experience.

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