New tech advances are poised to affect jobsite practices – and project costs – in ways that seemed like science fiction just a few years ago. The biggest change is the way that individual technologies are now synergistically working together and giving rise to emergent processes; the biggest challenge is to choose the technologies that are right for you and your company. The tech processes go beyond stand-alone solutions, which have typically been acquired and used by individual contractors, and are creating systems that will require high level buy-in and strategic implementation.
Investing in tech for tech’s sake and hoping for a return on investment doesn’t usually lead to optimum outcomes. Large-scale construction projects that have made the most extensive, and integrated, use of technology have shown verifiable improvements in total costs and completion time, as well as in quality and safety.
Implementation Beyond the Construction Phase
One fundamental shift is that BIM has moved from a “micro” role to a “macro” role. Instead of offering an extremely targeted set of solutions to architects and engineers, it can now be used by owners and stakeholders as early as the preconstruction planning phase.
Macro-BIM solutions can be customized with data sets that are closely tailored to specific project situations. A preliminary 3D design allows project evaluation to be accomplished in a matter of hours, and includes site and facility options, utility loads, transportation requirements and their impact on site selections, regional construction costs, project schedule, budget, cut and fill analysis for site costs, etc.
This preliminary BIM model can be used as a basis for capital appropriation and even future construction phases. Often the completed BIM model is now a required deliverable to the owner and operations team at the end of any project.
Another development that helps with front-end planning is laser scanning, which can now capture an enormous amount of information on site conditions or as-built details. Field measurements performed with laser scanners capture very detailed geometric information in the form of “point cloud” data – that is, a large set of points on a coordinate system.
Laser scanners are incredibly accurate, and thus show the true conditions of a space and/or facility. This can be particularly useful when analyzing potential clashes between existing conditions and new building elements. The data can be fed into BIM or CAD files, leading to enormous time and cost savings.
Not only do detailed building models bring more information and integration to every stage of a project, but they are now accessible from more places than traditional drawings could ever be. With the use of mobile devices and apps, real-time sharing in the field leads to enhanced productivity.
Big Data Will Rule
To date, most industry conversations about big data have centered on asset management. For example, sensors on buildings can collect hundreds of readings that help assess building performance, and historical data can be used to inform scheduling decisions.
Contractors are already utilizing technologies such as bar code scanners and radio-frequency identification readers to monitor shipments, as well as material, equipment, and fuel usage. GPS fleet tracking software and telematics systems can provide instant data about field and equipment conditions. Building material suppliers are leveraging the Internet of Things for quality control, delivery, and forecasting. But in the near future, big data is going to become a fabric uniting and transforming other technologies.
Cloud-based-software-generates data patterns as a byproduct of its core tasks. These byproducts are known as data exhaust. For example, most people make use of sophisticated apps that display real-time traffic conditions by crowd-sourcing data from cell phone signals and sensors on vehicles and roadways. A similar type of data analysis will be used on the construction site to assess real time conditions. Data exhaust can be used to improve construction activities ranging from supply chains to safety. Experts anticipate a move away from proprietary products and toward open source software to support this connectedness.
Machines and Devices Are Growing in Use
Why confine the delivery of information to a screen? Wearables (such as smart glasses and hard hats that can provide augmented and mixed reality) may be the next development in devices. These visualization tools can lead to improvements in accuracy, efficiency, and safety. Robotic and 3D printed solutions can also make use of big data. Extruded concrete, plastics, and other materials are being used to create building components and even entire buildings. For example, the world’s first 3D-printed office was recently constructed in Dubai.
Drones equipped with cameras have been in use for several years to collect information in locations that are hard for humans to access. Captured images can support site assessment and inspections, as well as augment a project team’s understanding of project progress and as-built conditions. Drones can also be utilized to monitor logistics, deliveries, and the workforce. Some companies are taking drone footage and converting it into 3D pictures for comparison to the architectural plans.
Expected improvements largely focus on advanced cameras and lenses that can capture better images, as well as enhanced communication between drones and software on the receiving end. There is also the potential to utilize sensors for monitoring. And, of course, one low-tech issue is critical: rules, regulations, and controls must balance the needs of the industry with the needs of the public.
More technologies in more places can be expected as the future unfolds. But the real driver of change will be the amount and integration of data. Companies that take a proactive approach as to how they will use this information and data will be poised to reap the most benefit. More information will bring improvements to problem solving and, eventually, to overall industry practices.