FROM MUSEUM TO SMART PORTAL: TRANSFORMATIONAL SHIFTS AS CHANGING DRIVERS FOR THE CONSTRUCTION INDUSTRY OF MALAYSIA
Universiti Tun Hussein Onn Malaysia, JOHOR
1. Prof. Ir. Dr. Chee-Ming Chan (Fac. of Engineering Technology); firstname.lastname@example.org
2. Prof. Ts. Dr. Alina Shamsuddin (Fac. of Technology Management); email@example.com
3. Assoc. Prof. Ts. Dr. Azeanita Suratkon (Fac. of Civil Engineering & Built Environment); firstname.lastname@example.org
Journey through time: Development of the construction industry
The construction industry essentially involves the assembly and erection of structures as shelter and various other functions. It is arguably as old as human civilisation itself, evolving from creating a structure which is purely functional to moderate the climatic effects to modern-day skyscrapers of immense heights and fantastic architectural designs, yet still fulfilling the fundamental needs of shelter for humans. Indeed, we can build these protective dwellings that make humans adaptable to a variety of climates around the world and become a global species.
The oldest construction recorded to date is the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania: A 1.8-million-year-old stone circle that resembles the foundations of stick or grass huts built by hunter-gatherers (Fig. 1). With a seeming gap in verified records, the next ancient temple structure discovered is the 11,000-year-old Gobekli Tepe, literally means ‘belly hill’ in Turkish, covering a sprawling site in southeast Turkey with massive carved stones crafted and arranged by pre-historic people who have yet to utilise tools or pottery. About 6500 years ago, the first concrete was introduced in Syria and Jordan by the Nabataean traders. This Arab tribe originated from the deserts of eastern Jordan, forming floors, underground cisterns and housing structures with the ubiquitous material. 3000 years later, the Egyptians and Chinese founded the renowned pyramids and fortresses using a mixture of mud and straw as binders for the masonry works.
Fast-forward in time, and we see modern construction taking off sometime at the turn of the 20th century. It was an era that was very much built upon the foundation laid by the preceding Industrial Revolution, spanning over a century from 1760 to 1840. New technologies were developed to ease the building works, raise efficiency in the mechanised processes and add value to the construction industry as a whole. Research and innovative efforts have further streamlined the advancement in construction materials and methods as well as the coordination and management of mega projects for more effective use of time and resources.
Some key milestones of modern construction include precast concrete introduced in the 1920s, where precast components were manufactured off-site and then transported to be assembled on-site. This has significantly optimised space usage of the often-congested construction sites while improving the field safety aspect as workmen and machinery compete for manoeuvrability rooms. Precast concrete has also reduced construction time without compromising on product quality, where stringent quality control at the manufacturing plant ensures a thorough check of the components at every stage of production.
Steel frames were ushered in as the preferred method for large-scale buildings in the mid-20th century, though the technology has been around since the 19th century. With improvement in the production and installation processes, steel frame construction grew in terms of time- and cost- efficiencies. The flexibility of the technology and components, coupled with the systemised assembly procedure, has popularised steel frame deployment in both large and small-scale building projects.
The 20th century was arguably dominated by the Industrialised Building Systems (IBS), notwithstanding the fact that it was conceptually mooted back in the 1960s. Using pre-engineered building components and systems manufactured off-site from a variety of materials, namely wood, concrete, metal and composites, it is indeed an advanced version of the precast concrete generation. IBS enabled the quick completion of large-scale projects via standardised, pre-checked components produced in mass forms with a relatively speedy assembly procedure for the well-trained workers on-site.
Digitalisation in the 21st century raised the game for the construction industry, where the use of IT and digital technologies dramatically transformed the industry’s landscape with seamless coordination, greater precision and transcending creativity across disciplines of engineering. The tools adopted include BIM (Building Information Modelling), 3D printing, remote sensor monitoring, autonomous drones, UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), and virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR), among others. These technological advancements have irrevocably positively revolutionised the construction industry, especially in terms of hazard containment, environmental preservation and responsible consumption of natural resources.
