Keywords: Internet of Things (IoT), Wearable devices, Ready-mixed concrete, Waffle slabs, Interlocking blocks, Digital Meeting Tools, BIM, Modular and prefabricated buildings, Blockchain.
COVID-19 pandemic has caused a staggering impact on human lives, suffering and economic costs far more than a health crisis in the world. This has had a great impact on African societies and economies. Uganda confirmed its first COVID-19 case in March 2020 which drove the country into panic, causing the government to impose a countrywide lockdown. This lockdown was enacted in various sectors of the economy including the engineering field as a measure to contain the rapid spread of the viral infection. This left the construction industry to deal with new challenges like safety of workers, worksite lockdowns, supply chain disruptions, delayed and suspended projects.
The lockdown left a few service providers performing their day-to-day services. The technological innovations and evolution in the construction industry intended to enhance workers’ safety at work, and improve communication such as audio and video conferencing were adopted since face-to-face interactions were curtailed. Other technologies like the use of interlocking blocks, ready mixed concrete and use of waffle slabs evolved as a way of cutting costs, saving time and avoiding wastage of materials while using limited labourers on site. Furthermore, modular and prefabricated construction technology was adopted whereby house components are worked on from the factory and then assembled on-site.
Building Information Modelling, which mainly focuses on the digital representation of a structure before construction to show the stakeholders exactly what is going to be put up, was adopted. The artificial intelligence tool with programmes that help in making realistic timelines, simulations and analysis was adopted. Blockchain technology is meant to store data and ensure that it is available at any time when needed and location came on board.
Embracing technology in construction is a valuable option for ensuring workers’ safety, saving costs and time, increasing productivity, proper project planning, less labour-intensive, attracting more work and completing projects more efficiently and effectively. With the right equipment and technology, the construction industry is ready for its next leap forward amidst the pandemic shortfalls. Therefore, the government of Uganda and other stakeholders ought to collaboratively work to ensure easy, reliable and affordable access to different technologies for their economies to keep thriving even during uncertainties like Covid-19.
Looking back at 2020, who would have predicted that the world would be blindsided by a pandemic? Thousands of businesses became COVID-19 collateral. Far more than a health crisis, the pandemic has specifically impacted African societies and economies at their core. While its impact varies from one African country to another, it has increased poverty and inequalities on a global scale (African News (2020)).
Uganda confirmed the first Covid-19 case in March 2020, which drove the country’s businesses to a standstill (African News (2020)). The imposed lockdown left a few service providers dubbed “essential workers” performing their day-to-day services (Human Rights Watch (2020)). The pandemic and its consequential impacts have created a “new normal” culture with increased reliance on innovation and emerging technologies. These technologies are imperative in addressing new challenges posed by the pandemic and call for the adoption of a multi-sectoral approach both locally and globally.
The construction industry saw growth in renovations of single-family homes, real-estate, multi-residential housing and tenant buildings along with commercial construction. Despite the uncertainty, experts predicted that the pandemic would have ramifications on several aspects of construction. Therefore several questions came on board such as, how would citizens maintain social distancing, work with masks throughout the day and effectively coordinate tasks? What if one or more has contracted the Virus, would the entire construction site be shut down? How would that affect delivery time or budget?
Managing high numbers of construction workers at a time like this proved difficult. Therefore construction managers adjusted by harnessing technology that has helped to keep workers safe and completed projects efficiently. A massive shift from working in offices to working in homes and from activities that keep a large group of workers on-site to a few has been massively accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic through the adoption of technologies in myriad ways.
Safety at work
Health and safety have always been a primary concern in the construction industry. While the industry makes up 5% of the workforce, according to OSHA 20% of worker deaths each year occur in construction. But COVID-19 has shifted the playing field, resulting in employee safety being taken even more seriously. Social distancing, protective gear and hand hygiene protocols have now become the norm while hand sanitizers, clean and well-worn face masks among coworkers have become as mainstream as hardhats and safety glasses.
Technological innovations of adopting the Internet of Things (IoT) on the construction site such as installation of cameras at critical points around the site premises and the use of cameras on top of hard hats to monitor intruders and social distancing are key in reducing risks. As a worker walks around the site with a camera mounted on his hard hat, it captures a detailed layout of the entire job site. Open space technology then combines the collected images and renders them into an immersive google street view-like 3D representation of the job site in a matter of minutes. The visualization can then be viewed from anywhere, allowing off-site workers to view the project as if they were there in person hence avoiding frequent visits onsite.
Furthermore, there was the introduction of wearable devices such as watches and bracelets that can communicate data behind the scenes to keep workers safe through warning employees if they are not properly distanced. Some wearable devices can also locate the workers in case of an accident. (B. Rentz (2021))
“It’s hard to imagine modern cities without something as crucial as concrete, as it is the basis of civilization.” Concrete is one of the most important components used in the construction industry and accounts for 30-50% of the total cost of any structure being constructed.
