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Architex Angle: AI & Digital Fabrication in Construction

Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB

Cutting logs to stack for an ancient dwelling and carving stones to stack for a defensive wall were the first-time humans used tools to change their habitat. Since the Stone Age over 10,000 years ago man has been evolving processes and creating new tools to change his environment. Today, Digital Fabrication, often called 3D construction, and now Artificial Intelligence, AI, are becoming the next revolution in the construction process.

AI and DF are often considered to be replacing human as labor saving devices. There is pushback by unions and trade groups that believe these will destroy their industry, but nothing could be further from the truth. What becomes most important is using our resources most ingeniously, which includes human know-how.

Digital Fabrication, DF, has been the Holy Grail of engineers and architects worldwide for several years. An interesting experiment in Latin America is turning agricultural waste- saw dust- into environmentally friendly construction blocks. In Mexico engineers are using digital fabrication 3D printing to convert wood waste into decorative blocks for construction. 3D printing complex shapes can be more efficient with unique designs can be created by the multi-layering of the printing. This can be done in fresh concrete or in wood chips. We’ll see more of this in future Architex Angles columns.

See more here.

Artificial Intelligence, AI, is already changing our world, if it hasn’t already. I dictate on my iPhone, and it makes adjustments knowing what I meant to say or spell. The process of machines learning our needs has been around for years but now it’s being applied to construction. The $10 trillion per year worldwide construction industry is anticipated to grow 4.2% each coming year, regardless of pandemics or economic downturns. AI in construction will help the industry overcome many of the toughest challenges such as safety, labor shortages, cost overruns, and schedule disasters. As with all new technologies, the fear of it replacing workers and their learned trades is not justified. More jobs will be created to handle the work as new jobs and skills will be essential. That will be the real challenge: retraining people with new skills in a timely fashion.

AI and construction machine learning are in the works now. Computers can scrutinize mountain of daily data and give us alternate solutions that are appropriate and, if properly programmed, environmentally correct. This will include filtering of spam and nonsense information to advance safety and better building practices.

There are thousands of advantages in construction, but I’ve boiled them down to six:

  1. Minimize cost overruns: By predicting cost overruns early in the process, budgets can be properly prepared and maintained.

  2. Improve building design: 3D modeling is already in use by architects, engineers and construction managers. Better insights for more efficient and sustainable design software exists currently. Ferreting out conflicts, paired with instantaneous costing, budgets can be kept realistic and accurate.

  3. Risk and safety management: Every construction project has risks of safety and quality, as well as code compliance. By organizing multiple trades to work parallel, AI can monitor and prioritize risk factors. Also, subcontractors and providers can be rated on their risk scores with historic spreadsheets. Better than Yelp.

  4. Jobsite productivity: As new equipment such as self-driving construction machinery start to perform more repetitive tasks, workers can be more efficient and productive. Jobs won’t be lost, they will accelerate. Already sheet rock installing robots are on projects and bricklaying, excavation and painting are soon to be robot-driven.

  5. Addressing labor shortages: the construction industry has been plagued for years with lack of sufficiently and properly trained workers and today’s slow productivity is partially due to insufficient qualified worker knowledgeable of their trades. Without replacing field workers, their productivity can be increased and made safer with AI.

  6. Offsite supply and delivery: the long delay in receiving product orders has crippled the construction industry process and telescopes schedules. More and more products and construction components will be built offsite, shipped to the site on an as-needed basis.

One activity I may have a problem with is job-site robotic scanning to check on workers progress and inefficiencies, then send instantaneous messages to managers. Let’s leave Big Brother on TV!

Will AI design buildings? Perhaps, but will they replace the human endeavor of creating an artistic and uniquely functional human environment as would an architect? Only time will tell.

Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB still uses a pencil and sketch paper to design

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