With data analysis from DroneDeploy (a cloud software platform for commercial drones) on drone usage based on 100 million aerial images from 400,000 job sites in 180 countries in 2018, an example of digitalisation of the industry with drones is summarised in Fig. 2.
In a nutshell, the construction industry grows the infrastructure to support and propel the nation’s economic development, with a great impact on the social cultivation of the people. This is evidenced by the ancient civilisations discussed earlier.
Wind of change: An inevitable tumble through time
History has taught us that change is inevitable to sustain the growth of a nation and its people, irrespective of the scale of disaster or mishap that strikes. After the aftershocks from the COVID-19 Global Pandemic, war in Ukraine, East-West geopolitical tug-of-war, and unprecedented forceful natural disasters worldwide wear thin and off, global recovery would bring forth lower inflationary pressure and empower economic growth. By then, would the construction industry be able to rise with the booming tide and prosper for the nation? Or are we practising ignorant complacency, running a business as usual round the clock to minimise disruption of the status quo, at the price of entrapping the industry in a ‘museum’, so to speak, at the price of the nation’s continued growth and competitive edge? Hence, to ride out the wind of change is our only option, with firm belief, resilience and determination to bring the nation’s construction industry to greater heights.
No change. Like a museum, the existing technology and system are already scheduled for display in a showcase in the foreseeable future. We can choose to remain where we are and keep up with the current practice, which, for a short time, would tide things through. Nonetheless, as the global challenges grow in enormity and complexity when the waves of uncertainties and unprecedented magnitudes hit our shores, the system would crumble like dominoes in a chain effect as the obsolete strategies fail to cater for the massive impact on the industry as well as socio-economic fabric. An obvious example would be the rejection of technology adoption in line with international market needs, where foreign investors would undoubtedly withdraw or opt for more lucrative ventures on other shores.
Marginal change. Making minor changes to cater for the industry in a piecemeal manner would lead to lagging actions or, worse, a mismatch with the global market needs. Running a business as usual, like a production line in the same mould with minimal tweaking of the properties as the need arises, would not cater to the long-term changes to come. Unsystematic organisation of the development plan and execution would also make a negligible impact on the industry’s economic strength and drive, leading to a premature collapse of the system as advancement is stalled. Citing financial constraints as an excuse is unacceptable, as the repercussions of not doing enough at the right time would be far more disastrous, with long-term impacts that would require even more resources to remediate.
Adaptive change. Stepping up the game would involve creativity and innovation adoption in the process of formulating solutions for adaptive changes. This approach is similar to customising solutions to a real-time problem or change, though in time, it is not meant to address the subsequent challenges to come. It would resolve the problem at hand, but it may not be suitable for the next level of risks and requirements, making the effort cumbersome and ineffective at best. In fact, it is similar to playing a sitting duck in the viciously dynamic environment of the industry, when strategic moves can be premeditated to cater for the long-term onslaught of changes.
Smart, future-ready change. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the smartly formulated changes tailored for the future to come, based on speculative analysis and intelligent predictions derived from advanced data analytics from local, regional and international perspectives. The all-encompassing coverage of data collection, not limited to the construction industry per se but also the supporting and peripheral sectors, would give a comprehensive view of the future global market. Contingency plans are made today for tomorrow, with room for adaptive adjustments to precisely meet the industry’s needs as the future unfolds. Unpredictability aside, intelligent guesses with a strong basis on data, analysis and predictions would very well support the decisions made for the next wave of change. Making future-proof strategic moves requires an immense amount of information and technological support, as well as coordinated networking and spot-on communication, none of which is possible without the careful and correct reading of the industry’s future path. The industry as a subset of the global enterprise is changing at a rate unseen before, propelled by technological advancements of adaptive, cross-disciplinary nature that are breaking frontiers and barriers unimaginable just decades ago. The user end would feel the brunt of any failures or shortcomings in terms of socio-economic tremors that affect daily livelihood, as exemplified by our over-reliance on outsourced fossil fuel to drive the nation.
