Future of Heavy Construction: Are Computers New Coworkers?
By Terry D. Bennett, Construction Executive
Generally accepted statistics note that around 30 percent of the money spent on construction is currently wasted due to coordination errors, wasted material, labor inefficiencies, etc.
Even with today’s stream of ever-evolving technologies, there is a need for better integration of information and optimization of processes using it. That need is driving the creation of new technology and tools to rapidly capture, create and compute infrastructure models and information at both the macro and micro scales. This in turn is opening doors for contractors to help clients make quicker, more accurate decisions across multiple contexts – economic, environmental and social. The opportunity to optimize a construction approach for an infrastructure type or design aimed at achieving a desired outcome beyond price is rapidly upon us.
For construction firms this signals a rise in competition. In this connected era, the value of approach, not just the cost of the project, will be the criteria that owners are looking for to continue securing new business with them. At the same time, contractors will need to embrace and understand the business disruption that the never-ending stream of technology is applying to all their existing workflows.
Processes they have become accustomed to for decades are changing. Risk increases for those firms who fail to have a business strategy to change and transform along with it. This means that firms must reevaluate traditional methods to improve their overall efficiency in delivering projects. Examples of this disruption include:
- automated machine control is becoming common place;
- digitalized engineering process (BIM) is being adopted rapidly in all construction phases;
- drones and robotics are being implemented on more and more projects;
- prefabrication use and planning for it is expanding;
- augmented and virtual reality is rising in use;
- IoT/Sensors and real time data are emerging in various projects; and
- generative design, AI and machine learning are the most disruptive changes on the horizon.
This list shows a fundamental shift taking place in the heavy civil/construction arena. Firms are starting to invest and, more importantly, seeing the benefit of that investment in tools, technology and new systems. Competition on a global scale used to be almost completely centered on price – now it will shift to skill of technology-savvy workers who most effectively implement and leverage technology in this fourth industrial revolution. In an industry that is known to be highly fragmented by discipline, this is no small task but it is starting to happen.
With the cost of new technology and capability continuing to drop – firms that were too small to compete on price or number of workers can now scale to compete with much larger firms by leveraging the power and efficiency that today’s technology provides. BIM is the canary in the coal mine – an indicator of how a technology can defragment markets, approaches and business to increase efficiency, effectiveness and delivery of infrastructure assets. BIM is not just about a 3-D model of an infrastructure asset; for construction firms it has now begun to serve as a shared resource for information about heavy civil projects, such as a highways, tunnels, dams or utility networks. Why? Beyond design, BIM is starting to become a reliable tool for all project participants and the resulting owner for decision making at all lifecycle phases, including construction.
Infrastructure is usually big, complex and expensive and impacts hundreds to thousands or even millions of people depending on the project. It requires significant capital investment to build and ongoing incremental investment to keep it functional. BIM for Infrastructure plays an important role – the foundation for all these decisions and phases. As BIM becomes connected to the cloud, it will blur the lines and connect the design, build and operate phases as a continuous data stream, where each next step leverages and extends the rich information captured and/or created in the step before.
So, consider these examples of how technology will disrupt heavy construction:
- BIM in the Cloud. Underpinning this next generation of construction applications and processes, it allows all parties involved in the construction directly or indirectly to share data and status in near real time. This will enable leveraging high-end construction analytics, AR/VR, AI and sensors to track people, equipment, projects and progress.
- Reality Capture. Whether via UAS/drones or laser scanners, this real-time, high-accuracy data collection is transforming the construction process from planning through execution. Preconstruction survey, quantity take-offs, construction structures assessment and management, safety inspections, earthworks tracking and phase monitoring – the list continues to grow. This technology will allow the leveraging of real-time data feeds to better manage the construction process for large civil infrastructure projects.
- Data-driven Construction. Big data creates opportunities for bigger and better outcomes if properly applied. By leveraging in context, accurate, up-to-date field information via reality capture and combining it with BIM, everything from road geometry, complex construction sequencing for bridge or tunnel installation, to the optimal staging of people and equipment can be digitally choreographed long before ground is broken. This improves decision making and safety and enables better cost and schedule compliance.
- Construction becoming assembly. With big strides being made on the building structure side, there are signs on the heavy civil side as it relates to bridges, tunnels and other transportation structures. The planning for how best to leverage and “assemble” will require contractors to work much closer with design engineers to enable design for assembly/constructability, which at some point will involve robotics versus just design for manual construction as has been used for centuries.
- Autonomous everything. Robotics, GPS machine control, telematics and intelligence combine to create semi-autonomous/autonomous vehicles and heavy equipment. Once only in the realm of advanced mining sites, the migration and democratization of those workflows and tools to the heavy highway and civil infrastructure sites is starting as machines get smarter and more connected in real time. As technology enables better sensing, BIM will drive more exact pre-planning and construction execution. AI will take this “machine learning” from beyond the office computer to the project site scale in the coming years leading to more optimized real time construction approaches based on real-time site conditions and logistics.
As the construction industry moves forward into the “Era of Connection,” embracing collaboration among teams, processes and systems by leveraging BIM data to design, construct and operate will become the norm. With deep learning solutions on the horizon, the number of problems contractors can innovate solutions to simultaneously will explode, all to the benefit of owners who operate these assets and the citizens who fund and ultimately use these vital infrastructure assets around the world.