What will the Australian construction industry look like in 20 years? There is a real opportunity for it to step up its innovation so as to compete on a global playing-field, according to a CSIRO report that consulted 80 leading industry experts in Queensland.
The lead author on the CSIRO report, George Quezada will present a session on navigating digital disruption and global change at the prefabAUS 2017 conference held in September this year.
Warren McGregor, CEO of prefabAUS the peak body for the prefabricated building industry in Australia, says the ideas that Quezada will present are timely and should not be ignored.
“One of the most interesting thinkers in Australia today, George has delved into the future of construction. Moreover, he lets us see what it might look like if we can effectively harness the advances being made in robotics, digital technologies and the like. Refreshing and stimulating, this ‘farsighting’ demystifies the forces that can at times seem unsettling, and reenergises our enthusiasm for the remarkable benefits on offer,” McGregor said.
[Related reading: Five Minutes with PrefabAUS CEO Warren McGregor]
Published in 2016, the Farsight for Construction report (prepared in partnership with Construction Skills Queensland), develops four evidence-based scenarios set twenty years into the future, in 2036.
These were generated by mapping two intersecting axes: innovation culture of the Australian construction industry and intensity of automation. While all industries will be affected by automation and robot workers, the construction industry is particularly vulnerable. However, this vulnerability can also be seen as one of the strongest opportunities the construction industry has experienced in its modern history.
As lead author on the report, Quezada, a CSIRO “innovation scientist” working with the research unit Data 61, says prefabrication will be a significant area of growth and transformation within the building industry.
“The prefabricated manufacturing part of the construction industry is expected to grow at 5 per cent per annum out to 2023, compared to a growth rate of 2.3 per cent for the industry as a whole. While the current prefabricated building market in Australia is still comparatively small, with only A$4.5 billion of the total A$150 billion construction industry, it is expected to contribute to more affordable housing stock and to take a much greater share of creating multi-storey buildings,” Quezada said.
The Australian construction industry, the report suggests, can accelerate its adoption of automation, embracing innovation along the way. This will help it to compete with Asian powerhouses. This is because prefabrication and more efficient logistical chains means distance is no longer enough to protect the Australian industry from its regional neighbours.
This is not one of the Farsight report’s most futuristic scenarios: it is already here. Lendlease’s $1 billion cross-laminated timber (CLT) factory in Sydney does not manufacture CLT, instead importing it before using precise cutting techniques to create prefabricated building components that are then delivered to construction sites for rapid assembly.
According to the report, in 2014 the global prefabricated buildings market was valued at US$96 billion, up from just US$60 billion only three years’ prior. Interestingly, Asia and the Pacific was the largest regional market, with 49.3% (US$44.4 billion) of the global market.
“The growth of prefab is very impressive compared to the Australian construction industry overall, roughly double the growth. It is coming off a very low base but this is because people are now realising the ground that needs to be made up if the industry is to innovate and compete in the region,” Quezada said.
For McGregor, the intersection between prefabrication and rapidly developing technological innovation is one of the most exciting themes of this year’s prefabAUS conference.
“We can be afraid of innovation and automation, or we can embrace it. The future is knocking on our door, where safer, more efficient methods integrate all stages of the design and construction process for cost-effective, sustainable developments. Prefabrication will be central in these developments,” McGregor said.
“George’s presentation should also appeal to the career aspirations of Australia’s engineers and technologists of the future. And that can only be a good thing, as it is those skills which will be vital to bringing about tomorrow’s construction industry, which he so eloquently depicts.”