Mind the gap: AI bridges the divide in Southeast Asian construction

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  • Mind the gap: AI bridges the divide in Southeast Asian construction
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Tay Wan Ding


Tay Wan Ding


Perspective 2023 vol 2
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The adoption of artificial intelligence may vary around the Southeast Asian region, but the idea had taken root in construction.

From robotics to 3D printing, design clash detection to quantity extractions, every part of the construction value chain is investing at speed and scale. But should construction companies establish their own AI ecosystems or set up partnerships? Should the development of AI tools be left to technology companies or developed in-house? These are big questions for everyone with a stake in the future of construction.

Artificial Intelligence, or AI, refers to the ability of machines or computers to perform tasks that typically require human intelligence, such as understanding natural language, making decisions and solving problems. It is a broad field that encompasses several subfields, including machine learning and robotics.

The construction industry has a reputation for being notoriously slow to embrace new technologies. But in recent years we’ve seen significant advances in AI applications in construction.

One of the main benefits of AI in construction is the increase in efficiency. Construction projects are often complex and involve multiple stakeholders, from owners to architects, engineers, contractors and suppliers. With AI, many of the planning, design, construction and even safety processes can be automated, improving efficiency and reducing time spent on highly repetitive or labour-intensive tasks.

For example, AI can be used to optimise the scheduling of workers and equipment, reducing downtime and delays. It can also automate tasks such as painting and drilling on site, increasing productivity and alleviating labour shortage pressures. At off-site precast concrete yards, the extent of automation can be even higher since selected tasks are standardised, and components can be completed assembly-line style, further increasing productivity.

Another benefit of AI in construction is improved safety. By using AI to identify potential hazards, such as unsafe working conditions or hazardous materials, workers can be alerted to take necessary precautions. Falls from height and being struck by an object are some of the leading causes of construction workplace accidents and fatality. Robotics and automation can also take over lifting and working at heights to help lower the risks, reducing accidents and injuries, thus making construction sites safer for workers.

AI can also address the acute shortage of labour in the construction industry worldwide. Through automation of repetitive and time-consuming processes, available labour can be distributed to tasks that require the human touch. AI-powered robots can be programmed to scan construction sites autonomously and systematically monitor progress, record safety lapses and survey quality of work.

Every construction project is a complex sequence of works, with a massive amount of data created on a daily basis, over an extended period of time. By collecting data on the scope, cost, time and construction progress, quality, risks and more, AI systems gain access to an invaluable data pool from which to learn every day. With the help of AI, in particular machine learning systems, insights generated can improve all aspects of the project, from design to cost management, construction methodology and facilities management. The sky is the limit.

AI and construction: Advancing with caution

Despite these benefits, there are also challenges associated with the adoption of AI in construction – and chief among them is the high upfront costs. There is also a learning curve associated with all technology adoption, which can take time and resources to overcome.

While AI can address labour shortages, it will also impact workforces. One recent investigation from Cornell University has found that large language models like ChatGPT will impact around 80% of the workforce in the United States. Upskilling workers will be a responsibility of all employers across the construction industry.

There are also concerns about the ethical implications of AI in construction. The development of AI is still in its nascent phase but as it takes a bigger role in decision-making, so do ethical concerns such as privacy and surveillance, bias and discrimination and the role of human judgement. There may be questions about who is responsible for decisions made by AI systems. Additionally, where AI is used to collect and analyse data about workers or other stakeholders, there may be concerns about data privacy and learned biasness.

There’s another concern for construction in Southeast Asia that is yet to be fully explored. Small and medium size enterprises (SMEs) are the backbone of our industry, and they are usually constrained by both human and monetary resources. This limits their ability to adapt to rapid technological changes and to invest in the knowledge and innovation acquisition. Investments in tool developments can be a bottomless pit and a risk. After all, some analysts estimate that 70 per cent of digital transformations end in failure.

Smart solutions in Southeast Asia

In some markets, the public sector is taking the lead in the promotion of AI and technology adoption. This is particularly the case in Singapore, where the push for productivity through the use of technology begun in the early 2000s. To that effect, the Singapore Government has set aside S$770 million (US$580 million) to facilitate transformation plans, with everything from technology scholarships to workforce training, tax incentives to lowered workers levy rates on the table.

In other markets, the private sector is the early adopter of technology, as the example of building information modelling (BIM) illustrates. RLB has been awarded several large contracts based on our track record with BIM – and we can see a similar trajectory with AI tools.

AI is a double-edge sword. It has the potential to transform the construction industry, increasing efficiency, improving safety and enhancing quality control. It also has the potential to alienate players that fail to keep up – with higher costs and job losses the potential consequences.

AI will inevitably be embedded and integrated into the construction industry. As with any new technology, it is important to carefully consider the potential benefits and challenges and to work together to ensure that its adoption is responsible, sustainable and spreads the benefits fairly. By doing so, we can unlock the full potential of AI in construction and build a safer, more efficient, and more sustainable future.