Ready-mixed concrete is an old concept that was developed in the ’90s. It has however evolved as it is tailor-made to match the needs of a construction project. The quality of concrete used has a direct impact on the strength and durability of the structure and it is in this context that ready-mixed concrete plays an important role. (William .C. (2002))
Instead of mixing concrete for slabs on site, one can easily order ready-mixed concrete from a batching plant. The ready-mixed concrete is prepared by experts and the right amount is delivered to the construction site by a truck. A boom pump is then used to transfer the concrete from the truck to any floor. Using ready-mixed concrete, eradicates unnecessary wastage and improper mixing as many people running projects may not be experts at mixing concrete. Furthermore, bearing in mind that at times construction materials are stolen, concrete mixed on-site may end up being of lower quality and even hazardous that it cannot hold the building together in the long-term.
Also, a concrete mixing spot at a construction site may not be advisable now due to many people that are likely to congregate at one spot, which makes social distancing impossible as the safety of workers is paramount during this pandemic. In addition to that, mixing concrete on site gets harder if one is running multiple projects. Therefore, modern technology allows one to ditch noisy concrete mixers and tens or even hundreds of labourers carrying cement bags, buckets and spades hence, controlling virus transmission due to the limited number of workers on-site that can easily be monitored.
Digital meeting tools
This is fundamental to the existence and survival of humans as well as to an organization. It is a process of creating and sharing ideas, information, views, facts, and feelings, among the people to reach a common understanding. It is a continuous process that mainly involves three elements viz. sender, message, and receiver. (John A. et al (2017))
Through the pandemic, as gatherings are prohibited, the use of video conferencing and conference calls (Audio) has been adopted as key technologies to curb physical site interaction.
Audio conferencing involves only two or many parties at the same time. Audio conferencing is conducted either through a telephone line or the Internet by using devices such as phones or computers. If one only wants to listen, he/she just needs speakers. If he/she decides to speak as well, he/she may need a microphone.
Video conferencing involves the use of applications that connect two or more users through audio and video in real-time such as WhatsApp (Group call), Skype and Facebook Messenger. Since free tools cannot support all end-users’ communication requirements, including screen sharing, chat, file sharing, co-authoring and in-depth security and content control, there is a shift to using Zoom, Google meet, WebEx, Microsoft Teams and Slack. (J. Biggs (2021))
Through these modes of communication, employees can work remotely, time barriers are eliminated, communication is improved as it enables users to discuss issues in real-time with chat capabilities. In addition to that, reduction of costs incurred in transport and ease for people with Disabilities (PWDs) to attend.
This is the latest advancement in wall Construction. These blocks are ‘locked’ against each other without the use of cement mortar, to form a structurally stable wall that reduces the cost and time of construction by almost half. Each interlocking block has grooves and locks on its sides which can be fitted with each other to form a block wall. (Gilroy et al (2001))
These blocks are less labour-intensive and time-saving, can be salvaged without damage when the house is being dismantled in the future, making them/their use well suited in the pandemic period as the economies are hit hard and projects need to be executed as fast as possible saving time and cost for the client.
These are concrete slabs made of reinforced concrete with ribs running in two directions on their underside. They are smaller slabs joined together to make a bigger slab as It is so quick to assemble, less labour-intensive and saves money rather than the conventional slab. They can be in-situ cast, precast or pre-fabricated. (Anupoju and Sadanandam (2017))
The advantages of waffle slabs are, they require less material for buildings with bigger spans, are environmentally friendly and their pattern is aesthetically pleasing. Since they require a small group of labourers, this hits the target of having a smaller group on site which is easy to manage within the pandemic. (Anupoju and Sadanandam (2017))
Modular and Prefabricated construction
The use of modular construction involves manufacturing building components offsite. These are then transported and assembled at the site of construction. Adopting prefabricated construction, project schedules and completions can be halved compared to conventional building methods. This enhances reduced project costs, less labour-intensive on-site and timely completion of the project.
Furthermore, it reduces construction waste since many buildings are constructed simultaneously in one factory and excess materials from one project can easily be used on another. (McGrawHill (2011))
Besides that, by reducing total deliveries as well as total time spent on-site, modular construction decreases carbon emissions. In addition to that, in the factory, building processes are optimized over time through software enhancements, further reducing waste and increasing efficiency.
