Engineering

Digital Transformation in the Construction Industry

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Summary
Learn more about digital transformation and how the construction industry found uses for new technologies.

Construction has been called the science of the practical. While designers and governmental bodies argue over the limits of the possible, leaders in the construction industry have simply continued to build along the most efficient path.

Construction was one of the last industries to get onboard with digital transformation, according to McKinsey’s study on “Imagining Construction’s Digital Future.” That caution serves as more evidence of the industry’s ingrained practicality. There’s no time to waste on chasing after technology that doesn’t perform better than existing methods.

That’s also why 2016 turned out to be the tipping point in the construction industry’s adoption of technology clusters, including mobile devices, data-driven performance metrics, and the cloud.

In the 2016 Construction Technology Outlook, 53% of construction professionals said that they either had a technology plan in place or they expected it to be in place before the end of the year. The possible has finally become practical.

Here are just a few of the ways construction found uses for new technologies in 2016:

  • Miners are using self-driving trucks to improve safety around explosives and heavy machinery. From a mobile office, engineers and developers use monitoring analytics to isolate, predict, and prevent breakdowns.

  • PlanGrid introduced a construction collaboration app, including streamlined processes for managing and sharing markups, potential issues, and progress reports in real time.

  • The Kespry company demonstrated a construction drone that can document 150 acres in 30 minutes and compile millions of data points into a functional 3-D model.

  • In Europe, RigScan by Atlas Copco controls thermal imaging cameras, embedded sensors, and other IoT devices to run performance audits and make sure equipment is operating within factory specifications.

  • At our AppSphere 2016 conference, a cross-industry gathering dedicated to advanced software, DevOps, application performance, and business outcomes, AppDynamics CEO, David Wadhwani, made a good point about the software-defined world: “A John Deere tractor has more software in it than the Space Shuttle. Every company is a software company.”

The last point is significant because most construction companies don’t think of themselves as software companies yet, even though an increasing percentage of their equipment and business processes depend on reliable, secure software.

Forces of Disruption

Looking ahead, there are five trends already in the deployment or prototyping stage that will define which construction companies come out ahead over the next few years. Here’s an overview of the new technologies detailed in McKinsey’s report on the future of construction.

1. HD Survey and Geolocation Devices

For years, many construction companies have been striving to find the best tools for high-definition (HD) photography and 3-D laser scanning of worksites. The use of drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have dramatically improved coverage and image quality.

One good example is photogrammetry, which takes HD survey images and rapidly converts them to images that are easy to share with other stakeholders. On the 3-D imaging front, light detection and ranging (lidar) is fed directly into project-planning tools and building information modeling (BIM) software.

Lidar is often deployed along with ground-penetrating radar and magnetometers to look at impacts both above and below ground. This minimizes the chance of work stoppage or disturbances before work begins in densely populated areas, environmentally sensitive regions, or historical sites.

Advanced survey techniques like these go into the generation of geographic information systems and area maps with overlays of GPS positioning data. A good example of where these technologies have been combined was a survey of potential riverside sites for a small hydropower plant in Southeast Asia. The surveyors used lidar maps to chart the terrain information and sent out HD drone-mounted cameras to image specific areas.

2. More Comprehensive Project Planning

On top of 3-D spatial inputs for BIM, new platforms add another two dimensions of cost and scheduling. This 5-D approach simplifies project scope and design parameters based on geometry, project specifications, aesthetic goals, thermal requirements, and acoustic properties. Companies, project managers, and contractors can get on the same page immediately on how changes will impact project costs and scheduling.

Three-fourths of those adopting 5-D BIM reporting saw positive ROI, with shorter project life cycles and lower material costs. Some governments, including those in Singapore, the UK, and Finland have mandated the use of these BIM technologies for public infrastructure projects.

The next step involves wearables with augmented reality technology such as holographic displays and screens that map out projects onto video feeds of the actual environment.

3. Digital Collaboration and Mobility

This trend has seen the greatest adoption rates by construction companies. Digital transformation to a paperless workflow and mobile devices has sped up decision-making and streamlined collaborations.

The most immediate results have been expectations for real-time progress reports, more accurate risk assessments, detailed quality control evaluations, and better outcomes all around.

Procurement and contracting tasks benefit from analysis of historical performance that wasn’t possible using paper forms and reports. Inadequate security and management of paper trails led to many disagreements between project owners and their contractors. In many cases, these new technologies have eliminated arguments over project completion, the implementation of change orders, and how claims are handled.

Around 60 percent of the venture funding in the industry has gone to collaboration tech and mobility solutions. One app can deliver real-time changes in construction blueprints to worksite managers, with site photos that can be hyperlinked to construction plans. It automatically maintains a master set of documents for reliable version control and cloud-based access to the latest data. Mobile time-tracking, cost-coding, geolocation of contractors, and streamlined issue logging are just a few more of the most popular advances.

4. Future-Proof Design

Some of the most exciting and exotic potential has arisen from the introduction of new building materials that have been in feasibility testing for years. Some examples include self-healing concrete, aerogels, and nanomaterials.

There are also many new approaches to construction processes, such as 3-D printing of materials as needed and the delivery of preassembled modules to the worksite. These materials and processes have dramatically lowered construction costs and shortened project schedules.

At the same time, some of these decisions are driven by tighter environmental oversight and calls for transparency on the worksite. Some stakeholders have put restrictions on projects for stiffer energy controls and a lower carbon footprint. Some of the related trends driving these changes involve:

  • Lean management principles that call for greater efficiency in material costs.

  • More flexible supply chains required by construction in remote or densely populated areas.

  • Reduced land available for building that increases the expected commercial life of projects.

  • Concrete cloth that can be formed in any shape to be used for channels, drains, and passages, then set in place with water.

5. IoT and Performance Analytics

Sensors, near-field-communication (NFC), and software-defined monitoring services have been instrumental in boosting productivity. At the same time, they’ve improved site safety for people and assets. Project sites are getting denser, which could lead to more accidents without careful supervision. Equipment is getting more expensive and difficult to repair, which could lead to work stoppages unless problems are anticipated and avoided.

That’s why data analytics based on the new information collected by a host of sensors are mission critical to safety and performance. One of the new developments involves “smart structures” that measure vibrations to determine the strength and resilience of structures. Wearables can monitor equipment operators and send alerts if a driver is tired. Sensors can also identify when high-cost equipment resources are being underutilized.

Radio-frequency identification (RFID) tech is also used for smarter logistics and inventory reporting. RFID chips are shrinking in size and dropping in price, making them more useful across the construction site. One construction company reports using RFID tags to keep track of its truck inspection schedules, monitor the usage of essential tools, and streamline training for new hires.

Optimizing Worksite Performance

The future of construction will certainly see more of the decision-making functions handed off to intelligent software and the devices that run on it. For the sake of employee safety, data security, and company profitability, that software demands the highest standards of performance possible.