Can it be? A Solution to Lack of Innovation in the Engineering and Construction Industry……….?

I took a look at the additive manufacturing processes that AECOM was trying to capitalize on.

People believe that the Engineering and Construction Industry (E&C) is one that lacks innovation due to the design-build process that has been in place since the early days of the industry. It is a very manual process (think of the designers and construction workers who are people) even with the aid of computer software. That may have been true in the past, but, it is now on the cusp of revolutionary changes because of additive manufacturing, or more specifically 3D printing (3DP), that is beginning to take hold in the industry. AECOM is trying to become an industry leader in adding the additive manufacturing skills highlighted above to their toolbox and offering clients a much richer experience.

In multiple studies of the top 400 contractors in the U.S. indicate that cost control, design practices and quality control (among others, such as: scheduling and labor training) are functions that have meaningful room for productivity improvement [1]. Therefore, technological advances in 3DP which has brought the cost curve down substantially and has given promise to the industry, or AECOM in this case. In the words that follow, I will analyze what AECOM is doing in order to capture some of the short and medium-term potential benefits and risks that 3DP has enabled the entire E&C industry.

3DP has been around for over 35 years and the first semblance of it was published by Hideo Kodama of Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute. Since then the cost of 3DP has come down and accuracy of has improved [2] which has allowed companies in the E&C space to potentially to reduce the need for human resources and high capital investments. [3] AECOM has been able to realize benefits through reduction in steps throughout the design process (in cost-plus contracts). AECOM has begun to use 3DP which has allowed a project model to be easily created therefore each team member would be able to print a portion of the project and communicate between teams more effectively and ultimately reduce costs. Another shorter-term benefit that AECOM is taking advantage of is the ability to create a finished model that was typically outsourced and required long lead times which would draw out the design phase of a given project. Longer term, benefits that AECOM hopes to realize are utilizing large-scale 3D printers to build portions (if not all) of a project. This would result in a large decrease direct construction labor costs and an increase in rapidity of project completion which would increase AECOM project turnover.

A potential downside however is the cost associated with the widespread re-training that will be needed in-order-to retrain all of the designers, engineers and architects at AECOM. AECOM will need to view the retraining costs as an investment – an investment to assure itself of having the best of the best employees. Industry observers also believe that a meaningful obstacle for large scale 3DP is regulatory risk. [4] There are many building codes that must be adhered to and given the bureaucratic nature of government the change in AECOM’s industry verticals may take a while. But, given all of the positives associated with 3DP in E&C space, particularly the decrease in accidents, it will only be a matter of time before the building codes are changed to include 3DP construction.

I would recommend that AECOM take additional steps to capture the benefits sooner and dispel some of the risks. AECOM could develop a specific 3DP training program that ties into the AECOM-specific design/construction phases. This will not only provide every party that is involved in a design/construction project invaluable information on what the future in the E&C space looks like, but the fact that it ties in directly to current AECOM systems/processes will make it more likely that employees will stay. AECOM also has a size advantage. AECOM is the third largest company in the E&C industry and can afford to scale use of 3DP around the world. AECOM has operations in in over 150 countries [5] and can utilize its balance sheet to place 3DP in any opportune location. Furthermore, AECOM’s size-advantage means that it can deploy capital to research the effects that 3DP is having on its business to equip itself for when 3DP starts to become an industry norm and regulators start to ask questions.

There also exist some questions relating to the use of 3D printers. What will AECOM do if the market castigates it for starting to get the ball rolling in terms creating an oversupply of construction workers? What ethical considerations will AECOM have to take into account? AECOM builds large infrastructure, commercial and industrial projects, what will the ramifications be for AECOM if a 3D printed project fails i.e. a building collapses and there is a loss of life?

(793 words)

Citations

[1] David Arditi  and Krishna Mochtar, “Trends in productivity improvement in the US construction industry,” Construction Management and Economics, 18:1, 15-27 (2010), Taylor & Francis Online via Google Scholar, accessed November 2018.

[2] Autodesk, “History of 3D Printing: It’s Older Than You Are (That Is, If You’re Under 30),” https://www.autodesk.com/redshift/history-of-3d-printing/, accessed November 2018.

[3] Yi Wei Daniel Tay, Biranchi Panda, Suvash Chandra Paul, Nisar Ahamed Noor Mohamed, Ming Jen Tan & Kah Fai Leong, “3D printing trends in building and construction industry: a review,” Virtual and Physical Prototyping, 12:3, 261-276 (2017), Taylor & Francis Online via Google Scholar, accessed November 2018.

[4] Ivo Kothma and Niels Faber, “How 3D printing technology changes the rules of the game: Insights from the construction sector”, Journal of Manufacturing Technology Management, Vol. 27 Issue: 7, pp.932-943 (2016), Emerald Insight via Google Scholar, accessed November 2018.

[5] AECOM, 2017 Annual Report (Los Angeles: AECOM, 2017), p. 15.

 

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3 thoughts on “Can it be? A Solution to Lack of Innovation in the Engineering and Construction Industry……….?

  1. According to the Economist in June 2017, “3D printing and clever computers could revolutionize construction”. Moreover, there are several other media outlets that praise the competitive advantages gained by utilizing 3D printing within the construction industry. However, the question remains…how feasible are these potential benefits? 3D printing has certainly been gaining traction in certain industries, but can 3D printing capabilities be feasibly applied to heavy-duty construction projects?

    BCG recently published a report which outlines the effects that 3D printing might have on the construction industry (see link: https://www.bcg.com/en-us/publications/2018/will-3d-printing-remodel-construction-industry.aspx). Per BCG, the construction industry has been very conservative and sluggish to adopt new technology. But in the view of BCG, that mindset might soon be changing. And if so, it would be wise of companies like AECOM to be the first-movers to adopt technological advances like 3D printing in order to gain an edge in the industry.

  2. HTL makes a good point in calling out the conservatism and sluggishness of the construction industry. I think the biggest factor is that there is generally a huge learning curve to adopting new practices. You mentioned the need to retrain all of the designers, engineers and architects – and you are absolutely correct. Then, the 1-5 projects after the initial training will most likely take a huge productivity hit (think of “Englishitization” case from class!). There’s a chance that this would make the industry more productive, but it would take a steep learning curve for people gather experience first.

    Your question at the end also mentioned a risk of the new technology having potential to collapse, cause injury, etc… TONS of testing would have to be performed before a change like this made it into the building code so I wouldn’t worry too much. I think AECOM would want full certainty that this technology is allowed in building code before deciding to invest in it.

  3. As previous comments already pointed out, I think that AECOM needs to take time to test the technology and decide on using 3DP on its products, but overall, I strongly support your idea that 3DP technology would solve many issues that E&C industry has had in decade. The leading player in the industry such as AECOM has to lead the transition of the industry to next phase using 3D Printing technologies.

    Autodesk, the leader in construction software field, has also invested in 3DP technology for years and explained on this article (https://connect.bim360.autodesk.com/3d-printing-in-construction) that the technology is truly evolving in these days! Now the use cases will grow, and we would be able to see what this innovation would bring us in next few years. Actually current 3D printing business itself is not profitable. So I think AECOM should keep an eye on the trend happening around them and support the trend, with a long-term view on the technology.

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