Jun 2, 2018

Innovate to survive: The value of new technology in construction

Paul Becker
7 min
Digital building
After nearly 40 years working with the construction and engineering insurance markets, I am old enough to remember the rapid declin...

After nearly 40 years working with the construction and engineering insurance markets, I am old enough to remember the rapid decline of the UK motorcycle industry following the introduction of Japanese motorcycles in the early seventies.

After many decades of supremacy in the sector, great names such as BSA, Norton, Velocette, Triumph and Royal Enfield all but disappeared as the shiny, electric start machines from the East arrived with engines that didn’t leak oil and brakes that worked.

The industry here in the UK failed to respond to Japan’s use of modern tooling, computerised design and new materials such as plastic and fibreglass for key component parts and chose rather to bury their heads in the sand in the hope that these new market entrants would go away – they didn’t.

Right now, I perceive the construction industry to potentially be in a similar space.

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For hundreds of years the West has designed and built magnificent feats of engineering. From Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s bridges and tunnels to Richard Rogers’ inside out buildings, the construction industry has responded through embracing innovative solutions to the challenges it faced while still utilising traditional working methods and materials. The post-war years brought us cheap, skilled labour, a plentiful supply of steel, concrete and bricks and a desire from governments around the world to rebuild essential infrastructure, including energy, transportation and telecommunications as well as housing, hospitals and education facilities.

Roll forward to the late 20th and early 21st century and we are seeing huge changes in the way the industry is working. New materials and tools include intelligent material, modular construction, additive manufacturing, robotics, unmanned plant and machinery and IoT solutions to name but a few. But what does this really mean for an industry that is engrained into society’s DNA?

In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, engineering and construction apprenticeships were a huge part of the “baby boomers” future aspirations and were enough to equip workers with the skill sets used until relatively recently. However, this generation is now leaving the industry, paving the way for the new millennials to bring in their own ideas and ways of working. Enticing school leavers into the industry is chiefly about encouraging them to bring and use their IT skills, harness innovative and entrepreneurial ways of thinking and leave behind some of the more traditional solutions sought historically.

No longer is the focus on craft apprenticeships turning out bricklayers, welders and steel erectors. Rather, there is a much sharper focus on the need to provide new solutions to age old problems.

New efficiencies are being sought in an industry where waste has always been a cultural issue that needed to be addressed.

Sustainability is now an understood and much needed part of the philosophy that underlies new building techniques and projects, to such an extent that laying the foundation for future generations to live in a far more harmonious way with nature is clearly a core part of future thinking.

We are already very familiar with computer aided design and the use of BIM to ensure that designs are accurate, cost effective and workable but, when you throw cyber into the equation, it starts to raise new concerns as to what we are actually building and how secure the integral control systems may be, for example.

Huge strides are being taken in 3D printing and additive manufacturing solutions and once again, a lot of the innovation and development is coming from Asia and the East.

A company in China has already managed to “print” 10 houses in under 24 hours and then followed this up with the world's tallest 3D printed building – a five-story apartment block. They then went on to print a 1,100 sqm mansion complete with internal and external decoration. These initial examples give us a glimpse of what the future will hold when it comes to leveraging technological advances in the pursuit of greater efficiency and ingenuity in construction.

That is an example taken from one particular company; but how are new challenges and techniques being adopted by the industry as a whole?

There are clearly some “movers and shakers” at both ends of the revolutionary scale of contractors, designers and developers. Some of the larger companies have shown very clear signs of endorsing and adopting some of the new technologies being discussed.

Skanska, for example, has nailed its colours to the mast and already makes use of 3D printing techniques in some of its largest and most high-profile projects.

The company is also a leader in the use of virtual, augmented and mixed reality. A fully virtual reality experience involves the creation of virtual mock-ups of projects that engage customers and end-users, with feedback incorporated in the construction process. Augmented reality differs from virtual reality in that it provides users with a view of the real world, which is then overlaid with relevant project information in their line of sight. Mixed reality technologies can create an environment where both virtual and physical worlds coexist. It can be useful when a customer wishes to extend an existing facility while understanding the potential impact of this work.

There are equally many newer and smaller, specialist companies which have adopted and are driving new technologies in the construction space.

Smartvid.io, for instance, aggregates visual data from the job site and intelligently analyses it for a variety of purposes including safety, quality, progress tracking, and marketing.

Another company, ManufactOn, provides a mobile technology that enables complete visibility into the prefabrication process, so that anyone involved in the project can see what is being manufactured, where it is in the process, and when it will be delivered. A new integration with BIM 360 Docs will make it possible to view that information in one workflow from the beginning through to the end of the design and build process.

Those are some insights into the early adopters. But what of all those other companies who are still watching and waiting?

They could do a lot worse than reading Balfour Beatty’s industry report: ‘Innovation 2050 - A Digital Future for the Infrastructure Industry.’ The opening paragraph from its executive summary reads as follows:

“The construction site of 2050 will be human-free. Robots will work in teams to build complex structures using dynamic new materials. Elements of the build will self-assemble. Drones flying overhead will scan the site constantly, inspecting the work and using the data collected to predict and solve problems before they arise, sending instructions to robotic cranes and diggers and automated builders with no need for human involvement. The role of the human overseer will be to remotely manage multiple projects simultaneously, accessing 3D and 4D visuals and data from the on-site machines, ensuring the build is proceeding to specification. The very few people accessing the site itself will wear robotically enhanced exoskeletons and will use neural-control technology to move and control machinery and other robots on site.”

