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From sensors and robotics to 3D printing and nanotechnology, the physical and digital worlds are blending in a way that was once viewed as science fiction. The current trend toward automation and data exchange, known as Industry 4.0, is profoundly changing the ways people live and work—and relate to both the people and things around them. In construction, this means breaking away from the decades-long stagnation that has plagued the industry to embrace technologies that are key to achieving a competitive edge in the built environment.

Industry 4.0, also referred to as the "fourth industrial revolution," is about the augmentation of people—not their replacement. Gartner estimates that in 2021, artificial intelligence augmentation will generate $2.9 trillion in business value and recover 6.2 billion hours of worker productivity. Technology doesn’t necessarily change what is done, but rather how it is done. Industry 4.0 is an opportunity to create a better way to build.

Preparing for new technologies 

History reveals that during an industrial revolution, companies will either create, adapt and adopt or, on the contrary, be disrupted and face an inevitable race to the bottom. In the future, every company will be, in some shape or form, a technology company. Complete digitization is paramount in ensuring the success to create or implement next generation technologies. For example, sensors don’t work if there’s no system to capture the data, which, in turn, can’t be captured unless a company is completely digitized. 

Computerization and connectivity are two important areas that must be up to par before an organization attempts to move towards Industry 4.0. The primary requires information and communication protocols to take up manual production and support business activities. For the latter, enabling connectivity will allow companies to integrate supply chains and develop automated processes. 

In the construction world, this means digitizing all processes. From planning, surveying, management and design to budgeting, scheduling, manufacturing and more, all data needs to be processed via devices and methods that talk to one another seamlessly.

Overcoming obstacles to physical-digital integration

The biggest challenge with integrating the physical and digital worlds isn’t actually the technology but, rather, the human factor. While some believe that automation will reduce the need for humans, the reality is quite different. New technologies can be an integral facet in job creation and satisfaction. 

Previous industrial revolutions have had a major impact on the roles played by individuals. The introduction of new technology and approaches requires already-honed skills to be adapted as humans work alongside automation and robotics. Studies have shown that the likely casualty will be middle-skilled roles, whereby machines increasingly run themselves. However, a major finding of the same study outlines that the number of lower- and higher-skilled positions will actually increase, with the overall number of roles rising due to the growth of machines, robots and algorithms. The reliance on supervision and invention will become more critical. As a result, the need to invest in training and continuous learning will also grow as technologies evolve.

Another roadblock of adoption lies with companies understanding their current maturity and honestly assessing what is needed to reach the next stage. Only then can the correct digital transformation strategy be defined to allow for a smooth implementation. Journeys will vary among different companies. By enabling clear steps through visibility, transparency, predictability and adaptability, businesses can grow using the required maturity levels.

Concern around security and privacy is also shared by many organizations. With billions of connected devices worldwide, the fear of a potential cyberattack and leakage of personal and private data becomes heightened. Companies will need to make a substantial effort to ensure these risks are reduced and devices are protected against potential hacks. 

All company devices, whether laptops, computers, mobile phones or anything else connected to the web, need to have up-to-date security software to ensure that no program, app or device has a critical vulnerability that could leave information and/or private data exposed. Internal company policies outlining methods for employees to follow can also help limit any danger on an individual level.

Looking ahead

As with previous industrial revolutions, Industry 4.0 will dramatically change how people work and interact as a society. This impact will also stretch to encompass environmental benefits. By establishing a relationship between environmentally sustainable manufacturing and green processes, the construction industry can play its part to move toward a greener planet. With job roles shifting in the months and years ahead, investing in education and training for employees also becomes as important as investing in new technologies. 

Change, whether right or wrong, is often met with resistance. The world is evolving from a primarily human input-driven world with shifting decisions to one in which input is almost entirely machine generated and decisions are made in real time.

Embrace and prepare for these changes sooner rather than later to reap the rewards that Industry 4.0 can offer. 

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