Monday, 12 June 2017

Technological Diffusion Takes Time

How Rapidly Will New Technology Spread Across an Industry?

One of the underlying ideas here is that the industry we call ‘construction’ is a ‘technological system’, a densely connected network of firms and organizations that produces and maintains the built environment. This system can be divided into three different levels (local, national and global) and three distinct sub-sectors (residential and non-residential building and engineering construction), each with their own characteristics and therefore each with their own development trajectory. The driver of these differing development trajectories will be how rapidly firms adopt the range of new twenty-first century technologies now emerging.

These technologies will greatly enhance our abilities to reorder the physical world, the ultimate purpose of a technological system. These abilities are increasing through continued improvement in hardware, both mechanical and silicon, and software, with new applications and programs and the development of machine intelligence.

How firms use technology, in the way it is adopted, adapted and applied, varies widely within the construction technological system, and this is a significant driver of change. After 100 years the construction technological system is well developed, and as a mature system it is also conservative. Mature technological systems accumulate capital and skills, and this investment in the existing system gives it great inertia until some disruptive change emerges. How and why a new technology spreads through the economy and society are determined by many factors, but studies of historical cases like steam power, tractors, electricity, phones and the internet have given us good examples of technology diffusion and its dynamics. 

The rate of adoption of technologies within the firms that make up an industry, which is affected by a range of factors, has also been studied. The technology adoption literature discusses rank effects, which are the different individual characteristics of firms such as their size, and how they affect the rate and extent of adoption of new technologies, also the effects of competitive dynamics, which is how the adoption of new technology by one company in an industry influences the adoption of technology by other companies in that industry.

From economic history, we know major new technologies take time to diffuse through the economy because they require parallel changes in forms of organization, methods of production and patterns of consumption. These are not decisions firms and households make quickly or easily, due to the investment in upgrading machinery and equipment usually needed. New technologies are ‘embodied’ in this new physical capital, in the way a 20 year old car incorporates the technology of two decades ago when it was made. In the literature there are many studies of the introduction of new technologies, and the consensus is that it typically takes 15 to 30 years for a new technology to reach 90 percent of its potential market. A well-known example is Paul David’s research on electrification in the US, which took 30 years from 1900 because of the fundamental changes industry and households needed to make to take advantage of electrical power.

Another good example is tractors. The figure below shows the tractor slowly displacing horses and mules in US agriculture from 1910 to 1960. Horses and mules declined from about 26 million in 1920 to about 3 million by 1960, while the number of tractors rose from zero in 1910 to 4.5 million by 1960. One reason for the slow spread of tractors was the incremental innovation needed to increase their capabilities, which made them more attractive over time. A second was an increase in farm wages after 1940, which made tractors more economic. 

The spread of new technologies through society and the economy often takes longer than expected, based on the benefits the new tech typically brings. Paul David observed many people "lose a proper sense of the complexity and historical contingency of the processes involved in technological change and the entanglement of the latter with economic, social, political, and legal transformations. There is no automaticity in the implementation of a new technological paradigm, such as that which we presently discern is emerging from the confluence of advances in computer and communications technologies." The same could be said today about the advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence.  

Generally, discussion of construction industry development over the next decade shares a view that the impacts of new technology, including BIM, will be gradual, changing industry practice over time without significantly affecting industry structure or dynamics. Given the entanglement of economic, social, political, and legal factors in the construction technological system this might be the case, however there are good reasons to think this may be wrong because these studies either predate the current surge in machine learning or do not consider the potential of AI. Machine learning, AI, automation and robotics are an interconnected set of technologies that are evolving quickly, enabled by expanding connectivity and the massively scaleable hardware available today. 

Technologies have to be adapted into solutions for specific tasks, with their role in the workplace evolving over time as machines reach the levels of performance required. Only when their cost is low enough will they be adopted, but developing and engineering new technologies takes time and money. Once established, the single most important factor in technology uptake is the price/performance relationship, or the gain in productivity or other measure (time, quality, safety) the new technology delivers for a given level of investment. To successfully displace an older technology a new technology often has to provide an overwhelming economic advantage to overcome the inbuilt conservatism of an existing industry, due to the investment by incumbents in the current system. This is a significant barrier because, at present, the price/performance trade-off is not there for the many small firms in building and construction because the investment required to upgrade capability is too large for the size of these firms. However, for larger firms the issue is not whether to invest, in BIM for example, but how much, if they intend to compete in the upgraded and modified category of firms in the industry.

A period of technology-driven restructuring of the building and construction industry may be about to start, similar to the second half of the 1800s when the new materials of glass, steel and reinforced concrete arrived, which led to new methods of production, organization and management. There are many implications of such a restructuring. Some firms are rethinking their processes in response to developments in AI, robotics and automation as capabilities improve quickly and the range of new products using these technologies expands. Many firms, however, are not. Meanwhile, frontier firms are exploring new tech and pushing the boundaries of what is possible, and are inventing new processes.

There is understandable skepticism across the industry about the extent of impact of new technology, the ‘business as usual’ approach has worked well for many firms. With the characteristic changeability of construction sites particularly challenging for automated and robotic systems, it might take decades of investment for machines to learn how to do site work. On the other hand, once a robotic system has learned how to do something, that skill can be copied and replicated at minimal cost, and that applies as much to engineers, architects, quantity surveyors, urban planners and project managers as it does to crane drivers, bricklayers and electricians.

