The growth in world’s population and deluge in forms of businesses to cater to its needs has flared up the demand for housing and infrastructure, owing to increase in manufacturing, transportation, retail, tourism, services and other sectors.
Traditional methods of construction have failed to offer the speed, affordability and quality that are required to overcome this demand-supply gap. Modernization & maturity in the Built Environment Sector has further expanded the horizon beyond time & budget considerations to cover aspects such as safety, productivity, regulatory compliance and sustainability. Meeting the bottom line with such crucial mandates is simply not possible without the use of technology. Companies all over the world have realized this well and are adopting a legion of solutions increasing their operational efficiencies and winning customers’ trust. Some of the best of those technologies are going to be discussed here, beginning with a broad overview of what that technology entails, and then pin-pointing the exact areas where they are adding value in the construction life-cycle. Some of these are still in their infancy stage but the potential for growth & benefits is immense.
1. Building Information Modelling (BIM) – BIM has been labelled by experts in the field as a ‘mark of beginning of a new era in design practice’. BIM tools provide for designing & tracking of not just geometric aspects of the project but also various other vital parameters such as schedule and budget. The more dimensions it covers, the higher the degree of deployment – 4D, 5D and so on.
BIM allows planners and designers to create & run virtual mock-ups before actual construction phase to easily discover points of intersection of structures and potential conflicts. It achieves reduction in rework & loss of information from design to actualization.
2. Artificial Intelligence (AI) – AI in simple words is making a machine think, like humans can, so that it may be used to perform various tasks – quicker, cheaper & better. It has resulted in a paradigm shift or disruption which is going to change the way things work forever. We see it in various forms in our daily lives – from the virtual assistant Alexa to the driverless vehicles.
In construction, AI is extensively utilized in tracking work progress through machine learning by use of smart photo recognition. Object & facial recognition can alarm safety issues – monitor which employees are authorized to use a piece of equipment or enter guarded areas on site; ensure that items on the site are being stored safely by referring to tagged locations that are set up for individual tools.
3. Virtual Reality (VR) – VR is artificially simulating a rich three-dimensional virtual environment by use of Head Mounted Display (HMD) which is so immersive that it feels like real. HMDs create visuals, sounds and other sensations making the user perceive surroundings very different from the real situation he’s in.
Construction by its very nature is danger-prone – the site-crew is susceptible to slips, falls, shocks & burns, exposure to hazardous substances, getting hit by heavy objects or stuck in between equipment, muscle strain injuries and much more. For effective training, near-real situations must be set-up to establish every potential risk & danger possible. Creating such scenarios require a lot of resources – expensive equipment, large space and high budget. VR can achieve to create very realistic or even more risky environments at very low budgets which are easily repeatable without incremental cost. Various parameters such as noises, vibrations, distractions can be fine-tuned to match the particular site conditions and there is absolutely no risk at all on faltering. Further, the applications provide very effective evaluation tools for judging the efficacy of trainings, which are made more exciting and fun by VR. Besides trainings, the technology allows site supervisors to visualize serious hazards & prepare them for such, thus averting incidents causing loss of lives and property, eventually curbing insurance costs. The benefits of VR are compounded when used in conjunction with BIM to facilitate virtual walk-throughs of a structure even before it is complete. VR in Real Estate sector helps customers in making buying choices by offering a 360-degree virtual tour of the property / apartment, eliminating the need to personally visit the site location.
4. Augmented Reality (AR) – In contrast to VR, which doesn’t take existing reality into account, AR adds digital visual elements (or augments) onto the structures that are present now in the surroundings. The way it works is an AR enabled mobile / tablet’s camera is pointed at structures on the site and instantly, one can see next stage developmental elements superimposed on the screen. Recent times have also seen an advent of wearable AR gadgets besides the handhelds which are more convenient & impressive, Microsoft’s HoloLens being a popular example.
