What technology has in store for construction industry


By DELFHIN MUGO
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The first social humanoid robot, Sophia, was in Kigali, Rwanda, for the 2019 Transform Africa Summit.

Donning Rwanda’s traditional attire, umushanana, Sophia set the conference off to a good start, joking with and greeting a full auditorium in different languages, including Swahili, before giving a four-minute-long speech on the importance of technology and innovation.

“I am really excited to be here in Kigali for the Transform Africa Summit. I love seeing so many heads of states, ministers, captains of industry, diplomats, stakeholders, and the youth all in one place talking about the future of technology in Africa,” she said.

“We don’t have to look very far to see how artificial intelligence is already shaping societies and the economies for the better.”

Sophia, who was developed by Hong Kong-based Company Hanson Robotics and activated in 2016, also noted.

“Africa is also a great source of technological innovations. African companies and researchers are pioneers in mobile banking, remote medicine, and have even invented robotic devices that can detect traces of explosives or cancer cells. The innovations coming out of Africa have benefited people and robots all around the world,.”

In a world that is becoming increasingly mechanised in an effort to increase efficiency and make life easier, it is easy to see why Sophia speaks so passionately about technology, artificial intelligence and innovation.

John Wainaina, a young construction manager with Citech Ltd, a training centre for Building Information Modelling (BIM), an intelligent building design technique that is the hottest topic in the Kenyan construction industry right now, says it is not a coincidence that Sophia was in Rwanda.

“Right now in East Africa, Rwanda is the biggest adopter of technology; the country is even using drones to transport blood. If they continue with that trend, they will be another Malaysia, a country that was at par with Kenya in the 1970s but right now way ahead in terms of GDP,” he notes.

Mr Wainaina stresses on the role of young people in driving the agenda. “We need young people to be innovators and old people to believe in us and fund us.”

While Kenya is still building houses the brick and mortar way and architects are still using CAD to design houses, the world is talking about printing houses.

DN2 sought to know why the construction industry here is lagging behind when it comes to adopting technology, and the roles of various stakeholders in championing for these technologies.

Experts also give us a sneak peek into some technologies changing the way of doing things in this sector.

Christian Owoko, a construction manager with Pendeza Building Contractors, notes that adoption of technological trends mostly depends on what developers want to achieve, manufacturer’s training and marketing of their product in the particular space, the government, and the technical know-how of the professionals doing the projects.

“Informed developers will insist on particular techniques. This however also depends on their budget,” he says.

He adds that most Kenyan professionals tend to shy away from technologies they are not well-conversant with while putting more emphasis on those they clearly comprehend.

But you might want to cut them some slack. “The manufacturer is key in selling a particular product or technology. How they present it to natives of a particular country, especially in terms of its advantages over other technologies in the market, is the game changer. Key to any manufacturer is getting the right market price but still maintain quality,” says Owoko.

By promoting innovation and technologies among the students, experts say, learning institutions should be at the forefront of championing for technology and most importantly, ensuring graduates are at par with the rest of the world.

However, as far as this role goes, it appears, learning institutions would be walking a tight rope.

To begin with, Owoko points out, technology keeps changing, and to some extent, institutions may never keep up because of how their syllabus is structured.

For example, changing the syllabus of a five-year engineering course, he says, will take a minimum of five years.

“A lot would have happened by then,” he says, and adds: “They could also come up against heavy criticism in the sense that learning institutions should promote a creative and innovative culture while giving the base of obtaining the basic fundamentals of the particular course being offered rather than being rigid to innovations of the past.”

Manufacturers of particular technology have also been advised to educate their clients about technologies they introduce into the market.

Wainaina says they should also remain open to criticism as that will help them refine and re-innovate technologies to superior perfection, thus being a game changer on world platforms.

“The government can decide whether or not it can be counted in the spheres of technologically advanced countries. It is a matter of choice. The Japanese government, for instance, invests lots of money on technology, research and data collection – the returns are there for all to see,” says Wainaina.

Giving the example of the EPS project in Mavoko, Machakos County, by the National Housing Corporation as a good example of government initiative, Owoko urges for more platforms to be given to upcoming inventors and innovators to showcase their prowess.

“This however should not be for copycat projects that are regressive and which will do the country no good as seen in some shows and exhibitions,” he cautions, adding that the government can give incentives or tax holidays to innovators to recoup capital and thus create a competitive edge with the world market.

“Funding of inventions and innovations with clear outputs and timelines is equally another way to do this. The government is the big brother in all this; it can outlaw any product or technology and at the same time pass laws giving incentives to particular technological trends. A good example is the scrapping off of the square twisted bars and introducing the deformed ribbed steel bar.”

By embracing technology, experts argue, the industry is bound to benefit from short construction timelines while still achieving structural integrity, improved quality of construction in terms of aesthetics and structural soundness, sanity in terms of documentation and tracing of construction elements.

Enabling design and construction of more complex projects and helping developers track their costs are the other benefits.

Here are some technologies transforming the built environment:

They come clad in a pair of boots, a reflector jacket and a helmet. Some are skilled, others are not.

They are workers and their responsibility is to make the architect’s dream a reality. However, even as they do so, often, their health and safety is largely ignored.

SAFETY

Smart helmets are being introduced into the market to improve the safety of workers. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

But not anymore if wearable technology is anything to go by. “It’s a technology that involves embedding certain tools such as GPS on normal safety gear and attire won by [a] worker. It is executed through the smart helmet, smart vest, smart bracelet, smart trouser, smart belt and smart shoe,” explains Owoko.

