Technology plays a bigger role in our lives every day, and it is no different for the concrete industry. Contractors and construction companies know they must embrace new concrete technology in order to survive.
Reasons include climbing construction costs, the always-increasing need for improvements in efficiency, and a shortage of skilled labor. A recent US Commercial Construction Index found that more than 90 percent of contractors, construction managers, and builders surveyed had a hard time finding skilled workers.
Contractors and companies can overcome these challenges by leveraging the latest trends in concrete technology.
The top 10 trends in concrete technology
Building Information Modeling (BIM)
At the most basic level, BIM is 3D design and modeling software that gives architecture, engineering, and construction (ACE) professionals tools and insight into the planning, design, construction, and management of projects.
BIM has been around for decades, but as the technology has advanced, it has become more than just a 3D model. It is a collaborative process that allows all relevant parties on a project to work together.
Within a BIM model, there are BIM objects which have a layer of intelligence built into them. If an element in the model changes, the BIM software updates the model, creating a collaborative and consistent environment in which architects, engineers, and contractors can work together.
The BIM model stores data, which is kept in a common data environment (CDE). The data provides valuable and actionable information, not only during the planning and design process, but throughout the build and beyond. It can even be referenced for renovation work in the future.
There are different levels of BIM, ranging from zero to three. A higher level indicates an increased flow of information and knowledge sharing during the entire process.
For the construction industry, BIM enables you to digitize the work site and connect important information for all phases of the project. It improves the supply chain and reduces waste, mistakes, and delays.
The specific benefits of BIM include:
- Improved communication and collaboration throughout the project
- Improved productivity
- Simpler and more reliable design process, reducing errors in the execution phase
- Increased transparency of information that can be used during the bidding and procurement process
- Earlier identification of errors
- Fewer change orders
- Shorter project timeline
- Higher quality product
Leading BIM software includes Autodesk BIM 360, Revit, and BIMx.
As the construction industry moves more towards collaboration and digital technology, BIM will become increasingly popular. In fact, in some countries the use of BIM is already mandated on certain projects. In response to this increased use, the International Standards Organization (ISO) recently published the first set of global standards for BIM to help contractors around the world collaborate more effectively.
IoT sensors and GPS trackers on concrete construction equipment can improve the production cycle and allow for predictive maintenance.
Contractors can monitor cement mixers and other equipment for health, receiving an alert when something is askew. Assets can be tended to at the first sign of an issue. Problems can be addressed before they become a major headache and hold up a job.
GPS trackers keep foremen up to date in real time when cement trucks are on the move. This data empowers foremen to plan jobs accordingly and react quickly, working around delays when they happen.
Ultra-High Performance Concrete (UHPC)
UHPC is a new concrete technology that contains several novel ingredients, including fibers, but retains 80% of what makes up traditional concrete. The fibers vary in strength from polyester to stainless steel, with each delivering additional strength and durability to the end product.
UHPC has a longer useful life of more than 75 years, compared to traditional concrete with its useful life of 15-25 years. It also has a compressive strength of roughly 30,000 psi as compared to the typical 4,000 psi for traditional concrete.
Additional benefits include remarkable resistance to moisture penetration and environmental degradation, flexibility, ductility, and adhesiveness.
UHPC has been around since 2000, but over the past few years, the US Federal and state governments have advocated for its use, specifically in US bridges and highways. Due to the governmental support for UHPC combined with its superior quality and durability, we expect adoption to spread quickly.
In fact, the global market for UHPC is expected to grow at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 6.92 percent between 2017 and 2023.
Off-site construction refers to the design, fabrication, and assembly of elements at a location other than at the actual site where they will be installed. Precast/prefabricated concrete is one of the most common off-site techniques used during construction jobs.
This approach used to be reserved for larger projects, but as skilled labor dwindles and projects need to be done more quickly, the move to off-site has increased. Benefits include efficiency, improved safety, cost reductions, speed, and more consistent quality.
When concrete cracks, water and air get in, which speeds up the degradation of the concrete. What if concrete could stop the degradation process and heal itself?
Innovations are taking shape with a concrete that contains bacteria which produces limestone when it comes into contact with water and air, repairing the crack. This self-healing concrete is being made for new mixtures, as well as a repair mortar for existing structures.
Other self-healing techniques being researched include hydrogels that swell when water gets in and capsules of polymers that break when cracks form. Once broken, the polymers inside the capsule seal the crack.
Of course, these more advanced types of concrete will cost more money initially—but if they can extend the life of concrete structures, they may be less costly in the long run.
Visual interest and design are united in graphic concrete. This technology is used on precast concrete to create a patterned surface.
Images can be applied as well. The concrete itself lasts just as long as the plain version. The addition of this aesthetic element to concrete makes it a more favorable choice on projects where plain concrete would seem too plain or boring.
Concrete 3D printing provides many benefits.
Unique concrete designs can be crafted that may have formerly been impossible. Affordable homes can be made for lower-income families or those recovering from a disaster. Production time on projects can be drastically reduced.
Of course, this is still a newer technology, and we don’t expect to see its use in large-scale projects, as the size of the printer limits the size of the item that can be created. However, cost savings, the ability to produce complex structures, and urbanization will all drive the adoption of 3D concrete printing.
Cement that can absorb and radiate light has been developed by José Carlos Rubio Ávalos in Mexico. The cement can be created at room temperature, which is a huge energy saver.
It can light up roadways, bridges, bike paths, and more—all without electricity. So how does it work?
The cement absorbs solar energy during the day and can then emit light for about 12 hours. In order for this to be possible, the crystallization in the cement was removed so light could pass inside. It was replaced with a gel consistency.
The product can currently emit either green or blue light, and the brightness can be adjusted during production.
Slightly different from light-generating cement, translucent cement allows light to transmit through it. This quality comes from optical fiber strands within the concrete.
Just how translucent is it? You would be able to clearly see the outline of something on the other side of the cement block or wall, yet it still offers the same strength as regular concrete.
It is being used in structures such as partition walls and stairs to add a design element to what would have been an otherwise plain concrete structure.
Drones are already being used on construction sites. We expect usage to increase. A primary use is site surveys, which can be done in a fraction of the time with drones.
While some companies were reluctant to use drones at first, their increased accuracy, ease of control, and time savings have made them attractive to many construction companies.
As we look ahead, knowledge of new approaches, tools, and innovative materials can make the difference between a winning and losing bid.