4 Aug 2017

New building technology: threat or opportunity?

5:14 pm on 4 August 2017

The building industry is not changing fast enough in the face of new technology - like prefabricated skyscrapers and brick-laying robots - its leaders have been told.

The warning from Fletcher Building Products chief executive Matt Crockett was delivered at a Registered Master Builders conference in Auckland.

"We are letting New Zealand down," said Mr Crockett. "We're not improving quickly enough to be able to meet the challenge."

His company is part of a group of construction players aimed at bringing in big changes based on research from the World Economic Forum.

Australian consultant Simon Miller, who helped write the report, warned that new digital technologies would either transform or overwhelm what he said was one of most hidebound of all industries.

He said a Chinese company, Broad, could build a 57-storey tower in 19 days and was looking for markets in other countries for its skyscrapers.

"If that came to New Zealand, what could that actually do to disrupt your industry?

"They've just refined the shape and size of their modules so they'll fit in 40 foot containers. So they can now manufacture the components in China and they can ship them around the world.

"It means these buildings can effectively be constructed anywhere in the world, including probably in New Zealand."

Mr Miller said a robot, invented in Perth, which lays bricks eight times faster than a person, could be on sale in New Zealand by the end of the year.

Mr Crockett said New Zealand had to be careful that this type of development didn't undermine the domestic industry.

"But rather than try and kill it, because ... it does have a part to play ... we need to look at how can we embrace that, how can we partner?"

He said improvements, to productivity in particular, must be made or the industry would not keep up with growth.

The new group, which also includes the heads of Master Builders and an industry training agency, is tackling an old problem of a complex industry full of reasons not to cooperate.

Chelydra Percy, head of building research organisation BRANZ, said the 2016 World Economic Forum report showed New Zealand was "not a lonely basket case".

But New Zealand's "piecemeal and fragmented" approach to problem solving had to stop, she said, or the future would be one leaky building-type issue after another.

The report is being used in other countries such as Britain and the United States.