While being cautious in investing in new technology and new ideas can sometimes be seen to be the “safe” approach, those companies that fail to invest today are quite likely to be the same companies that are not here in 10 years’ time.

The way we design and build is changing for good. New skillsets are required, new materials are being developed and new machinery is being manufactured to vastly improve efficiency in terms of both cost and time.

The risks associated with these new ideas is going to rapidly change the normal profiles that we are accustomed to.

We need to start thinking now about how all of this can operate together in a seamless environment to ensure that from the first time a computer key is pressed in a new design, to the final project being delivered on time and to cost, that every eventuality has been considered in a truly collaborative way.

From raising finance, detailed design and BIM modelling through to material selection, manufacturing facilities and the choice of technology that will actually do the build, it is imperative that each are considered in their entirety and not as separate contracts.

The challenges will be enormous but, the prize is even bigger and, those companies that are prepared to compete today will be the ones on the podium when the final results come in.

By Paul Becker, global construction industry leader at Willis Towers Watson

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Jul 26, 2021

Mark Zuckerberg: from college dropout to billionaire

Mark Zuckerberg
Social Media
Catherine Gray
4 min
As the creator of the most popular social media platform, Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg has shaped the way generations communicate online

Mark Zuckerberg is the co-founder and CEO of the popular social networking website, Facebook. Founded out of his college dorm room at university, Zuckerberg left Harvard University in his sophomore year to concentrate on building the Facebook site.

The user base of the website has now grown to more than two billion people, turning Zuckerberg into a billionaire.

Early accomplishments

From an early age, Zuckerberg used his talents to create online applications for his friends and family to use. Around the age of 12, Zuckerberg used Atari BASIC to create messaging program ‘Zucknet’.

Zucknet was used by Edward Zuckerberg, Mark’s father, in his dental office to communicate with this receptionist. The Zuckerberg family also used it within their house.

Throughout his early education, despite excelling in literature and captaining the fencing team, Zuckerberg remained fascinated by computers. In high school, he created an early version of the music software Pandora.

Companies including AOL and Microsoft expressed interest in buying the software, as well as hiring teenage Zuckerberg before graduation. He declined these offers.

Life at Harvard University

By Zuckerberg’s sophomore year he had developed the reputation as the go-to software developer on campus.

In his time at Harvard, as well as developing Facebook, he built programs called CourseMatch and Facemash.

CourseMatch helped students choose their classes based on the course selections of other users.

Facemash compared the pictures of two students on campus, allowing them to vote on who was more attractive. This was later shut down by the school administration after it was deemed inappropriate.

Zuckerberg was sought out to help fellow students Divya Narendra and Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss on an idea of their own. The idea, a social networking site they called Harvard Connection, was designed to use information from Harvard’s student network to create a dating site for the Harvard elite.

After agreeing to help, Zuckerberg dropped out to work on his own site, The Facebook.

Founding Facebook

With his friends, Dustin Moskovitz, Chris Hughes and Eduardo Saverin, Zuckerberg created The Facebook. This site allowed users to create their own profiles, upload photos and communicate with others.

The group of friends ran the site out of a dorm room at Harvard University until June 2004. In the same year, Zuckerberg dropped out of university and moved the company to Palo Alto, California.

By the end of 2004, Facebook had 1 million users.

In 2005, Accel invested $12.7 million into the network even though at the time it was only open to Ivy League students.

After granting access to other colleges, schools and international schools to use his site, Zuckerberg’s Facebook grew to more than 5.5 million users by 2005. 

Although companies offered to buy the social networking site, Zuckerberg did not want to sell out. One offer he turned down was a $1bn buyout offer from Yahoo in 2007. Zuckerberg focused instead on expanding the site and opening more features.

But, in 2007 Facebook did strike a deal with Microsoft. The software company paid $240 million for a 1.6 per cent stake in Facebook. Digital Sky Technologies purchased 1.96 per cent for $200 million two years later.

Zuckerberg’s net worth was estimated at about $1.5 billion in 2008.

Legal battles with Harvard Connection

Despite his successes with Facebook, Zuckerberg faced legal issues with the creators of Harvard Connection. 

Claiming Zuckerberg stole their idea, the creators of Harvard Connection insisted the software developer paid for their businesses losses.

After incriminating messages revealed Zuckerberg may have stolen the intellectual property of Harvard Connection, Zuckerberg apologised saying: “I think I’ve grown and learned a lot.”

An initial settlement of $65 million was reached. Despite this, the legal dispute over the issue continued into 2011 after claims Narendra and the Winklevosses claimed they were misled in regards to the value of their stock.

Current Influence

With a net worth of $113 billion, Zuckerberg signed the Giving Pledge which means he will donate 50% of his net worth to philanthropic causes before he dies. In 2010, he donated more than $100 million to save the Neward school system in New Jersey.

Following the birth of his daughter, Zuckerberg and his wife, Pricilla Chan, authored an open letter in which they pledge to give away 99% of their net worth during their lifetime

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