Great challenges of the next decade – great chances for the precast concrete industry

“There's nothing like a challenge to get the best out of yourself”. Talking about challenges is talking about the future but applying measures right now. We are currently experiencing an exceptional situation due to the health emergency caused by the expansion of the Covid-19 virus, which is having multiple side effects at all levels. Some of the consequences have a very direct relationship with greater use of digitization, such as increased teleworking, meetings or online events, or an impressive increase in e-commerce. Perhaps when this situation is overcome, the most noteworthy consequences will be that various avenues of digitization that were already previously being introduced, have accelerated their implementation process.

Alejandro López Vidal, Technical Manager ANDECE, Spain

The construction sector is one of the least in which technology has been introduced and is further from this inevitable digital transformation that almost any productive sector has been in place for the last years, especially if we focus it in its execution stage, which is usually carried out in a dynamic environment, with a high level of uncertainty and enormously dependent on the qualification of the available workforce at the site of the work. Against this model of action, the industrialization of construction is based on products and systems manufactured in a factory, offering a higher technical potential of automation as result of much more predictable tasks, with previously defined personnel and machinery, with greater experience effect and which are based on the systematic repetition of instructions, rules and calculations.

In this respect, prefabrication as a variant of industrialized concrete construction, is based on anticipating the factory, a much more controlled, planned and automated environment than the work itself, as many production processes as possible, so it is almost inevitable that the use of digitization will provide an additional impetus to consolidate all the advantages it brings - less waste, durability, optimized sections, less dependence on available on-site workforce, work safety, etc. - and further improve the efficiency in the design, manufacture or logistics of precast elements, as opposed to on-site construction.

Building the construction sectors' digital future: DigiPLACE Project [1]

The construction sector is a key driver for the economy, but it is one of the poorest performers in terms of productivity and innovation. It has yet to embrace digital innovations that could help improve productivity and profitability. The EU-funded DigiPLACE will create a common ecosystem of innovation, standardization and commerce to increase the construction sector’s productivity and end products’ quality in terms of buildings and infrastructure. It will also investigate what kind of digital transformation will improve productivity and efficiency. The project’s results will impact the development and competitiveness of the construction value chain.

BIM and precast concrete

At the core of this technological evolution is found the BIM methodology, which consists in the creation of digital models of the project, whether a building or an infrastructure, through increasingly advanced software that allow to share these models among the different agents involved: architecture and engineering, builders, developers and suppliers.

As we already describe at two previous articles here [2], as it happens in prefabrication, BIM is based on setting an accurate and unequivocal definition of each construction component, ensuring geometric and spatial precision in such a way that errors that are normally emerged during the execution due to deviations or unforeseen events are minimized, which have unpredictable damage and that are especially inherent to the traditional construction being fundamentally conditioned to the good or poor execution of the on-site workforce, but that in the case of precast concrete must be avoided from the early design phase in order to guarantee the correct assembly among the different elements.

Furthermore, the use of BIM coupled with the industrialized construction, brings efficiency to the construction process by allowing to test in the digital model some aspects such as the performance of the design  (for example, essential characteristics of the corresponding harmonized standard, or environmental impacts coming from the Environmental Product Declarations), the precision of the assembly planning or the quantity of materials required.

Currently the use of the BIM methodology within the prefabrication industry is under continuous development, especially in the case of those companies that participate in all stages of the process (design - manufacturing - logistics - execution) by requiring precise control of each building element, something that in the case of structures or facades made by precast concrete elements is essential. It is also necessary to differentiate between companies of small or medium size, usually with a more localized area of action, with more defined product catalogues, compared to those larger prefabricator companies, where in this case this digital transformation is usually much more evolved, and the investment necessary to undertake it has been conceived as an opportunity for its continuous improvement and to earn competitiveness.

Industry 4.0

Industry 4.0 not only automates some of the construction activities, improves the communication of the agents involved in it, improves the design of processes and makes decisions based on real data and simulations made from digital models. All this makes the work carried out in on-site construction more difficult to automate and, therefore, that new digital technologies are fundamentally addressed to the industrialization of certain construction processes, achieving greater efficiency and quality, without the finished work losing uniqueness and adaptability to the place where it is located, so we have before us an unprecedented development opportunity:

- Use of embedded sensors that allow to control various parameters during the manufacture of the elements (concrete strength,…) and monitor them during their use stage (detect possible pathologies,…), having precise and continuous control throughout their life cycle.
- Autonomous or collaborative robots, which can help further increase productivity at the factory.
- Increased efficiency, as a technology to help visualize the elements once installed and detect possible failures (geometric deviations).
- 3D printing, both at the manufacturing level of the elements themselves that require complex geometries or have an added value that justifies it, and for the production of limited series of moulds.
- Data acquisition and management software, which link different stages of the process and that allow to further increase the overall efficiency of the process.
- Improved document management through solutions that allow to synthesize to a minimum the issuance of documents, in an industry that increasingly develops constructive solutions on demand and more disparate and versatile products [3].

The case of ANDECE

ANDECE, as association that represents the interests of the Spanish industry of manufacturers of precast concrete elements since 1964, has been decisively committed to adapt as industry to this necessary technological transformation for the last decade, in order to guide its member companies to implement and the maximum profit of these different ways of digitization that the market puts at our disposal, with the maximum aim of improving our competitiveness and presenting us as the best constructive option for the 21st century:

- Digital library of generic BIM objects of precast concrete products developed in ANDECE with one of the main BIM platforms on the market, BIMETICA, recently extended to cover nearly 50 products with a level of development up to LOD200, which aims to be the basis for precast companies to develop their own product catalogues.
- Publication of a particularized BIM guide for precast concrete, including a proposed strategy to be followed by companies, taking into account that can be very different if we refer, for instance, to a company specialized on pavements with a very defined portfolio or it is a company that supplies structure and facade and that has a greater rate of participation in construction projects.
- Organization of technical webinars such as the technological cycle carried out last spring to bring our companies closer to the main companies that are leading this digital transformation.
- Subject of BIM and precast which is one of the most important that are part of the Master of Industrialized Construction in Concrete, the first specific training about precast concrete provided in the Spanish language at a global level [5].

Projection of the future

We want to conclude this article by taking an excerpt from this report of the World Economic Forum [4] that the path that construction takes in the upcoming years and which links that mayor digitalization within construction, inevitably a larger share of industrialized buildings, so that the precast concrete elements increase more as an option to form the different construction systems of buildings, civil engineering works or urban areas: “The industry as a whole should define key areas to work on and should agree on a common perspective. Among others, standard interfaces between prefabricated modules and components will enhance system compatibility, provide economies of scale for suppliers, act as a powerful productivity driver and thus accelerate the industrialization of the sector”.


[1] DigiPLACE Project

[2] “To “BIM” or not to “BIM” – The precast concrete industry challenge. Part 1 The background; Part 2 – BIM experiences”. A. López. Concrete Plant International, 2017.

[3] Smart CE marking. CPE, Construction Products Europe

[4] "Shaping the Future of Construction. A Breakthrough in Mindset and Technology". World Economic Forum. 2016

[5] Máster de construcción industrializada en hormigón. ANDECE - STRUCTURALIA

Alejandro López Vidal, graduated in Industrial Engineering at the Universidad de León, Spain. He has performed some charges in ANDECE (Spanish Precast Concrete Association) since 2008, being chosen Technical Manager in 2013. He is member of several organizations related to precast concrete industry such as the Technical and Environmental Commissions of BIBM, two FIB commissions or being the Spanish Delegate within the CEN/TC 229. He also manages the first Spanish Master’s Degree of Precast Concrete Construction.


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