Science and science fiction often compete for the minds of the general population. The term “robot,” for example, can conjure up many different images, depending on the experience and movie going history of the listener. Engineers might imagine a machine doing repetitive work that bores humans while labor union leaders would see the same image as taking away jobs. Robotic designers have been seeking ways to make robots less threatening and more productive for generations, going so far as adding human features and voice to what amounts to a guided vehicle delivering food to patients in a hospital.

BIM (building information modeling) provides a lot of information for construction and maintenance of structures. Computer aided design or CAD has been a major tool in “loading” a BIM project’s database. Now, other tools are being integrated with BIM for increased digital transformation of the industry.

Cameras are being used in a myriad of ways in construction. Monitoring work progress on the jobsite and flying high over a tract to survey a new project are just a few. Fleet owners, with both truck and heavy equipment, are adopting cameras to survey the operation of the equipment and monitor operator behavior to prevent accidents and provide evidence in case of accidents.

It’s not only construction companies that can be liable for operator error and incidents caused by others. Companies across the commercial transportation industry, from long-haul trucking to field services to passenger transit, are at risk for high-cost incidents on the road, such as sideswiping and back-up collisions.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit construction worldwide with cancelations, postponements, delays, and lockdowns just like every other industry. Now, many of the restrictions imposed in 2020 and 2021 are being abated, although the rise of variants such as Delta and Omicron may change that quickly.

According to a report from Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty, Managing the new age of construction risk, the global construction market is set for a sustained period of strong growth post-COVID-19, driven by government spending on infrastructure and the transition to a net zero society. However, the switch to more sustainable buildings and infrastructure, the upscaling of clean energy facilities, and the adoption of modern building methods will transform the risk landscape, with radical changes in design, materials, and processes. These challenges add to stressed supply chains, shortages in materials and labor, and increased costs, all coming against the backdrop of years-long tight margins in the industry. 

The infrastructure bill was just signed and already companies are getting in line to help. The U.S. federal government normally spends more than $20 billion annually on roads, bridges, dams, and other infrastructure projects with that number about to get much bigger with the bipartisan infrastructure bill being passed.

The FHWA (Federal Highway Administration) Office of FLH (Federal Lands Highway) operates in all 50 states and provides engineering and construction expertise that supports more than 500,000 miles of roadway, 8,500 bridges, 35,000 trails, and more than 400 transit systems for federally-owned transportation facilities. FLH delivers projects similar to the state DOTs (Dept. of Transportation) and local public agencies and undertakes many unique programs and projects that are geographically and environmentally complex. It sought to replace old construction management systems with a single-platform, interoperable solution that would offer seamless integration across the capital planning and management lifecycle, and support workers in the field with mobile capabilities.

Because of stringent enforcement of energy conservation and sustainability policies in various countries, builders are expected to invest in green construction technologies, thereby giving a shot in the arm to prefabricated housing in the upcoming years. One approach is the use of precast or modular panels. Made of concrete, building panels are seeing high demand due to their ability to expedite construction projects and enable structures with enhanced green credentials due to associated energy savings.

A new market study published by Global Industry Analysts Inc., titled “Building Panels – Global Market Trajectory & Analytics”, presents opportunities and challenges in a significantly transformed post-COVID-19 marketplace. According to the report, growth in the global market will be fueled by increasing construction activity post-pandemic, rising population, need for better housing solutions, and a strong focus on energy-efficient buildings. The market will be bolstered by increasing demand from residential and non-residential construction projects along with continuing advances in construction technology as well as precast, modular, and prefabricated systems.

The economy has its ups and downs and level periods as well. The problem is anticipating which will be in effect when a project is ready to start. As interest rates fluctuate, making decisions on lending for major projects can hold back banks and create a funding shortfall. In many cases, especially since the signing of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in November, government loans can save the day.

The U.S. DOT (Dept. of Transportation’s) Build America Bureau has provided direct TIFIA (Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act) loans for many years. The Bureau was established as a “one-stop-shop” during the Obama Administration to help states and other sponsors carry out infrastructure projects. The Bureau offers credit programs, technical assistance, and best practices in project planning, financing, delivery, and operation. To date, the Bureau has provided more than $36.2 billion in financing through the TIFIA credit program, supporting more than $123.2 billion in infrastructure investment across the country.

We are familiar with the concept of AI (artificial intelligence) and ML (machine learning) as applied to robotics, often in a “coming in the future” format. But the future is coming sooner than expected if companies like Volvo have a say. And an enabler will be the growth of 5G communications.

The Volvo Construction Equipment division has demonstrated a fully autonomous, battery-electric prototype, the LX03, of what they claim is the first real-world example of a self-learning concept wheel loader with the brains to make decisions, perform tasks, and interact with humans. It is also the first time ever a LEGO Technic model has been turned into a real machine. While not commercially available, engineers expect that valuable insights from the LX03 will feed into applications for today and tomorrow.

The application of digital technology—computers, smart phones, Internet of Things, the cloud, etc.—has had a great impact on construction over the past decade. This digitalization has even spawned a term: Construction 4.0. But it has also generated a degree of concern that too much reliance on technology is a bad thing.

Then came COVID-19. And the growing emphasis on sustainability and environmental issues. And disruption of the supply chain due to tariffs and shortages of the basic material needed for building.

Wind-power is a serious contender for the electricity generator of the future. Solar and wind are expanding across the globe as fossil fuels are losing their advantage as a generating source. The tall “windmills” seen along highways around the country are being supported by similar technology at sea.

Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Corp., the largest provider of dredging services in the United States, aims to help that trend. The company has signed a contract with Philly Shipyard, Inc. to build the first U.S.-flagged Jones Act-compliant, inclined fallpipe vessel for subsea rock installation. This vessel will service the growing offshore wind energy industry and help reach the Biden administration’s ambitious 30 GW of offshore wind goal by 2030.

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