The architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry has seen significant, stable growth in the past decade. In 2016, the top 15 AEC companies made $125 billion in total revenue, and the global construction industry is projected to grow by $10.3 trillion in 2020. One contributing factor of this growth is the increasing use of technology in AEC companies.
Field and planning technologies like machine automation and AutoCAD have been essential for the development of AEC companies in the last decade. Technology is making even more of an impact now that a new generation of tech-savvy construction professionals is entering the industry. As a result, professionals are seeing a range of new and revolutionary tech trends in the AEC sector.
6 Technology Trends in AEC to Watch
Technology has substantially impacted virtually every industry in the world, and AEC is no exception. Below are the top 6 technology trends in the AEC industry, plus the ways they're affecting the sector's future:
1. Increasing Use of Drones
The increasing use of drones is one of the most significant AEC industry trends. While they started as a gimmick, drones — also called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — are now recognized in the industry for their numerous benefits. The overhead views provided by drones give construction teams a clear overall perspective of the job site, helping them track everything from surveys and machinery to materials and people.
Drones vary in their utility and functionality based on their specific features. Drones can be fully autonomous, partially autonomous or remote-controlled by a human user. They may also be enhanced with features like thermal cameras, mapping tools and Global Positioning System (GPS) units, which all may pose unique benefits to the project depending on how they are used. Here's a closer look at what drones can do:
- Surveying and tracking: Drones are equipped with cameras that can take images and videos to gain an aerial view of the job site. These images, along with any other data collected by the drone, can be used to survey sites, track changes and identify differences between the site design and site build.
- Modeling: The images and videos drones collect can be used to establish detailed 3D models of job sites, which can then be imported into a company's building information modeling (BIM) system. These models and images are excellent for both project tracking and marketing purposes.
- Documentation: Drone flights are also used to document progress. Weekly drone flights can contribute to health and safety inspections or simply show a project's progress.
- Incident prevention: Drones are quality tools in incident prevention, showing overhead images of everything from site locations and perimeter security to personnel activity. Data collected from drones can help identify congestion and hazards before they pose a problem.
While current drone technology enables users to survey, inspect and manage worksites more effectively, there are even more advancements on the horizon that may expand drone functionality. These include advanced thermal sensors and ground control points that will help identify structural issues more easily. Some drones are also designed to do basic construction functions like nailing shingles to a roof, which increases their functionality while also reducing workers' injury risks.
Drones are an exciting prospect for any AEC company, but you should do extensive research before jumping in. Drone programs are expensive to start, and company leaders will need to see concrete benefits and plans before signing off on the venture. First, consider how your company would use the drones. Once you've decided this, select drone types and models best suited for those purposes.
Finally, consider how you can implement a drone program practically. Will you train and hire a drone specialist on staff or hire a drone device subcontractor? If you choose the latter option, do your research to find a drone device subcontractor who is familiar with the AEC industry and can provide drones and operators to meet your company's needs.
2. Increasing Rise of Cloud Technology
Cloud technology has experienced newfound popularity in the AEC industry in recent years, with the use of cloud-based software doubling between 2012 and 2014. The AEC industry's movement to the cloud was originally limited by the absence of cloud-based computer-aided design (CAD) software. Now, the situation has changed, and more construction resources are transitioning to a cloud environment.
Some significant factors pushing the AEC sector toward the cloud include the following:
- Reduced information technology (IT) expenses: By hosting their software and data storage in the cloud, construction companies require less IT hardware and storage space, which in turn requires less maintenance. This reduces costs on all sides. Additionally, many cloud-based software solutions charge based on use rather than by a flat rate, which can further reduce costs for construction IT departments.
- Infinite scalability: Cloud software and storage solutions can be scaled up or down easily based on the company's needs. Instead of paying for hardware and software you're not using or spending money upgrading everything based on one particularly busy season, you can scale your cloud solutions as needed so you only pay for what you require.
- Software integration: One of the most significant benefits of cloud technology for the AEC industry is integrated cloud solutions. Cloud-based software solutions are often backed by dedicated support teams, who can set up integrations that automatically transfer data between platforms. This makes project coordination significantly easier by automating updates in project data.
- Increased accessibility: The construction industry is based on communication, and the cloud only helps in this area. AEC professionals lose an average of five-and-a-half hours a week hunting down project data. Construction professionals reported that poor communication and mediocre project data contributed to 48% of all rework on job sites. The cloud helps reduce this problem by allowing access to project data anywhere and anytime, facilitating greater information accessibility and communication.
