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Feds invest $2.59M to create a construction tech hub at SAIT

SAIT is, by 2025, to become the new home of the Alberta Construction Technologies Centre focusing on improving automation and advanced material technologies for Alberta construction companies.

Calgary Skyview MP George Chahal, on behalf of PrairiesCan minister Dan Vandal, made the announcement at the post-secondary institution that the federal government would be investing $2.594 million towards the creation of the centre via the Regional Innovation Ecosystems program.

“Construction is a major driver of Alberta’s economy, employing thousands of workers and contributing billions in economic activity,” said Chahal.

“This hub of innovation will include laboratories and specialized equipment where industry partners can develop, test and commercialize innovative technologies that improve efficiencies in the construction industry. The result will be faster construction of housing and infrastructure that is of high quality and with less environmental impact.”

Chahal, who worked in the construction industry prior to being elected, said that he remembered when the average home building time in the city was less than six months.

He said that the new centre would provide alternatives for construction industry partners to speed up construction times for homes, which have risen to over 14 months in Calgary.

“We have to use every tool that we have available to build homes, but we also need to work and find new opportunities and technologies. I think this centre will provide a catalyst to the construction industry and a partnership for the 50 businesses and all the students that are going to be involved working and learning here,” Chahal said.

The centre is expected to support 50 small- and medium-sized businesses, create 50 new jobs, and train 60 students over the next four years.

Advanced technologies like robotics and 3D technology to be worked on by centre

Dr. Hamid Rajani, who will be leading the centre, said that there will be a focus on using already proven technologies that are used in other industries like aerospace and automotive, such as robotics and 3D printing.

"For example, 3D printing of concrete to get into the houses and fully automated prefabrication. Those are going to be some of the technologies that we're going to focus on," Rajani said.

The second area, he said, would be focused on developing new advanced environmentally sustainable materials.

Ed McNab, Director and CEO of 3D Printed Homes Corporation, called the centre a game changer for the 3D printed home industry.

"The ability to design a new printable material and have it tested and proven and certified in a facility like this perhaps with some government support is absolutely game-changing," he said.

"It allows us to move away from conventional concrete, which has a fairly high carbon content due to the Portland cement and move into other materials other chemistries that will allow us to build possibly faster but more importantly, more carbon conscious."

McNab said that moving to automated technologies like 3D printing for homes offers substantial cost savings for consumers.

"There is a dramatic labour saving, which is partly offset by the printer... we're looking at a 10 to 30 per cent cost reduction to print to develop the vertical walls," he said.

He said that the use of 3D printing also offers the opportunity to fill in for trades that are losing members.

"One of the biggest impediments to finishing more houses is our inability to start more houses. We can't start houses because people are leaving the early stages of construction," McNab said.

"We don't have the workers to do the cribbing and the forming and the foundations and the basement walls. The heavy-duty work that is necessary to start a home."

Ed McNab, Director and CEO of 3dPHC, left, Bill Black, CEO of the Calgary Construction Association, Jamie McInnis, Director of Applied Research and Innovation Services at SAIT, Calgary Skyview MP George Chahal, and Dr. Ken Whitehead, Scientific Lead, Centre for Innovation and Research in Unmanned Systems at SAIT, announce $2.5 million for SAIT to develop an Alberta Construction Technologies Centre in Calgary on Tuesday, August 22, 2023. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Centre to support automation in tight labour sector

Bill Black, CEO of the Calgary Construction Association, said that the industry has faced significant challenges in both the ability to procure material and labour and that has led to delays in construction in all sectors of the industry.

"Since early 2020, the average build cost excluding land of a home has also increased by some 50 plus percent. That is a combination of materiality contributing to additional costs of core materials, but it's also rising cost of labor which is short supply, and therefore becoming a more valuable asset and that is reflected in the commercial industry as well," Black said.

"It's becoming harder and harder for builders to be able to significantly predict what something is going to cost or something is going to take 18 to 24 months from now. So it's a challenge shared across all sectors."

He said that the benefit of the centre would be to have researchers innovating in parallel to private industry.

"It's hard for an industry working full pelt, to stop actually building to invest in research, because then you're taking people from the field that are desperately needed to build," Black said.

"You now have an ambidextrous strategy where you can keep building and trying to stay on top of the demand, whilst the innovation can be happening in parallel. Hopefully these two rail tracks converge and the momentum increases from there."