“If you look at the housing agenda, we are talking about constructing more than 500,000 units by 2022. To achieve that magnitude of housing, it will take a large workforce, a factor that calls for meticulous minding of the health and safety of the workforce.”

So, if a worker is hit by a falling object and he is wearing a smart helmet, right from your office, you are notified of the incident and can even tell the magnitude of the impact.

“With the help of GPS, you are able to identify the exact location of the accident and can even get a photo of that worker.”

Consequently, to understand how smart glasses would come in handy to enhance collaboration between various professionals, think of a plumber trying to fix a toilet in a certain room and something is not adding up.

Ideally, this worker would have to write an email consulting a supervisor who is probably miles away from the site.

But smart glasses eliminate the need for back and forth tedious correspondence between the two. “With a smart pair of sunglasses, the professional can log in and have real time communication with the plumber. Smart glasses will enable the supervisor to see what is happening on site and give advice,” says Owoko.

Additionally, by recording a task in real time, sunglasses help streamline data collection, eliminating the need for project managers to sit down and draft a progress report daily.

For instance, sunglasses can take a photo of the mason’s work in a room; while a smart bracelet will give the number of workers on site, allowing you to prepare your payment in advance.

Installed with a GPS tracker, a smart vest helps keep workers on site safe by monitoring their health and safety.

It can also trigger an emergency button in case of an accidental fall, ensuring that the worker gets help in time.

Finally, are construction materials placed very far from the site? Are workers wasting a lot of time and energy getting them?

Can you channel that energy towards another task? A smart shoe is the answer.

As the urban population in Kenya grows rapidly, so is the need for technologies that can help reduce the 250,000 housing units annual deficit.

One such technology is expanded polystyrene panels (EPS).“EPS or Styrofoam, as many call it by its trademarked name, is an extremely lightweight product that is made of expanded polystyrene beads,” explains Gideon Kamande, assistant engineer with Grid Consult Ltd.

Expanded polystyrene panels

He adds that EPS is durable, strong, as well as lightweight, and can be used as insulated panel systems for facades, walls, roofs and floors in buildings, as flotation material in the construction of marinas and pontoons, and as a lightweight fill in road and railway construction.

The technology uses cheaper materials than those used in conventional building methods, yet produce houses strong enough to withstand bullet and grenade attacks.

The EPS comes with plenty of benefits, as Kamande notes. “It is lightweight; it does not decay or get mouldy; its thermal and acoustic insulation and resistance to fire make the building technology more advantageous than other standard ways of construction.”

It is estimated that a two-bedroom unit built with the technology would cost about half of that built using bricks and timber, significantly bringing down the cost of housing, which is partly attributable to the high cost of conventional building materials.

Building Information Modelling

In the aeronautical industry, it is common practise to have different parts of an aircraft manufactured in different locations, often thousands of kilometres apart, yet the aircraft at assembly point should be picture perfect.

So to achieve this, the aircraft is first designed virtually to precision, before the model is distributed to factories manufacturing the different parts.

In an effort to improve planning, design, building and management of infrastructure, utility or natural resource projects, the construction industry has now borrowed heavily from manufacturing industries such as aeronautical.

This has come in the form of Building Information Modelling (BIM), an intelligent model-based process that is the new buzzword in the construction industry in Kenya at the moment.

“BIM is an intelligent model-based process of designing a house. It is a database of sorts where everyone, from the architect to the structural, mechanical and electrical engineer, basically everyone taking part in the project, inputs information into the model in full 3D,” explains John Wainaina, a construction manager and vocal champion of the BIM technology.

The BIM takes the place of Computer Aided Design (CAD). To put it simply, at the design phase, a house is modelled to give the exact impression of the complete product, with all the installations that will come with the house.

Information can be so specific as to include manufacturer-specific details of various installations in the house.

“So, if you click on a generator, you get to know the manufacturer, power rating, where to buy it, price, you name it, this means that our drawings are now more intelligent,” says Wainaina.

The BIM brings about efficiency in construction, greater predictability of outcomes in the sense that you can do an earthquake or wind analysis to understand how such natural factors can affect your house.

“The other aspect is cost saving. This is the biggest reason people are switching to BIM. Before, it was not unheard of for a contractor to come across design flaws when construction has already kicked off, not to mention that making changes at that point would be very costly. Thankfully, BIM allows you to forestall a problem and fix it at the design phase,” offers the construction manager.

Wainaina points out that while the initial cost of purchasing the hardware, software and the servers and training may seem high, the benefits far much outweigh this cost.

Imagine if you could hit the ‘Print’ button on a machine, step back, and in a matter of hours watch as a giant machine prints out your house as per the architect’s drawings. It sounds outlandish, yet thanks to technology, this is now a reality.

In July last year a French family became the first ever in the world to move into a 3D-printed house.

According to BBC, Nordine and Nouria Ramdani, along with their three children, got lucky when the city council chose them to live in the four bedroom house in Nantes.

The project, a collaboration between the city council, a housing association and the University of Nantes, is a prototype for bigger projects aiming to make the building of houses quicker and cheaper, the BBC reported.

It took 54 hours to print the house, but the team now believes it can now print the same house again in only 33 hours.

The house is designed in a studio by a team of architects and scientists, then programmed into a 3D printer.

The printer is then brought to the site of the home and proceeded to print in layers from the floor upwards.

Each wall consists of two layers of the insulator polyurethane, with a space in-between, which is filled with cement. This creates a thick, insulated, fully-durable wall, BBC reports.

The windows, doors, and roof are then fitted, and, voila, you have a home. This form of construction has caught on in other places, including Russia, but whether a construction industry as rigid as Kenya’s will adopt it sooner or later is a matter of wait-and-see.





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