While the cloud's popularity has increased, the construction industry also has some hurdles to overcome regarding cloud security. While usage of cloud technology has grown, one survey found that 60% of construction companies did not have or were not aware of any cloud security policies in place.
With construction companies moving everything from project plans to financial documents to the cloud, a significant portion of businesses are putting themselves at risk by not verifying cloud platform security. This issue can easily be fixed by allotting more time and resources to IT, although that is a problem in itself based on the next trend in our list.
3. Smaller IT Budgets
Despite technology's potential to revolutionize the AEC industry, companies are not matching that potential with their spending. One 2014 report surveyed 1,000 contractors on their use and funding of IT, and it found that IT budgets are surprisingly low. More than 30% of the surveyed companies reported their IT budget was less than 1% of their corporate revenue, regardless of the company's size or sales volume.
Smaller IT budgets within the construction industry significantly impact IT staff — a minimal budget means IT personnel is also kept to a minimum. Some of the most substantial staffing trends within the industry are below:
- Dedicated IT departments: Of the companies surveyed, nearly 60% of respondents reported they had a dedicated IT department.
- IT staff size: The average IT staff size varied based on the company's size, not the budget. Sixty percent of businesses said they determined the number of IT staff based on the total number of employees, while only 4.7% stated that IT staff numbers were based on budget allowances. Companies of up to 1,000 total employees have an IT department of one to five people, with the average number of IT staff increasing with the total number of employees.
- IT staff changes: Over half of the companies surveyed planned to maintain the same size staff in the future. Few stated that they would increase staff, with even less planning on decreasing their numbers.
Unfortunately, the numbers indicate that AEC companies are keeping IT budgets and staff to a minimum and only viewing IT staff needs as a function of overall personnel, rather than a component of the company's technological goals. Minimal IT budgets are nothing new in construction, and this is a trend seen throughout various industries.
Fortunately, many technology solutions are accounting for these factors, offering low-cost automated solutions that free up IT budgets and staff to work on future-focused tasks. As long as IT budget trends continue, the AEC IT industry will likely see more of these cost-effective automated solutions hitting the market.
4. More Building Information Modeling Takeovers
According to the National Building Specification, 78% of manufacturers believe building information modeling is the future of construction project information. BIM is becoming a crucial process in building planning and design, both due to the software's capabilities and the collaboration it enables. At its core, AEC BIM technology allows professionals to collaborate within a single 3D model, tracking data and updating changes in real time.
BIM trends in the AEC industry show it is quickly taking over the sector, and many professionals expect it to be an industry requirement within a few years. Much of this BIM takeover is attributed to the numerous benefits of BIM technology, which include the following:
- Detailed modeling: The shared model within a BIM platform is highly detailed, with 3D representations of everything from surveys to infrastructure. These models can even come with advanced simulation tools to help visualize things like seasonal sunlight. On top of these benefits, the BIM platform's 3D model can also be used for client and regulatory presentations.
- Eliminated duplication: A BIM solution's shared platform means there is no duplication of a project's specifications. All the data is contained within a single program, including building plans, decisions and changes. As such, there is no need to reconcile duplicate drawings.
- Change tracking: BIM platforms save a project's history so users can capture all decisions. This tracks the time spent working on the model and allows users to return to previous versions when needed so they can backtrack the decision-making process.
- Process visualization: BIM programs also allow for submodels, which can show the building at each phase of construction. This feature helps with sequencing the construction process and coordinating the need for materials and crews.
- Mobile capability: Besides this wealth of information and collaborative data, BIM programs are also mobile. Many BIM solutions, like Autodesk®, are also cloud-based, meaning they can be accessed at any time from anywhere.
Using these capabilities, many firms have already saved money by switching to BIM technology. According to one survey, 22% of construction professionals attributed costly rework to poor project information, including incorrect, inaccessible or unshareable project data. The survey estimated that the U.S. construction industry loses $14.3 billion a year due to inadequate project information alone. With these potential cost savings, on top of the practical benefits offered, the future of BIM technology in the AEC industry certainly looks promising.