Let not our complacency fool us into the museum before our time, i.e., no change; let not the business-as-usual practices entrap us in the present soon to be the past, i.e., marginal change; and let not playing catch-up draw us into last-minute solutions of no long-term benefits, i.e., adaptive change. Let us partake in the detailed but guaranteed payoff of a smart, strategic plan for future-ready changes to ride the high waves of global economic growth for the nation.
Transformational shifts: Smart and future-ready
There are three transformational shifts recommended for the construction industry in the face of an expandable future in the areas of teamwork, non-silo strategies and innovation-driven changes for socio-economic improvement (Fig. 3).
Multi-disciplinary teamwork. The industry can no longer work within its traditional boundaries but cohere with the other disciplines, in practice or research, to enhance its efficiency and functionality. The conventional base of materials, methods and machinery for construction is limited in terms of productivity as well as practicality. Supported by technological advancement in other areas, such as IT, electrical, automation and data analytics, the industry would be able to take off more effectively. For instance, precise design analysis with computer modelling would allow engineers to propose accurate material requirements without compromising the safety and stability of structures. With this information, quantity surveyors would be able to make definite estimations and calculate procurements at the most advantageous prices. At the implementation stage, builders would be able to erect and assemble the structures in a systematic, time-effective manner using integrated project management tools, with regular real-time checking, monitoring and validation exercises using remote instrumentation and programmed drones for quality as well as safety assurance. This multi-disciplinary teamwork approach would not only vastly improve the industry’s performance and credibility but also create previously unknown sub-areas of expertise and jobs, such as BIM controller, research lab engineers and aerial building forensic investigators.
Value-based and outreach strategies. The construction industry would need to review the underlying worth of the sector, from source to end user, in a fluid yet reliable value chain. No longer should only parties along the chain make profits at the expense of the others, such as those commonly reported in sub-standard buildings and structures. Post-construction quality assurance can be significantly improved with the well-being of end users being taken into account right at the beginning of the design stage. Considerations should be made of a structure’s long-term and future roles, such as the maturing of a landfill upon closure for its second life revival into a thriving commercial hub. Life cycle analysis and design with appropriate outreach to the community is important to gauge the people’s needs and wants for full inclusivity. Responding to the United Nation’s call for equality and accessibility to sound living conditions, the industry would do well to join forces in laying out thoroughly thought-through development plans to cater for all. This encompasses connectivity via strategic transportation routes, considering usage by the elderly and disabled, safety, and environmental conservation. Such a multi-façade strategic approach would pave the way to better societal well-being and livelihood among the people.
Change-making: On-the-go innovations. To successfully navigate the ever-evolving industry landscape with inevitable ripples from other sectors, the industry has to rise from mere technology users to change-makers with strategic, innovative measures. This is very similar to the adaptive change approach outlined earlier, but with the advantageous twist of foresight to address the problem before its emergence. With the integrated data management and analytical systems available today, on-the-go innovations designated specifically for pre-identified technical hiccups made it possible to literally have the umbrella ready before dark clouds even visibly gathered. Technological expositions and trade shows are venues where policy-makers could visit to engage with local innovators and service providers for the latest trending patterns of the industry. Such 2-way interactions would cut short the time required for technological uptake into the system for immediate improvement, with the opportunity of specific customisation and detailed fine-tuning to best suit the needs and circumstances of the community. Besides, keeping close contact with universities and research institutions is also an effective avenue for the relevant authorities to bridge the incubator-field gap while empowering direct knowledge transfer for the good of the people via a receptive and responsive construction industry as a whole.
From sunset to dawn: Beat the dust off for tomorrow
Implementing radical yet smart, future-ready transformations to the construction industry would ensure its sustainability and competitive edge in an optimised manner. Transformational shifts in staged deployment are necessary to drive the industry forward, even when the goings are tough, for going down with the glorious sunset is not an option, but gearing up for the promising dawn is the only way to enable the construction sector to keep serving as the nation’s primary socio-economic driver.