Technology of the week: Drones and 3D-printers in the construction industry
Drones and 3D-printing have been recently introduced into the construction industry. These technologies are not just another hype but improve the way the construction industry currently works and the significant impact these technologies will have in the future.
Drones; A drone is an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) that operates without a human operator on board (Irizarri, Gheisari, Walker, 2012) and is able to provide various types of data and information during a flight.
On construction sites, drones can be used to automatically patrol on the work site to collect video footage. Traditionally, the process of collecting video footage was a long, expensive and labor- intensive task as planes were needed to be hired to fly over the working site to take this footage. The larger the area that required to be monitored, the more challenging it becomes. But with the rise of drones, this type of footage can easily be gathered, and converted into a three-dimensional image of the work site, and then get compared to computerized architectural plans. Thereby, it can be shown where the actual operations are running behind schedule, and which areas should receive priority over others so that the construction process will become leaner. Consequently, the foreman at the construction site can receive information about the operations in a relatively quick and economical manner, and act upon (MIT Technology Review, 2015).
3D- printers; The commercial availability of machines that utilize laser and electron beam melting has resulted in the existence of additive manufacturing. This process, also known as 3D printing, consists of 3D models embedded in computer-aided designs (CAD) that are being fabricated by a machine through layer-by-layer fabrication. This is being made possible as the printer deposits a particle layers of material usually several powder particles thick, which are subsequently selectively melted through the scanned electron or laser beam. The rapidly solidifying material results in solid component microstructures (Economist, 2015)
3D printing on construction sites is not a novelty as the application is being used in various projects around the world. The benefits of saving construction time and greater flexibility in design are being embraced, although meeting building codes and developing printable construction materials remain challenges. (Economist, 2015).
A comparison between drones and 3D-printers
Strengths; Firstly, a comparison is made based on the strategic orientation of both technologies. That is, whether the technologies are used in order to foster efficiency, cost-saving outcomes or effectiveness by differentiation. The strength of the drone technology does not lie in adding value to construction project, that is, drone technology does not lead to the construction of better buildings. Instead, drone technology may add value to the construction processes by decreasing costs in multiple ways. Drone technology is relatively cheap and is able to monitor large areas at construction sites (Philforhumanity, 2015). Furthermore, with digital software installed in the drones, the construction site can be monitored continuously, rather than occasionally, the drones may demonstrate` certain defects or a lack of progress on the construction sites (Philforhumanity, 2015).
The 3D printing technology, however, can both benefit the processes on the construction sites by providing cost-efficiencies and value-adding activities through differentiation. The 3D printing technology enables organizations to decrease transportation costs of materials, as these can be printed on demand at the location itself. Furthermore, there is little downtime as 3D printers obtain software, which enables them to operate continuously; thereby they have more operational hours than the traditional way of building. This, combined with the higher construction speed and fewer materials used, will lead to a decrease in costs up to 70 percent (Caliper, 2015). In terms of differentiation, the software of the 3D printing technology enables organization to design more creative constructions, which might be more valuable to buyers (Caliper, 2015). It may be able to create more attractive buildings and hence increase the value of constructions.
Secondly, a comparison is made in terms of their main function on construction sites. Construction activities can, very roughly, be divided into two main types of activities. The first is operations, the actual building of constructions on the sites. The second is monitoring those operations to have a degree of control that the operations are performed efficient and effective. The new technologies both focus on one of these categories. The strength of drone technology lies in monitoring construction sites; it is an ideal substitute for the traditional approach of monitoring. 3D printing technology, at the other hand, focuses on performing the actual operations on the site. It provides a flexible and autonomous alternative to the traditional approach of manually building construction.
Weaknesses; There is a risk included in using drones in terms of safety. Drones interact with other devices, which enlarges the potential for hacking of its software by people that want to do harm. When the software of drone technology is being hacked, the organization loses control of the drone and its operations are at risk of becoming significantly damaged due to false, or a lack of, monitoring (Philforhumanity, 2015). Furthermore, the drone technology may increase the ability to monitor the construction sites, but simultaneously it will make the workers feeling watched and feeling controlled (Knight, 2015). Finally, the battery life of most drones is not congenial yet to actually fly for many hours in a row. This may limit the potential of drone technology as monitor and mapping devices in terms of downtime and amount of operational hours.
Similarly, 3D printing technology has its limitations that should be taken into consideration when looking at its applicability on construction sites. Currently, it can be argued that most printers have a questionable accuracy for construction standards (Cornell, 2015). Many lives may get lost when mistakes are made in constructions, and hence some more development is required to increase the appropriateness for printing complex structures. Furthermore, the current printers are not as smart as humans in detecting defects. When fully human-operated machines are creating or detecting a defect, humans can stop the machines building the structures. For 3D printing technology, however, a pre-defined code decides how constructions are printed. Errors will either not or detected too late, by which again safety may decrease. Furthermore, the size of 3D printers may limit its effectiveness and mobility (Economist, 2015). This may be a problem when complex and detailed structures are constructed. Future development could focus on creating smaller and detail-focused printers.
Future digital transformation and the merger of drones and 3D-printers
An opportunity exists to digitalize construction activities through directing building-instructions with engineering codes to 3D printers and drones. Before construction of the building starts, an architect designs the building and captures the idea through a design plan. This plan could be translated digitally through specially developed software, which turns the plan into practical engineering codes. 3D printers receive their source of instructions through these codes, drones can fly from above and monitor the progress so far made.
The strategic implications of the low cost technologies may change the construction industry in terms of lower entry costs for competitors. Software programs and 3D printers that are increasingly becoming commercially attractive through low prices shift the problem of high investments before a company can enter the industry. Cutting materials and welding them together previously described the best method to construct components and prefabricated structures. Software can now analyze the function of the component in a structure and design it to its optimal form, thereby forgoing the difficulties and standardized nature of components by cutting material.
While drones and 3D printers individually have enormous prospects for the future, combined the benefits are even higher. Nowadays the drones are used as a mapping instrument, where the 3D printer can complete the process by using the input to construct the needed components. These are two separate processes, which can be merged into one process by constructing a drone, which is able to ‘3D-print’ while it is in flight. This will lead to more efficiency and cost reduction. Moreover, these merged drones with 3D printing capabilities can also be used in areas that are inaccessible to humans; for example places were natural disasters took place. In this particular case the drones can help to create emergency shelters but also to trace humans in disasters, for example earthquakes or collapsed buildings.
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