It's time for capital projects professionals to embrace the digitization and automation that has come with the fourth industrial revolution, says Zoubeir Lafhaj
Zoubeir Lafhaj is a veteran professor at the Graduate School of Engineering at the Ecole Centrale de Lille, where he also leads a Chair in Construction 4.0. He is founder and chair of the Annual European Civil Engineering Workshop, which seeks to establish new opportunities for collaborative and sustainable work in a high-level scientific community. He holds a PhD in Engineering at Université de Lille.
Our interview with Prof. Lafhaj explored Construction 4.0 -- what it is, what’s happening now, and where we’re headed. He examined the reasons that the construction industry has been so resistant to change, and talks about how he is working to address the problem. He walked us step by step through major sector innovations, including 3D printing, information management systems and the application of lean methodologies to construction. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
VELOCITY MAGAZINE: What is construction 4.0?
ZOUBEIR LAFHAJ: Essentially, Construction 4.0 is the engineering and construction industry’s version of Industry 4.0, which is the fourth industrial revolution. Fundamentally, Construction 4.0 reflects a move toward greater digitization and automation. It includes technologies such as prefabrication, automation, 3D printing, virtual reality, drones, sensors, robots for repetitive or hazardous processes, and data – lots and lots of data – used to help the industry know itself better and to shape the decisions it makes today and tomorrow.
VM: Why is it necessary for engineering and construction to embrace Industry 4.0?
ZL: There are a lot of reasons. First, there hasn’t been any game-changing innovation in the construction sector for many years. There’s a lot of waste -- wasted materials, wasted time. Safety is another major issue, as we continue to see high injury rates. Material and resource prices are going up, managing the impact of construction on the environment and our society is even more important today, and the best way to mitigate the impacts is to improve our technical and project delivery capacity.
Beyond all this, all industries are changing. We now live in a world in which you can order a car on the internet, yet, most of a construction operation is done offline. Many construction companies simply cannot understand why the construction industry is lagging so far behind. It’s true that the sector is complicated, but this excuse won’t stand forever. It’s long past time we changed the way we work.
In short: We need to do this to survive and compete with other industries.
VM: What challenges do you face in bringing Industry 4.0 to this sector?
ZL: The sector is extremely conservative, and our industry is not attractive enough to the younger generation especially as we compete with other industries for talent . It goes without saying that the work itself is extraordinarily complex, there are a lot of regulations in play, and materials are increasingly expensive. With so much on the line, the risks inherent in change are very real.
Nobody wants to be the first mover, the one to take all the risk, and make all the mistakes. Everybody is waiting for someone else to lead.
VM: How are you working to correct this problem?
ZL: Through my Chair in Construction 4.0 at Centrale Lille, I’ve created a hub where key stakeholders can come together to exchange information, share their innovations and discuss their shared problems and solutions. These include representatives from private construction, public authorities and government, academics and students, and startups like Concord Project Technologies, among others. It’s a great network, the first of its kind.
VM: Have you seen progress?
ZL: Absolutely. The first step has been to establish a common vocabulary, so that when we talk about shared problems and solutions, we are all speaking the same language. We’re there now, and so we’ve laid a critical foundation for the challenging work we have ahead of us.
The goal is to become the center of excellence for tomorrow’s Europe Construction Industry. We’re aiming to develop into a think tank that links all elements of the construction industry, so that everyone who is talking about the modernization of construction will be working with and through us as a hub of excellence.
VM: Let’s talk about the research. You’ve mentioned your work on 3D printing in construction. Can you elaborate on that?
ZL: We’ve undertaken leading academic research work in relation to construction-related 3D printing. We call this the robotization of construction. We have researched and developed comprehensive systems and prototypes required to print a building. The goal is to be able to print houses and the components of housing; it’s an important area of research and we’re leading the way.
VM: You’ve also been working on management information systems. Can you tell us about your most recent work?
ZL: We’re working toward a system of data integration that effectively links all the actors on a construction site, from the Owner to the person operating the crane. We are using smart, innovative systems to ensure that everyone on the project has access to the information they need to do the job they’re doing.
Right now, the construction sector as a whole is very isolated from other industries. They are not talking to computer scientists, or to work packaging and Lean management experts, or to architects, for example. So when we bring computer scientists to the table, it’s something new for them. It’s a positive step toward change.
VM: How are you working to apply Lean management methods to construction?
ZL: Lean construction means bringing new skills into our management methods as needed. It is also about introducing modular construction and just-in-time delivery, in addition to efficiency and productivity enhancements efforts. In the short term, the main objective is to reduce the drudgery of the work. A secondary objective is to make sure the clients are only paying for what they actually get, and not for our errors and waste. Fundamentally, it represents a new kind of relationship between the worker and the manager as well as between the contractor and the client.
VM: What comes next for Construction 4.0?
ZL: The industry is ripe for transformation. At Centrale Lille, we’re educating and training the next generation, and they’re ready. In my chair, we’re attracting a lot of people with skills who want to work with us -- the conversation is long overdue, and they know that, too. ◼
Concord Project Technologies supports the Architecture Construction Engineering (ACE) Workshop. To learn more about this promising work, visit https://ace-workshop.com