Construction tech: creating a foundation for the future
Written by Michelle Killoran, Principal, OMERS Ventures
It’s a great time to start a business in the construction industry. There is opportunity to introduce new technologies to improve the work environment, project outcomes, and respond to consolidation in the industry. However, the potential opportunity to build something meaningful exists against the backdrop of a market that has been traditionally tricky to disrupt because it is built on strong, often generational, relationship-based foundations. For some time now we’ve known we want to back a business in the construction tech market, but we want it to be one that is wholly focused on a real and widespread pain point.
And that’s where Turner Construction Company comes in.
As the largest general contractor in the US that does business with more than 30,000 contractors, it’s hard to think of any organization that would be better positioned to comment on what the future of construction looks like and the role tech can play. It’s something we talk about with the Turner innovation team a lot. The team sees a lot of potential needs that are not being met by suppliers today.
So we are going to build it. Well, not directly. But together, OMERS Ventures and Turner Construction Company are going to create a breeding ground for a startup that is everything the construction sector needs right now. We are looking for an Entrepreneur In Residence (EIR) who has a big vision and who sees the enormous opportunity created by the ability to build exactly what a customer wants. And not just one customer, but many others like them.
This combination of OMERS Ventures (the tech VC arm of a Canadian pension plan that counts Oxford Properties among its CAD$114B in assets) and Turner (a US$15B business with projects like Madison Square Garden, The Whitney Museum, and San Diego Airport under its belt) with a visionary founder who’s not afraid to roll their sleeves up and hustle seems like the perfect manifestation of co-creation that we’ve seen across some of the world’s most successful industries.
If you are motivated by engaging directly with customers in order to apply design thinking and creative problem solving to develop something with the potential to be a real game-changer, reach out and let’s have a conversation. You can reach us at EIR@tcco.com.
A glimpse into the future
To help get your creative wheels turning, I sat down with Jim Barrett, Chief Innovation Officer at Turner Construction Company to get his view on what the future of construction has in store.
OK Jim, paint a picture for us of a construction site in 2050.
Jim Barrett: By 2050 much less work will be happening on the actual construction site. We will probably have a network of sites where most of the fabrication, assembly and installation happens. We will probably see a distributed network of small factories positioned around any given metro area where master logistics software feeds small batches of fabrication and assembly instructions to whichever factory has capacity. When the product is ready, notification is sent to autonomous trucks to pick up pallets of product and deliver them from the factory to the jobsite. The place where the building is being built will essentially become just one jobsite out of many within this network of factories.
Building components will be designed from the very beginning of conceptualizing the finished building or space using principles of Design for Manufacturing and Assembly (DfMA) and modularization. So we could see on-site robotic “crawlers” finding the assembly they need, crawling up the side of the building on tracks and installing the finished assembly where it needs to be and when it needs to be there.
Supplementing all this will be large scale on-site 3D printers running 24 hours a day to print custom or just-in-time components comprised of metals, plastics, carbon fiber, or whatever advanced material or combination thereof may be specified.
This might all sound like a long way off, but if you read news like the plans Apple has to debut a fully automated vehicle by 2025 (with no steering wheel or pedals!), you get the feeling the future may be closer than we think.
The important thing to say, though, is that a future like this isn’t one we just want to guess at…it’s one we want to be part of creating.
So the construction site of today is unrecognizable to people in 2050?
JB: Probably. I think they’ll look back on people in 2021 and wonder how we ever got anything built! In recent years we have increasingly adopted the mindset of purposeful innovation. The future will be one that we shape, guide, and realize.
Sure, it’s not rocket science to see a path that leads the industry to a much more distributed construction paradigm. But combine that with eventual convergence of other innovation trends such as the continued growth in computing power whether local, at the edge, or on the cloud; the rapid expansion of communications bandwidth through 5G and its eventual successors; the integration of automation and robotics; and the maturation of digital Building Information Modeling-based fabrication workflows; to name a few. What you will have is an ecosystem that supports a complete paradigm shift in thinking about construction.
What do you see as the biggest opportunity for technology to make a significant impact in the construction world in 2022?
JB: There are five general innovation trends that we believe will transform the way we live, work and learn in the next five years. These include virtualization, connectivity, big data, robotics & automation, and artificial intelligence. Most of these aren’t new technologies. They’ve been around for a while but have moved beyond the initial hype cycle and have had time to develop into a mature phase where innovation is ripe to take off. But I don’t think it’s as simple as highlighting one thing that will have an impact in the next 12 months. We need to take a longer view.
Let’s take AI as an example. Artificial Intelligence (for us that means being at least at the stage typically described as “Artificial General Intelligence’’ — comparable to the human brain), is some ways off and certainly for any widespread practical impact on our work and business. But we see it as a series of building blocks that we will continue to put in place in 2022 to get to that distant horizon of convergence many years hence.
As a key part of our AI efforts over the past few years we have created a network of 20+ regional data champions across our company who are tasked with developing and applying their skills to the business.
In 2022 we’re going to take the next step towards an AI future and move that community of experts and many others within the company to develop data analytics capabilities. It’s going beyond just making data comprehensible, it’s about using methods of statistical analysis, for instance, to create deep, actionable insight. Then in 2–3 years from now we put the next building block in place to further develop new capabilities around predictive analytics.
As we take each step forward, we are learning how to better understand our many diverse data sources, how best to structure and normalize them, and what capabilities we need to leverage them. All this is putting in place a structure over time — step by step — that, when multiple trends mature and converge someday, that we can stand upon in this hugely impactful future to truly harness the power of Artificial Intelligence for the complete transformation of our business.
So for anyone who might be interested in coming on as an EIR, what are some of Turner’s main challenges that could be solved by technology in the short term?
JB: The main challenge is, and will remain, a willingness to adopt change. So the EIR needs to be comfortable knowing we are not pushing against an open door in every case. But, we are living through a paradigm shift that starts with the fundamental realization that the meaning of the word “work” is now disaggregated, as a result of the overnight realization that a remote working world is possible.
We have the added challenge, being a construction company, in having to balance the tensions of workers who, despite the fact that they could theoretically work from anywhere, still must be onsite because our work will always require managing the physical labor of putting a brick on top of a brick, so to speak.
Any technology that enables us to provide more flexibility to both our jobsite and office workers will be explored and embraced. This goes beyond use of just virtual conference tools to things like remote progress monitoring, virtual inspection, automated safety analysis, robust collaborative team workshopping, and many others.
Along these lines, we are particularly interested in business process automation tools — software solutions that allow you to build complex algorithmic workflows that automate repetitive tasks. Construction is made up of many processes that repeat themselves in monthly cycles. These are ripe for automating. Amidst COVID-19 nearly all of us came to better appreciate the value of time and importance of how we spend it. As a result, there is wide-spread eagerness at all levels of the company to free up people’s time from the drudgery of non value-add tasks so they can better unlock their talents and realize their potential for more fulfilling and meaningful work.
Do you expect GCs and all the other industry players to invest more in software going forward?
JB: Absolutely. We can’t not. As an industry we need to invest in creating our better future. Innovation breeds more innovation, which means that the pace of change is only accelerating. It’s worth remembering the words of Steward Brand, the visionary entrepreneur, who once said that, in the face of change, you really only have one choice because “if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.”