In construction, AR can project 3D models on the screen from a 2D architectural drawing of let’s say a G+50 building. One can also visualize what would the structure be like a week or 10 days ahead on top of what’s been built up till now. The user may dive into finer details by zooming in / out, rotating the device screen or moving the plan around the handheld device. On a plain landscape, the way a structure would appear may be seen before the actual construction has been done. This allows for making variations in the earthwork so as to optimize operational efficiencies and aesthetics through interactive design. AR allows multiple people to view the same content on the handheld / wearable device and work together as a team.
5. Drones – Drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), were originally built for military applications, but are now being used in a wide spectrum of fields such as scientific, commercial, product delivery, recreational etc. The components of a small sized drone are a quadcopter, camera housing/built-in camera, GPS sensors and a ground-based controller to guide the drone flight & operations. A special consideration for use of drones is the obtaining of approvals & clearances from the aviation regulatory authorities as it may interfere / collide with birds or crewed aircrafts. The drone flight can also be autonomous, without a human with a remote control, as they come with collision avoidance systems in-built.
Drones are being used extensively in construction in inspecting site areas that are inaccessible and unsafe, such as, at greater heights in tall structures. One could just stay on ground and fly a drone to know the condition of slab that was casted on hundredth floor by inspecting the high definition images & videos captured. This allows for quickly fixing any anomalies detected without further delay and not allowing it to become a production flaw later. Drones can also be configured to track and follow an object or an individual for fair use or surveillance purposes. Furthermore, the rich content captured by drones also serves as feed into creation of attractive marketing material and branding. One caution for drone pilots moving around on the ground following the drone looking up in the sky is to be mindful of potential obstacles or dug up areas.
6. Internet of Things (IoT) – IoT is simply a bunch of appliances / equipment connected together in real-time so that they may be remotely operated and controlled by a handheld application. The devices that form a part of the IoT environment are known as IoT devices and today a wide range exists – air / light / temperature sensors, smart switches, door locks, TV / refrigerator / coffee-maker, automobile sensors and hundreds of others.
A largely known application of IoT is in Real Estate in the form of Smart Homes & Offices where lighting and air conditioning can be automatically controlled - Philips Hue Lighting is one example. On the construction site, IoT is massively used in Power Tools management. The utilities include enabling / disabling an equipment for authorized & safe usage, controlling torque & rotation speed, even creating custom settings configuration profiles for individuals. The DeWalt Hammer Drill is an example of IoT enabled power tool. It is also possible to auto power-off a specialized tool meant to be operated by only a skilled worker when the workman walks away for enhancing safety.
7. Robotics – A robot is a machine programmable by computers which is capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically. There are several different types of robots based on the intended usage, complexity, cost and size.
Construction is a heavily human dependent endeavor. For humans, it is difficult to work in harsh weather & hazardous unsafe environments, lifting heavy weights is tiring & injury-prone and doing monotonous repetitive tasks for long is quite boring. Human workers can work only for about one-third of a day maximum and there are labor laws mandating this. Further, with humans comes a possibility of errors and handling humans is tough given individual temperaments & emotions. From the management point of view, availability of workers is a major challenge alongside the work authorization regulations pertaining to fitness & drug-tests. Here robots come as a boon and solve all the above issues. In construction, robots are particularly best suited for repetitive mechanical functions such as brick-laying, tiling, painting and demolition. Robot SAM (semi-automated mason) was engineered by Construction Robotics, which is capable of working in collaboration with human masons reducing heavy-lifting burden on crew and increasing productivity by up to five-fold.
8. 3D Printing – 3D printing is producing three dimensional objects using computers and an appropriate feed such as metal, plastic, concrete etc. Through CAD files it is possible to print very complex shapes and geometries those that are not possible by traditional manufacturing processes.
3D printers are being used in the built environment to print sub-structures such as walls, columns & beams as well as internal structures like plumbing & electrical components. The components are fabricated off-site and then brought to the site & assembled. This is of great utility especially in dense urban centers where it is impossible to set up heavy construction machinery. Use of 3D printers can be a significant step towards adoption of Lean Practices as they can significantly reduce wastage, time & labor cost. Their usage is rising in the affordable housing sector due to constraints of time and cost in such projects.
9. Sensors – A sensor is a device capable of scanning the environmental parameters and transmitting them to a computer. It does so by digitalizing the parameters read, like moisture, temperature, speed, or noise, into a digital signal.
