This post is part of a series on Linkedin. Image courtesy of Getty Images.

In China, concrete houses are being produced by 3D printers.

In the U.S., designers are using virtual reality with clients to experience the look and feel of a high-rise building even before the first shovel turns dirt.

And in countries around the world, engineers are deploying drones to optimize design, survey remote pipelines and infrastructure, and more.

There’s a digital transformation afoot in the construction and engineering industry – and it’s about time.

For decades, the construction and engineering industry has lagged in embracing new technologies, much less invested in researching and developing them. In fact, less than 1% of revenue is spent on R&D and information technology compared to 3.5% to 4.5% for the auto and aerospace sectors. Only the agriculture and hunting industry spends less, according to the June 2016 “Imagining construction’s digital future” report by McKinsey & Co.

It’s difficult to imagine why the sector has been so slow at adopting and implementing new technologies, or even better utilizing the new technologies they have, when it stands to gain considerable benefits – in reducing costs, increasing efficiency and productivity, or even helping keep workers safer.

As competition stiffens, profit margins become tighter, and demand for faster turnaround becomes more commonplace, companies in the construction and engineering industry will need to integrate new technologies to advance their capabilities and differentiate themselves in the market. Our company, AECOM, is forging ahead, incorporating many of the new tools of the trade – like drones, virtual and mixed reality, and 3D printing – to take advantage of the myriad of benefits and help deliver the enhanced value clients demand.

Drones

One PwC report says, “The most cutting-edge firms are using […] drones to inspect sites,” but a 2016 KPMG Global Construction Survey found the majority (58%) of construction and engineering firms do not use drones to monitor construction status. Drones can easily access remote and dangerous areas around the clock and transmit data to automated systems in real-time that may be able to assess and react without human intervention. This results in lowered risk of onsite injuries and increased productivity.

Although the use of drones is gaining popularity in the construction industry as a cost and labor-saving tool, adoption is not widespread. It will be essential for companies to invest in this kind of technology in order to stay competitive, especially when factoring in the mitigated risk of safety incidents. At AECOM, we have used drones to capture views at specific elevations of a proposed building to optimize its design or inspect the interior of industrial smokestacks for structural integrity without exposing any employees to harmful toxins.

Virtual & Mixed Reality

Another trend is the use of Building Information Modeling (BIM), a system that creates digital representations of physical and functional characteristics of building assets. It allows companies to virtually simulate the construction process before breaking ground, giving them the ability to foresee potential challenges, reduce discrepancies and redundant work, improve safety, speed delivery, and bridge the communication gaps between design and construction teams. All this results in a coordinated process that increases productivity and cost-savings at every stage of a building’s life-cycle, according to a 2016 PwC engineering and construction industry trends report.

The use of virtual and mixed reality in the construction and engineering industry doesn’t stop at BIM. The Microsoft HoloLens technology also has been adapted to further streamline construction and engineering processes.

This wearable tech allows engineers to overlay a design onto an existing asset to monitor progress in real-time, identify issues, and take any necessary steps to adjust – saving time and keeping projects on track. Conversely, the technology allows employees to bring an exact replica of the physical asset into the office to virtually inspect it without having to be in any potential danger. The tool enhances collaboration for users who can view digital models together and see changes in real-time without having to physically be together. Through the HoloLens technology, progress reporting becomes automated, hours of repetitive trips to the work site are saved, and specialists from anywhere in the world can collaborate in real-time and space – an important need for a global company like ours.

3D Printing

3D printing is already making waves in the construction and engineering industry as seen in early experiments around the world, from 3D printed concrete houses in China and a low-income “contour crafted” building design in California to a fully functioning office in Dubai.

It may be some time until 3D printed buildings outpace traditional construction materials and methods due in part to safety regulations and quality control, but it still might be closer than you think. One company has already designed a 3D-printing crane that can layer up to 2,153 sq. feet of concrete per day – more than 50% faster than conventional construction methods. And cities around the world are taking notice – Dubai aims to see 25% of buildings in constructed using 3D printing technology by 2030.

From recycling plastic waste into building material to reducing costs in obtaining modular building components during construction, the benefits of 3D printing could have major potential to disrupt the industry for the better. For example, 3D printing could enable shorter construction periods for simple, disaster-relief shelters in emergencies, and in time, those processes could easily translate onto a larger scale.

Looking ahead

These are exciting times for our industry, where new technologies are likely to drive disruptive change. And the pace of change will only accelerate with the arrival of machine learning, big data, the Internet of Things, generative design, and more.

In an environment where optimal performance is defined as faster, better, and smarter delivery, there is no choice but to wholeheartedly embrace technology and the benefits they afford – or risk being left behind.

Originally published 05.2.2017