Guest Post by Henry D’Esposito, Construction Research Senior Analyst, JLL

Last year should have seen moderate growth in construction technology adoption but 2020 ushered in record-breaking implementation, with COVID-19 fueling unprecedented demand for remote work and safety solutions. From digital collaboration and virtual scanning tools to safety-oriented wearables, established tech solutions became a lifeline for firms working to keep construction activity alive through the pandemic.

According to JLL’s State of Construction Tech 2020, the ConTech market already looked bright coming into last year, with low barriers to adoption and the efficiency benefits of maturing solutions. But amidst the urgency of COVID-19, three years of typical construction technology adoption were compressed into the last nine months of 2020 alone.

Yet not all tech categories have fared as well amidst the uneven impacts of COVID-19. With the broader economic downturn, many firms have seen falling backlogs and less demand for new projects. That’s left fewer discretionary dollars to bet on emerging technology tools and the startups behind them, at least for now.

To understand which categories of technology gained more momentum – and  those that did not benefit from the pandemic — JLL created a construction tech hierarchy.

Classifying momentum: COVID-19’s uneven impacts on ConTech adoption

Two core business needs drove most of the sector’s demand for technology in 2020: the need to enable teams to work from home, and the simultaneous need to keep up onsite execution, safely, wherever possible.  

Each of the following technologies directly support one or both of these critical goals, receiving a high “pandemic boost” in JLL’s report:

  • Digital collaboration platforms. Amongst the most mature of ConTech solutions, many companies were already enjoying the efficiency of cloud-based digital collaboration tools. COVID-19 made it clear, however, that virtual access to design drawings, punch lists, schedules, and other critical project documents were more than nice-to-have – they are critical to productivity and performance in an era of social distancing and shutdowns.
  • Scanning tools. With automated optical cameras and laser scans, firms are able to keep projects moving ahead with fewer people physically at the jobsite at any given time. Today’s scanners can be handheld, strapped to helmets, or mounted on tripods or robots to deliver quality data to team members wherever they may sit. Backed by effective analytics software and visualization tools, they can enable virtual walkthroughs and, in some cases, support virtual inspections, too.
  • Safety/wearables. Powered by the Internet of Things, wearables ranging from clip-ons or embedded in hard hats, vests, and boots can help firms more accurately monitor environmental and biometric information in real time, helping meet short-term COVID-related health needs as well as long-standing construction safety priorities.
  • BIM/CAD. These foundational technologies have only grown in importance during the pandemic, by providing the base design models that feed into all other construction technologies.  

Though the overall story is positive for construction technology, not all categories have seen a boost from COVID-19. Early-development categories like robotics, augmented and virtual reality, and 3D printing, saw more or less the same rate of growth as in previous years.

For other sectors like modular construction, the impact of the pandemic is even less than neutral. Against the backdrop of a larger economic downturn, startups in these sectors may struggle to regain traction and revenue in the near future, tempering overall growth in construction tech investment.

Core ConTech demand is here to stay

COVID-19 has reshaped construction technology, dramatically accelerating the adoption of core tools. Some of this momentum is expected to outlive the virus, now that more firms have experienced first-hand the value of time-tested technologies.

Difficult market conditions remain, but the overall future is bright for effective constructive technology.  

Henry D’Esposito is a senior research analyst at JLL, based out of the firm’s Washington, D.C., office.