Comment – The divergence of technology

Like many other people, I have used the lockdown as a learning opportunity. I still can’t play guitar or speak Italian, both of which have been on my bucket list for longer than I care to admit.

But in the past three months, I have sat through endless webinars on robotics, automation, and mobile communications. I have consumed hour upon hour of podcasts discussing smart construction, connected sites, machine controls, driver aids, data warehouses and a whole host of other stuff that sounds like it has been torn straight from the imagination of Arthur C. Clarke.

Having been afforded this glimpse into the future, I can tell you three things: If you’re concerned about Big Brother watching you today, the future is going to look like your worst nightmare. If you hate using computers or mobile devices of if the word “data” gives you the willies, you are going to hate the future with a passion. Oh, and in the future I have seen, demolition barely gets a mention.

Now – and this is where the metaphor overload begins – I am not suggesting that there will be no demolition in the future. Far from it.
In an island nation with limited construction space and finite resources, demolition is as ever present as both death and taxes. Some might argue that the general public welcomes all three with equal warmth and relish.

From all that I have seen and learned, it seems that construction’s future is set to be a huge party of electronic communications, data collection, and information sharing. But it’s a party at which demolition is not currently represented.

What I can’t tell, however, is whether the wider industry decided to throw the party and – deliberately or otherwise – forgot to invite demolition. Or, just as likely, demolition received an invitation; took a look at the guest list, decided it had nothing to wear and chose to stay home and wash its hair instead.

You’d think that would be enough with the metaphors. But you’d be wrong. Construction’s future – as it is written today – is pre-unification West Germans driving BMWs and Mercedes along whisper-quiet 10-lane autobahns while, just over the wall, their East German neighbours are pushing their broken-down Trabant along on potholed roads.

To be clear, demolition is East Germany in this allegory.

Or, it could be an Amish community contentedly raising a barn and getting about by horse and cart right next door to a Tesla factory churning out electric-powered supercars that require neither petrol or, indeed, hay. In this parable, demolition is sporting a beard and a hat.

Metaphors aside, every version of the industry’s future I have seen appears to show a divergence in which construction heralds the dawning of the age of Aquarius – A futuristic Nirvana in which men, machines and entire sites talk to each other and commune as one.

Meanwhile, demolition appears to be consigned to the future’s slow lane; a slow lane filled with lame horses, carts with missing wheels, and bitter East Germans looking desperately for a Trabant mechanic.

I don’t think this is deliberate. Demolition is many things but Luddite it most certainly is not. It is an industry with a proud history of innovation and, even though it is often reluctant, it ultimately welcomes and embraces change.

I don’t think that those designing the construction sector of the future have overlooked demolition either. But construction is larger; much larger.
So perhaps technologists consider construction to be the low-hanging fruit they need to harvest before they get to the riper and juicier morsels (sorry, I just can’t seem to find the metaphor off-switch).

There is a chance, of course, that demolition contractors are, in fact, secretly embracing technology without telling me or their competitors. It is possible that they are hoarding this technology in some clandestine underground bunker like an erstwhile Bond villain. But I doubt it.

The truth is that there’s something in demolition’s DNA that makes it harder to automate or to support with driver aids.

An autonomous truck working in a mine or a quarry will do the same thing hundreds, thousands and even millions of times. It will be loaded in the same place, travel the same haul road, and then dump in another place time and time and time again. Similarly, if you’re building a road, a railway or a tower block, endless and ceaseless repetition will be the order of the day. And machines are perfectly suited to repeating the same actions over and over again.

In demolition, however, things are constantly changing. No two demolition sites are ever the same. Hell, no two demolition days are ever the same.

So yes, you might be able to support a machine operator by sounding an alert when a high reach excavator over-reaches. That data could then be used as the basis for additional or refresher training. You might be able to add some obstacle detection to enhance safety. Again, near-misses could be recorded, analysed and used for training purposes. And you can throw in some GPS tracking to protect machines and attachments from theft. But true automation remains a long way off in this sector.

However, it would be to the industry’s detriment if we allow technology to pass us by.

For one thing, in the age of Building Information Modelling (or BIM), an increasing number of clients are demanding the collection, collation and sharing of data on every aspect of a project. In the future, clients will be expecting BIM+. BIM+ on steroids. BIM+ on steroids with a degree in quantum mechanics from Harvard University.

Many demolition companies are now monitoring their machines, vehicle and – thereby – their people to find potential savings on fuel, machine wear and tear, unplanned downtime. That technology exists today.

In the future, it will feed to a company dashboard that can monitor and report on even the tiniest fluctuations from the norm, identifying potential cost savings and fixing equipment issues long before a mechanic or fitter is required. The reactive assessment of telematics analysis will be as much a part of the industry as the proactive assessment of risk.

And then there is the biggest potential benefit of all. It is a benefit that will not happen overnight. In fact, those of us that have been around for as long as I have might not get to see the benefit at all. But it is a benefit nonetheless.

If you listen to the Content with Media podcast as I do, religiously (and it’s even easier now as it’s on iTunes) you will have heard the phrase “demolition to demolition” in place of the more traditional cradle to grave.

Demolition to demolition describes a future in which the Circular Economy is not just a wish but a living, breathing reality. A future in which data tracking begins with the demolition contractor’s arrival on site; that continues through the build phase; and that lasts for the structure’s entire existence. Every aspect of the demolition contractor’s work will be monitored, logged and stored. Every item salvaged, recycled or repurposed will be traceable to its point of origin. Fuel consumption and carbon emissions will be recorded and set against a report encompassing the entire project. Everything will be recorded and that information will be stored securely and shared freely.

Then in 20, 30 or 100 years time when future generations of demolition contractors arrive to start that whole demolition to demolition process once again, they will not be required to guess where underground utilities lie, what the building is made from, what – if anything – has been added or taken away over the years; or how it is all held together.

That information will be there, quite possibly passed down from an ancestor; wisdom drawn from a bygone age in which a father or grandfather chose to attend construction’s future technology party, even though he had nothing to wear.