Field conditions of a construction site can be easily monitored by use of temperature, humidity, seismic and geo-positioning sensors, and relayed to the control room for taking appropriate decisions with regards to machinery or equipment usage and materials consumption. Fire outbreak or a gas leakage might be detected quickly, long before humans would, and alerting the safety department and helping them avert incidents. Sensors can transmit real-time health & productivity related info of machinery and equipment, preventing unexpected break-downs and increasing lifespan. Levels of material stock can also be monitored, aiding in efficient inventory supply chain management. Wearable bio-metric sensors embedded within the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as hard-hat, vest or gloves can be provided to workers to alert supervisors or medical / first-aid departments of any unusual readings of pulse, body temperature or other vitals. This helps in immediately responding to emergencies of fall, slip or a stroke episode. Thus overall, sensors help in sticking to timelines, controlling budget and enhancing safety in construction projects in a big way.
10. Big Data Analytics – The term big data means humongous data characterized by four Vs – volume, velocity, variety and veracity, which gets accumulated over a period of time from multiple internal and external sources such as CRM, social media, sensors, CCTV cameras, handhelds, etc. Traditional systems are incapable of processing such huge amounts of complex data and sophisticated applications &systems are needed. It is imperative for organizations to mine and analyze this massive data mountain for tracking trends & patterns, and generate actionable insights for charting out a prudent strategy for future course.
In construction domain big data can encompass key project related data pertaining to resources, budget, timeline, quality, productivity and so on. Big Data Analytics can free up the Built Environment professionals’ time from doing complex analysis, and the same may be used for more value added core business tasks, such as finding ways to improve products & services, reducing defects, improving quality & customer satisfaction, reducing incidents, etc. From predictive analysis, prior meticulous planning may be done so that mishaps may be prevented, and there’s little need for fire-fighting in areas like forecasting material prices, equipment supply, and labor availability. Repetitive nagging problems causing delays and budget overshoot may be spotted so that a permanent fix can be worked out.
11. Cloud – A Cloud-based system is one that is available anytime, anywhere, on any device accessible through a web browser or mobile application. There is no need for any installation to be done on a fixed PC. The Cloud computational method has several advantages over the traditional On-premise method – advantages of centralization, of having a single source of truth for all data entered by any user from anywhere, of intuitive rich content interface, of better collaboration, of efficient analytics, of access to industry best practices, of easy upgrades & maintenance, of smaller or no downtimes, of flexible pay-as-you-use subscription-based pricing and a many more.
On the construction job-site, a lot is happening at each moment, and for the executives sitting in the corporate headquarters it’s near to impossible to gain visibility over work progress. Cloud deployment can be of huge help here. Work status in various formats – updations on project schedules in MS Project / Primavera / Excel formats, visuals of work completed, vendor invoices received and so much of other crucial data can straight away be uploaded on to a cloud based system and it becomes available to all instantly.
12. e-Learning & Learning Management Systems (LMS) – e-Learning is electronically facilitated learning over the internet without a classroom or an instructor. With the advancement of educational technology, online learning is becoming more personal and interactive. An LMS is a portal for facilitating learning in universities and organizations – which may be built indigenously by the institution on its own, deploying a team of in-house programmers, or may be bought as a COTS (commercial of-the-shelf) solution.
Like all other industries are benefitting from e-Learning, the construction sector is too. Learnings of all kinds – be it related to safety, functional skills, behavioral skills or leadership skills – is an expensive affair. Instructors need to be hired, venue needs to be booked, transportation needs to be provided, and all this for one single training event. And learning is a continuous endeavor which needs periodic repetition. By using e-Learning models in the organization, trainings can be within budget and hassle-free, with no administrative efforts and high effectiveness. Since the learning material is in a digitized format such as text, audio or video saved on disk, it can be played from anywhere and any number of times. Even monitoring trainings, and finding whether the training has achieved the desired outcomes at all, is very convenient. e-Learning is a great catalyst for building a Document Management System (DMS) which goes on assimilating the organizational knowledge in tacit form and provides a competitive advantage.