What is the state of innovation in the US construction sector?
In an article published by La Tech du BTP, Viviane André, a Construction & Roadtech analyst at Winnovation (one of the Bouygues group’s US subsidiaries) offers an overview of the latest innovations in the US construction market.
The US construction market
- Differing State regulations explain the absence of a major American player
The US construction market is very different to that of France. It is split up on a State-by-State basis, or by groups of States, with very different features in the east and west of the country. Unlike in France, there is not one dominant player. The primary obstacle to the emergence of such a player is a regulatory framework that varies from one State to another. The costs related to complying with these rules make it much more difficult for one to emerge.
- The housing crisis, a multifaceted problem
The US housing crisis is a multifaceted problem. As things stand, there are not enough new builds to meet demand. Property prices have risen close to the levels we saw in previous housing crises. This crisis is being amplified by labour shortages and recruitment difficulties, as well as by the rising cost of raw materials, which is also weighing on the French sector. The difficulty in obtaining building permits is another reason why the market is struggling to find stability. However, California is currently trying to stimulate new home builds by simplifying administrative procedures. It’s only a start, but it should generate positive momentum.
- Is innovation a suitable response to the crisis?
There is no doubt that innovation is part of America’s genetic make-up. The US has always been a source of inspiration, not least in the area of innovation. At first sight, it is true that US Big Tech firms hold a commanding lead in the tech sector, whether in software, services or communication tools. US universities are also a constant source of new ideas and innovations.
Although the same obstacles hindering the US construction sector can be found in France, American companies are far more likely to test new solutions than their French counterparts. Robots are a good example of this and testing of them is widespread among US companies. This is because the problem of labour shortages needs to be addressed, otherwise construction projects will grind to a halt.
The role of technology on construction sites
The use of new technology on construction sites has long been a subject of great importance for the sector. For example, worksite monitoring tools are no longer a novelty. They are now well established as a daily part of the workplace.
In the search for new innovations, US companies are testing the same technologies as us. One example is tracer robots like the Dusty Robot (similar to the BIM Printer). Today, various technologies are still undergoing on-site testing, but their use is increasing steadily.
The priority for companies is to ensure that technology does not eat away at their value chain. Technology that saves time on low value-added procedures is needed. However, on the flip side, expertise needs to be maintained (costing of projects, construction values, etc.).
Is there such a thing as a Tech movement in the US?
Apart from Builtworlds, there is no national movement like the one we have in France, such as La French Tech, la French PropTech etc. There are regional groupings but they don’t play the same role as that of the French technology movement.
Digital solutions creating a buzz in the US
These new technologies are beginning to appear in ConTech. For example, Briq is a tool for managing payments to subcontractors. Late payments are frequent. This platform automates the entire process and pays the companies concerned directly.
This is another subject of growing importance. Many US companies are victims of ransomware (a kind of malware that blocks access to a computer until a sum of money is paid).
- Off-site construction
The failure of Katerra did have a positive side; many start-ups are now getting involved. The fact that margins are much better is definitely stimulating interest.
What technological edge do we have over our US peers?
Our technological edge over US companies is in the area of environmental management. Though we still have much to learn, we have a clear lead over our American counterparts. The environment is not given the same level of importance as it is in Europe and particularly in France.