Technology Trends Converge to Transform the Construction Industry

With the average construction executive’s day consumed by cash flow management, margin protection, subcontractor oversight and competing for business, it can be difficult to set aside time to contemplate the future.

Even a few minutes spent reflecting on some of the industry’s most important advancements reveals technological innovation has been at the root of most productivity enhancements. Consider the way the steam shovel transformed the process of excavation, the way the Greathead shield transformed the process of tunneling or the way BIM is transforming the project delivery process. 

If there’s one lesson to be learned from BIM, it’s that proactively thinking about technology-enabled change will position a company ahead of the competition. Key to that way of thinking is being able to elevate above the noise of individual trends and identify themes. 

Cloud computing, mobile computing and social connectivity are three big trends materializing across multiple sectors of the economy, as are remote sensing, 3-D printing and augmented reality. Collectively, the benefits of these trends fit into three key themes: the power of “big data,” the collision of the real world with the digital world and the democratization of service provision. All are likely to have significant implications for the construction industry.  

Harnessing the Power of Big Data

The phrase “if only” has robbed contractors of profits and all too often left owners with underperforming assets. Classic examples include “if only we’d known orienting the building a few more degrees north would have drastically reduced unwanted solar gain,” or “if only we’d known that subcontractor’s cash flow was a problem before it went bust and blew our schedule.” 

Whether caused by poor commercial interfaces, breakdowns in supply chain communications or inefficient work processes, much of the drain in construction productivity is caused by information problems. If individual project team members can’t access accurate, complete and timely information, then they can’t deliver the best result in the most productive manner.

BIM, combined with more collaborative types of contracts, is helping to solve that challenge. By upholding the integrity and transparency of information across the life cycle of built assets, BIM-enabled projects are more productive, predictable and profitable.

 
For the first time in the history of construction, the industry is amassing large volumes of high-integrity information and can understand the relationships among that data. The information lives in 3-D models, applications and databases, but it’s becoming increasingly connected. 

What can be done with that information beyond the individual project for which it was created? The most obvious practice, called construction intelligence, involves looking for patterns and trends to help companies make better decisions and gain an advantage. Mining information in this way is a common practice in other sectors of the economy; for example, retailers use it to improve the customer experience and boost loyalty. Following are three examples of how construction intelligence can give contractors an edge. 

  • Looking horizontally, across a current portfolio of projects, allows firms to optimize unit cost for materials by ordering in bulk.
  • Extracting material information matched to schedule data enables companies to mitigate price volatility by purchasing a material derivatives instrument.
  • Looking vertically back through time helps contractors detect project over-estimations and tighten future bids.

 

Information warehousing and mining holds the promise of being a genuinely strategic tool. The more information amassed, the easier it is to identify a useful pattern. 

There’s a good chance new services will be offered on the back of big data—from data wrangling (the integration, aggregation, disaggregation and repurposing of information as a value-add service) to data brokering (the resale of data sets, such as equipment performance or building energy performance).  

Capitalizing on the Collision of the Real World with the Digital World 

Capturing a project’s topography, or the existing structure for a refurbishment project, often involves using high-resolution laser scanning equipment. As the fidelity of this process increases, along with the allied process of capturing reality through the use of digital photography, construction companies will be offered the tantalizing prospect of “designing in reality.” With new levels of definition sufficient enough to understand the implications of design decisions on the existing real-world context, today’s abstract concept of working in an isolated model is likely to become defunct.

 

Advances made in remote sensing technology are helping the industry move a step further. Capturing data, such as environmental conditions or material properties, directly from a model will impact the way in which construction companies work.

Additionally, “infinite computing” from the cloud combined with high-fidelity visualization technology offers the prospect of designing in a digital version of the real world. As building projects become more complex, it’s increasingly difficult to make the best design decisions quickly. Digital reality should usher in an era of near-perfect solutions to complex design challenges (e.g., cost, energy, schedule and constructability), shifting away from the traditional iterative process of design followed by analysis and toward a parallel experience. 

For more than a century, modern manufacturing has been defined by the maxim that complexity and uniqueness are expensive; in other words, it’s cheaper to produce a large volume of the same thing at a lower unit price. But digital realization is beginning to break that industry touchstone. Digital fabrication, 3-D printing and related technologies are enabling designers to move directly from a digital model to a finished physical object. As a result, complexity and uniqueness have become cheap and manufacturing is being democratized.  

Leveraging a Global Marketplace of On-Demand Service Providers 

Mobile computing already is helping transform efficiency on the jobsite. Delivering information to the workforce in the field via smartphones, tablets and laptops is quickly replacing the manual, paper-based way of doing business. 

But, mobile computing is more than just a conduit for information. For example, mobile apps provide bite-size functionality that empowers construction users to do anything from access jobsite cameras and calculate cost estimates to view CAD files and create forms for field services management. 

The transfer of construction industry processes into the cloud also has begun. Users can simulate a heavy lift, reschedule a task, issue a new method statement or undertake an annual service inspection. 

Why stop with small-scale functionality? With its access to infinite computing power, the cloud can support enterprise-level tasks. The future implications for construction—regardless of company size, specialty or sector—point to a greater level of interconnection. Deciding which side of the equation to be on—a provider or a consumer of information and services—is going to be just as important as deciding which projects to bid. 

 

Start Strategizing Today

In the past, many advances in information technology were “optional” for the construction industry. This time, their transformational potential is too compelling to ignore. 

The game-changing nature of the cloud, the disruptive impact of digital reality and digital realization, and the advantages associated with big data are poised to change construction forever. Knowing how to leverage these waves of technology should be as much a part of a company’s strategic planning process as determining which markets and sectors to pursue. 

 

By Dominic Thasarathar

Dominic Thasarathar is senior industry program manager for construction at Autodesk. For more information, visit www.autodesk.com.  

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