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Digitalization of the Construction Industry

By Sameer Purao, CIO, Austin Industries

Digitalization of the Construction IndustrySameer Purao, CIO, Austin Industries

Construction is a $10 trillion global industry, but it’s plagued by paper based inefficient processes and low productivity. Large projects across asset classes typically take 20 percent longer to finish than scheduled and are up to 80 percent over budget.

Significant potential savings from productivity gains and widespread labor shortages have made construction environment ripe for automation.

However, there are key challenges to technology in the construction industry:

• Digitization requires initial investment for long-term benefits. The margins in construction business are very slim and contractors resist use of technology to keep costs down.

• Construction labor force continues its resistance to adopt and operate advanced technology in a harsh, rugged environment. Training sub-contractors on newer technology is also a challenge.

• Construction is mostly on green field sites and there are limited connectivity options available. This limits the usage of technology as the site has to rely on an inconsistent connectivity.

• Oil and Gas or Chemical construction sites require C1D1/C1D2 intrinsic safe devices. These devices are very expensive, not readily available in the market, and are often lagging with the latest technology updates.

• Using more IoT devices increases the risk of a cyber attack, which can be detrimental for mega projects especially within O&G industry.

Over the past years, evolution in technology has overcome several of the above challenges and has now enabled a vision for Smart Construction. The connectivity options using SD WAN, integration of systems, IoT devices to capture field data, rugged mobile devices, robust analytical tools and collaborative solutions like virtual reality have created a strong business case to justify investment in technology for immediate returns.

There are key areas where technology has assisted in playing a transformational role:

Engineering: 3D CAD drawings are slowly becoming obsolete and will be replaced with 4D/5D business information modeling (BIM) heavily integrated with scheduling and estimation software. 

This allows easy simulation of changes depicting real time impact on schedule and cost. The 3D/4D/5D models can now be fed into a Virtual Reality studio where one can see and navigate through the real scale model, giving an immersive experience to customers. This helps to visualize and experience the finished structure to identify design flaws and trigger changes at a very early stage thereby significantly reducing the cost of the project. It also allows one to inhabit designs in a natural and immersive way, creating improved collaboration and a better understanding of designs in real scale.

The CIO along with executive management should actively partner together to develop a detailed technology roadmap to better prepare for the upcoming disruption

Safety: Construction jobs are inherently dangerous: it is a high hazard industry that comprises a wide range of construction like refineries, chemical plants, bridge erection, roadway paving, excavations, demolitions, and large-scale painting jobs. Safety is of utmost importance and is often a key factor in the selection of the General Contractor and sub-Contractors. The use of RFID technology on hard hats is widely used for workforce management and clocking purposes. In addition, several stress detection devices (similar to Fitbit) are used to monitor stress levels and raise real-time alerts if a stressed individual is performing a hazardous activity. These devices provide visibility and are proactive to prevent potential accidents.

Field Automation: Automation on the field has significantly reduced paper processing and increased business efficiency and productivity. The use of mobile devices has become very common in capturing operational data, time entry; perform audits and observations & QC. The RFID has been commonly used to track movement of materials and avoid theft of tools. IoT sensors are used to track and collect data to report real time productivity and for analytical purposes. Several big equipment like concrete mixers, dozers, etc are used across multiple sites and tracking their utilization and location helps to maximize their productivity and significant cost savings.

Business Applications: Robust Project Management, Estimation, Supply Chain, Risk modeling applications have further increased the accuracy, transparency, and efficiency of construction.

Smart Construction with Drones, Robotics and AI: Robots are primed to revolutionize the construction industry. Robotics is becoming more common on jobsites for applications such as bricklaying, concrete dispensing, welding, demolition, and more.

Robots can improve worker safety in construction environments by taking over some of the more dangerous tasks and allowing human workers to complete more cognitive tasks.

A multi-purpose drone bulldozer automation system flies above a construction site, monitoring deliveries, inventory and overall progress. Additionally, the drone creates a 3D map of the construction site, which it then feeds to an unmanned bulldozer—the information is then used to direct the bulldozer without the need for a driver.

Automated robots are being used to construct beams, lay bricks, drill, dig, paint and perform almost any task required to build structures. What is really exciting in this space is the ability to perform construction remotely and unmanned. Innovative companies have built solutions that allow smart robots to work synchronously to construct complex objects. All this can be done under the watchful eye of a technician from across the world over the web.

Quality data structure is the key foundation for future success. Qualitative data can be leveraged through AI techniques to optimize development and quality control testing of products and design structures. Predictive analytics/ML technology can be used for forecasting, risk modeling and safety reducing significant operational costs.

In a $10 trillion industry, even small differences in operating expenses can result in huge savings. Digitization reduces workplace incidents thereby further reducing operating costs and leading to predictable project results. In this age of auto driven cars, millennials are refusing to work with paper based processes and high-risk manual construction activities. However, digitization requires significant investment of money and time, causing distraction from day-to-day business. Therefore, organizations should be cautious and spend sufficient time in analyzing/piloting technologies before adopting them to create business value. The CIO along with executive management should actively partner together to develop a detailed technology roadmap to better prepare for the upcoming disruption. Organizations who fail to see this wave will significantly lag behind and pay a very high price to make up the lost ground.

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