Building Information Modeling (BIM)
Building information modelling (BIM) is the process of creating a digital representation of a structure (a “model”) before building it. An accurate representation of the building enables everyone involved in the construction to anticipate difficulties, eliminate risk, determine logistics and increase efficiency. (Smith and Deke (2007))
In the past, BIM was a tool to develop a building in 3D. However, BIM software has matured. Now, 4D, 5D and 6D BIM have come on board whereby, 4D BIM aids construction sequencing in the form of an extra dimension of information to a project information model in the form of scheduling data, 5D BIM allows drawing on the components of the information model being able to extract accurate cost information and 6D BIM allows a focus to better understand the whole lifespan of the project, which allows for better decisions upfront in terms of both cost and maintenance after the project is completed. (Kymmell and Willem (2008))
Before construction, BIM helps reduce the need for future change orders by anticipating challenges. During construction, BIM improves communication and efficiency by offering a central hub for up-to-date and accurate reference documentation. After construction, BIM creates the possibility for building management for the structure’s entire lifecycle by providing owners with valuable information about every detail of the building. This saves continuous visits which may lead to face-to-face interactions and meetings for review changes that might arise hence in the long run saving time, costs and reducing chances of transmission.
Artificial intelligence (AI), has helped to achieve significant contributions to the improvement of construction operations, service processes and productivity in recent years (M. Chui and S. Francisco (2017)). The adoption of AI techniques has helped to enhance automation and provide better competitive advantages as compared to conventional approaches since most firms have bowed down due to the pandemic effects. (Chien. P. C. et al (2020)).
The subfields of AI such as machine learning, natural language processing, robotics, computer vision, optimization, automated planning and scheduling (T. Rao et al (2021)), have been applied to tackle complex problems and support decision-making for real-world problems.
It is evident that this revolution has led to significant process improvements, cost-efficiency, reduced production times, improved safety and helped to achieve firms’ sustainability goals. (Chien. P. C. et al (2020))
Virtual and Augmented Reality (AR)
Augmented reality (AR) is a digital layer of information that enhances a view of the real world. For example, a construction worker could point a tablet at a slab, and the tablet could display the building plans for that slab as if they were part of the environment. Augmented reality has huge implications for construction because it provides additional information exactly where it is needed. By measuring a physical space (Automated measurements) in real-time, AR technology can help construction workers accurately follow building plans. By using a mobile device with AR capabilities, construction professionals can look at a job site with additional information laid directly on top of the real world. (B. Rentz (2021))
In addition to that, VR can be used to simulate workspaces, provide training and health and safety guidance since these are key during the pandemic so as to keep site activities running simultaneously. By exploring, gaining familiarity with, and practising in a simulated environment, knowledge and skills can be gained without any of the real-world consequences.
Blockchain technology is a way of recording information that has broad applications for construction project management. Blockchain is an intuitive way to increase project efficiency. At its foundation, blockchain is just automated bookkeeping, with a twist; Not only does it get rid of documents like papers which are a medium for virus transmission, but also performs digital paper-pushing without any human interaction hence controlling face-to-face interactions which promote virus transmission. For example, if you are a contractor pouring 42 tons of aggregates at a job, the gauge on your track could signal when you finished that task, generate the invoice for your work and trigger your client to instantly deposit funds into your account. (B. Rentz (2021))
Aspects of blockchain that make it particularly appealing for the construction industry are: all data related to the project is encrypted, so proprietary information stays protected; project information is not stored in a single location, and it is accessible from anywhere hence reducing the need for stakeholders always visiting the site so as to get the information they need at a given time in the long run saving costs, time and chances of transmitting the virus. (Bashir and Imran (2017))
Advancements in new construction technology have always driven construction forward. Imagine what the construction site would be like today amidst Covid-19 without technology. Without power tools, we would be cutting boards and drilling holes by hand. Without heavy equipment, labourers would be excavating sites and digging trenches with shovels and pickaxes. Without the elevator (or lift), buildings would only be a few storeys tall. With the adoption of new technologies, we can build stronger, taller, and more energy-efficient structures.
Technology has made construction sites safer and workers more efficient. It has allowed us to ensure workers safety, save cost and time, increase productivity, achieve proper project planning, improve collaboration, attract more work and tackle more complex projects. In the long run, this has reduced the burden on the client since economies have been hit hard by the pandemic. Therefore, with the right equipment and technology, the construction industry is ready for its next leap forward.
The government and other stakeholders ought to work to ensure easy, reliable and affordable access to different technologies for their economies to keep thriving even during uncertainties like Covid-19. For example, the government can introduce a policy that bans taxation of technological devices to improve access, and new technologies should be incorporated in course units for higher education; this will encourage easy access to these technologies.
It is entirely on this basis that all engineers can stand out to confess that despite the global uncertainty of Covid19, there is still a wide room for improvement towards performance in the engineering sector.
I wish to thank specially Mrs. Evath Kaahwa, Mr. Daniel Ahumuza and Ms. Patience Businge, for their great support, and sharing of knowledge with no boundaries.
Further thanks go to Mrs. Evas Nyamahunge and Mr. Caleb Atugonza for their encouragement towards this research.
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The writer holds a Bachelor of Science in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Uganda Christian University. He is a corperate member of UIPE with member number 1561. He has the desire and passion to visualize and implement infrastructure as well as convert projects sustainably.