• Fifty percent reduction in delivery time;

  • Fifty percent reduction in operation, maintenance, and energy costs;

  • Fifty percent less waste and pollution;

  • Fifty percent more durability and flexibility; and

  • Fifty percent reduction in construction work illnesses and injuries (NSTC, 1995).

Some of the obstacles to improved productivity identified in the 1983 Business Roundtable report and listed above persist, while others have been mitigated through changes in the operating environment. A key message of the present report is that advances in available and emerging technologies offer significant opportunities to improve construction efficiency substantially in the 21st century and to help meet other national challenges, such as environmental sustainability.

Chapter 2 focuses on four long-standing obstacles to construction productivity that are most relevant to the task of the NRC’s Committee on Advancing the Competitiveness and Productivity of the U.S. Construction Industry: limited use of automated equipment and information technologies, attracting and retaining skilled workers and recent graduates, the lack of effective performance measures, and a lack of research.


Automated Equipment

Manufacturing and other industries have realized significant improvements in productivity through automation and greater use of information technologies. Seeking to apply these lessons to construction, large Japanese construction companies invested significant resources to automate and integrate some construction-related tasks in the 1980s and 1990s. They attempted to completely automate and integrate processes and technology, using modularization, just-in-time delivery, robotics, rigid supply chain management, and innovations in connections and assembly methods (in Appendix C, see the subsection entitled “Japan”). Integrated automatic systems composed of numerous robots and other automated components were used to construct steel and reinforced-concrete high-rise buildings, among other tasks. In this Japanese experience, the costs of buying and using some of these technologies were much higher than the costs of using existing practices. As a consequence, robotics and other types of automated systems were not adopted by the industry and are used infrequently.

In the United States, the construction industry still relies heavily on manual methods of placement and assembly. The lack of automated technologies can be attributed to a range of factors, including:

  • Building codes that allow little room for experimentation or innovation in construction technologies;

  • The unsuitability of conventional manufacturing processes for construction materials;

  • The operating environment of construction projects (exposure to rain, wind, debris, dust, and so on), which is hostile to automated machinery;

  • Conventional design practices;

  • Significantly smaller product batch sizes as compared with those of industries such as manufacturing;

  • The high investment up front and maintenance costs of automated equipment; and

  • Increased labor costs for operators and maintenance crews of automated equipment.

Despite these obstacles, some advances have been made in construction equipment, in materials-handling systems, and in the development of secondary components, such as windows, or the in-factory

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