5. Increased Use of Virtual Reality
Virtual reality (VR) isn't just for gaming — it's also a useful tool for the AEC industry. Virtual reality is the next step in 3D modeling for the AEC sector. VR immerses the user in a 3D model of the project, allowing them to explore using a specialized headset. It creates realistic 360-degree rotations, making the user feel like they're inside the model. This capability delivers several benefits to the construction industry, including the following:
- New perspectives: VR allows users to view the model from a new perspective, which enables them to spot potential problems earlier in the construction planning process. This capability helps minimize delays and reduces costly rework down the road. VR also serves as a cheaper alternative to built mock-ups, as it is easier to produce and transport between stakeholders.
- Shareability: VR models are easily shared between teams due to their digital nature and can include as much or as little detail as needed. While built models were helpful for project orientation, they required physical transportation between locations. They also lacked any close-up details, unlike VR, which can contain as much detail as needed. VR even allows for virtual walk-throughs, something that is impossible using a miniature model.
- Streamlined collaboration: Because VR allows teams to see projects without traveling to them — and it exists within a digital space — crews can collaborate more easily in real time, which lets them quickly ask questions, point out issues and make decisions. This immediate feedback helps streamline the planning process, providing a greater level of detail in a shorter time frame.
- Memorable customer experiences: On top of the benefits for the planning team, VR also presents a unique experience for clients. Clients can use VR to see the project in full detail, experiencing the complete version as if they were there. This transparency is a unique selling point for clients, as the planning process has historically posed an issue between owners and construction professionals. With VR, clients can provide more informed feedback on a project plan, further streamlining planning while increasing their overall satisfaction.
By providing these capabilities and benefits, VR makes a valuable addition to any construction company's IT toolbox. It increases profitability and improves the construction experience for clients and AEC professionals alike.
6. New AI Solutions
Artificial intelligence (AI) and deep learning are other technologies expected to make waves in the AEC industry. Artificial intelligence is a term that describes when a machine mimics human cognitive activities like problem-solving, pattern recognition and deep learning. Deep learning, or machine learning, is a subset of AI that specifically details computer systems' abilities to learn from data using statistical techniques.
Other sectors have used AI and deep learning to transform their performance through increased productivity and analytical capabilities, but the construction industry has been slow to adopt this technology.
While it will likely adopt AI more gradually compared to other sectors, the AEC industry is expected to shift toward AI in the coming years. This change will be necessary to stay relevant. It will also be a logical step forward based on the range of applications and benefits for AI in construction. Some potential functions of AI in this field include the following:
- Cost estimates: Many projects end up exceeding their budgets despite the quality of their project teams. AI can help develop more accurate cost estimates based on the project size, contract type and historical data from similar projects.
- Building design: AI can also be used in tandem with BIM technology to automatically reconcile different models from sub-teams and present various design solutions. The AI can do this more quickly than through manual means, considering everything from physics to infrastructure when delivering solutions.
- Project tracking: AI can operate in tandem with drones and scanning technology to capture 3D images of the construction site through the building process and track progress. AI can then use this data to analyze progress and alert management of potential delays or errors as they happen before they result in major slowdowns.
- Data management: Construction headquarters can also benefit from AI systems, especially in data management. AI systems can filter through requests for information, open issues and change orders while alerting project managers of any critical data and sorting the rest. These programs are great for a range of functions, from mundane spam filtering to advanced prioritization.
- Risk management: On top of these project capabilities, AI can improve job site efficiency. By using self-driving construction machinery to perform repetitive and labor-intensive tasks on-site, construction teams can improve their work quality, reduce fatigue and risk to laborers and increase productivity by allocating human workers to perform more skilled jobs.
While AI is unlikely to play a significant role in the construction industry for a while, many construction companies are already using some level of it in more mundane applications like data management. With time, the efficiency gains from AI technology will convince construction companies to expand AI applications throughout more areas of the sector.
up to 20% from start to finish, not to mention the potential for increased profits that can be gained through improved client satisfaction. To benefit from these cost savings, however, companies need to be on top of the industry trends.
If your company wants to be a part of AEC industry growth, you need to be aware of the technology trends. Implementing trending technology early can benefit your company's productivity and profit margin and help your business stay ahead of the competition. Duncan-Parnell can help with these things.
Since 1946, Duncan-Parnell has been a trusted supplier of high-quality hardware, innovative software and invaluable services to AEC industry professionals. We carry the best brands in the industry, from Autodesk® BIM software to Trimble® surveying and mapping equipment. With an experienced team and support services ranging from printing to training, successful projects start here. As industry leaders, we also work hard to keep a pulse on the latest technology by reporting industry news and trends on our blog.
Browse our website to learn more about industry trends, or contact Duncan-Parnell to see how our solutions can take your projects to the next level.