Rodolfo E. Manuelli and Ananth Seshadri 2014. Frictionless Technology Diffusion: The Case of Tractors, American Economic Review.
Paul David 1991. Computer and Dynamo: The Modern Productivity Paradox in a Not-too-Distant Mirror, in Technology and Productivity: The Challenge for Economic Policy. OECD.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Technological Transparency in Building and Construction

 The Cutting Edge No. 3

It is not easy to observe technological change across a project based industry. Evidence tends to be anecdotal, say Skanska’s Flying Factories, rather than systemic and widely known, like BMW’s carbon fibre manufacturing or Adidas’ 3D printed trainers. Thus, most building, engineering and architectural histories are a series of case studies of significant buildings and demonstration projects like the 1851 Crystal Palace or 2010's Burj Khalifa.

One of the effects new technologies are having in building and construction is increased transparency as more and more of the information used is digitized and new sources of data come on line. In the first category is software, in particular the fully integrated project development, procurement and management platforms now available. These increase transparency by making all transactions in the system visible to users, including clients, depending on their level of access. The main new source of data is drones.

There was a Cutting Edge post before Xmas on the use of drones in construction, which included the partnership between equipment manufacturer Komatsu and drone company Skycatch. This has since been followed by two more, similar partnerships. Kespry and John Deere joined up, as did Airware and Caterpillar, in both cases matching drone/equipment companies. These are the first, second and sixth largest construction equipment manufacturers globally (in 2016 order Caterpillar 18%, Komatsu 11%, and John Deere 5%), so this looks like a new front in the competition for market share.

A good description of the process of turning gigabytes of data into useful information comes from the Economist’s June 2017 Technology Quarterly here. The drone companies are using various technologies “to measure buildings precisely during construction and track the use of raw materials on site to ensure that everything is going according to plan. Drones are ideally suited to the task. Thousands of aerial photographs are crunched into a 3D site model, accurate to within a few centimetres, called a “point cloud”, which can be compared with the digital model of the building.” The process is called “reality capture”.

The same article included the new partnership between 3D Robotics and Autodesk, each industry leaders in their own right. They quote Chris Anderson of 3D Robotics, “It’s all an information problem,” he says. Drones are making it possible to check in real-time that plumbing, heating and electrical systems are being installed correctly, but their most important may be to measure progress made during the previous day and check that against the plan. There are competing services from companies like Nearmap and Sky and Space, which use GIS based satellite systems and also allow site progress to be viewed, although perhaps not with as much detail as a drone that can collect up to 100 gigabytes on a flight.

Autodesk and others are also using virtual reality and augmented reality to overlay digital models with real-world views. Another construction software giant, US corporation Trimble, is collaborating with Microsoft to use Hololens with the aim of “transforming how architects, engineers, contractors and owners work”. The 2016 Daqri smart helmet also uses Hololens, linking the 3D BIM model with the wearer on-site.

The idea that projects are information intensive is, of course, not new, and drone companies are not the only ones adding transparency to building and construction. While the ability to monitor site progress on a daily basis will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of project management, there are other new technologies and systems that will greatly increase the transparency of contractors and project managers operations and performance. These will help clients in general, but for those clients who are prepared to get involved in their projects and want to use the data this will be a transformative change in the construction technological system.

The Aconex cloud-based platform enables collaboration across the lifecycle of building projects, with document management, cost management, bid and tender processes and contract management, workflow and site management, and asset handover and maintenance. It fully integrates BIM and design development. Originally this was a project management system, like many others started in the dot com era, with contractors as the market. During 2016 the company moved to a new business model, where the project owner signs up for access to the Aconex collaboration platform. The owner is the fee-paying customer, a ‘subscriber’, while the other non-fee paying users are the project’s consultants, contractors and suppliers, who obtain access to the platform through the account holder's subscription.

Two other software majors have also entered this market, coming from totally different direction. Trimble Connect was launched December 2016, which brought together Trimble’s suit of six software packages covering engineering and construction. Trimble is a very big and very successful US firm, expanding from their origins in mapping and GPS to surveying, estimating and project management. The other is from German behemoth SAP. Their Connected Construction uses Internet of Things technology to link site activities to the PM and project plans. Launched in 2015, it is one of a number of industry based IoT ventures by the company.

Real-time project data and monitoring has many implications for clients, contractors, suppliers and workers. One can expect many variations in how they play out in different countries and across projects. How the increased transparency of project and contractor performance these new technologies provide will impact on the industry is an interesting and, for now, open question. Markets run on information, and industry behavior reflects information flow and availability, so these effects could be profound. The main area technological transparency will change is to reduce the current information asymmetry between contractors, who know a lot about their costs and capabilities, and clients, who typically have limited information about these. The current system of procurement and project management also provides opportunities for what are called hidden information and hidden action, from agency theory, which can lead to a principal/client making poor decisions when selecting and monitoring an agent/contractor.

With technological transparency monitoring is easier and cheaper, so hidden action becomes more unlikely. All else equal, agency theory suggests this leads to increased trust between contractual parties. Software platforms also compile a complete record of the project as it progresses through the stages from inception to operation, and do this in an objective manner with time, content and contacts recorded. Transparency means less opportunities for hidden information, which will decrease, about the project, the PM, contractors, consultants and suppliers. Agency theory suggests this would reduce adverse selection of contractual partners, and increase their contractual commitment (i.e. the effort they make to meet contractual obligations).

The Cutting Edge No. 1: Construction Technology Today

The Cutting Edge No. 2: Use of Drones in Construction