Gavin Flynn is an associate director at Linesight, a global construction consultancy that provides independent cost management and general consultancy services to the United States construction industry. A native of Dublin, Ireland, but now based in the Bay Area, Flynn is a cost consultant with over 11 years of professional experience in construction cost management.
New advances in technology, particularly on the digital side of the spectrum, can do a lot to drive revenue and cut costs. Innovative techniques and processes for project management, new software solutions, the internet of things (IoT) and alternative materials are all making a push into mainstream construction. These opportunities aren’t just science fiction anymore; they’re valuable technologies moving construction into the 21st century. The following article explores some advances that are already on jobsites today.
1. Virtual & Augmented Reality
No longer something solely associated with gaming, virtual reality (VR) is finding a home in the construction industry. New 4D virtual reality modelling allows clients to be immersed in the environments of their planned construction projects during the planning and design stages. This ability to walk the key stakeholders through a fully interactive experience prior to finalizing the design can ensure plans fully meet client expectations.
In construction, 4D environments can allow companies to plan every aspect of the project, improving everything from safety to efficiency, as well as delivering a more consistent final product.
However, virtual reality is now being replaced or complimented by the use of augmented reality. Whereas virtual reality allows users to “move” through 3D and 4D model environments without moving from their offices, augmented reality (AR) can take the real 3D world and add to it by placing a model of a proposed design onto an existing space. Augmented reality has a wealth of design and construction uses beyond visualization. For example, it can be used for constructability reviews by letting the designer and contractor collaborate on changes that may be required based on the constructability of the design.
The technology for virtual and augmented reality has long being seen as cost prohibitive. However, the drive for improved safety and productivity means we are seeing a renewed drive towards its use in the construction industry.
2. Laser Scanning
One of the most exciting new technologies in construction is laser scanning, which is already helping companies make huge gains in terms of productivity and savings. It has been reported that productivity savings with laser-scanning can be as much as $0.85 per square foot.
The key lies in the scans themselves. One company has created a hand-held lidar scanner that users can take around their jobsites. They can then take detailed scans of progress that allow for consistent checks of every piece of the project instead of just those that can be checked off on a clipboard. Another has gone one step further, with a robot that can tour sites all on its own. Undeterred by stairs, the tiny machine can trundle around for daily or weekly scans that produce detailed images of progress.
Solutions like these can be used to cut down on costly rework required when errors go unnoticed.
3. New Project Management Tools
Productivity and the difficulties of any large-scale collaboration are another area being targeted by emerging technologies. One of the most important tools that has yet to be fully integrated into the construction industry is contemporary digital planning. Some larger developers have already begun creating and deploying cloud-based workflow solutions to optimize critical functions like scheduling, crew tracking and document managing, so that background tasks don’t have to dominate so many hours of activity. Similarly, cloud-based workflows have great potential to make crews more mobile.
Digital planning and progress tracking, combined with portable access to best practice information, empower mobile teams to access the information they need to be successful. This is becoming even more critical (and rewarding) with the ubiquity of mobile devices and their ability to turn every team leader into a central commander. All of this has the potential to update slow, centralized project management and create more independent, effective teams.
4. Smart Equipment
The IoT is also improving how builders manage large projects. One of the most interesting innovations of recent years is “smart equipment,” or machinery armed with sensors that notify managers of problems well before they turn into costly nightmares.
For example, if temperature changes or unnecessary fuel consumption begin to indicate an issue, IoT-enabled gear can detect it, and you can move in with preventative maintenance before there is any need for repair or replacement. This saves time and money. Fixing something during downtime is much easier than installing an entire project because repairs need to be made.
Some companies have gone even further by deploying full sensor arrays capable of delivering reports on fuel levels and the structural integrity of parts on an individual level. Some even have e-commerce functionality, which allows you to order new parts from within the same interface.
Smart prefab parts are another advance currently being utilized. Radio frequency identification (RFID) sensors can be used to track individual pieces during their whole run through the supply chain. This allows for consistent tracking when things go right and preventative action (reordering, rescheduling) when things go wrong in the supply chain. Once the parts get there, that same RFID tag can be used to implement information about its installation to your Building Information Modelling (BIM), so the work is immediately delivered into your digital workflows.
The IoT is powerful particularly because it allows the digital workflows and cloud-based management to have real impact and significance on the ground as well. Information can be traded back and forth between central systems, workers and their equipment to create a detailed image of all the work being done and the improvements that need to be made hour by hour.
5. New & Redesigned Materials
Developments in materials are happening all the time, and some have the potential to improve a project’s efficiency and make it last longer once it’s done. For instance, researchers just last year made new discoveries about the recipe for Roman concrete. Unlike modern concrete, which uses Portland cement as a binding agent, Roman concrete uses volcanic limestone, which creates a more solid and long-lasting product.
Composite sheet piles are a material advancement that are already being used today. The use of materials like carbon fiber is already making projects more efficient and long-lasting. The composite is less likely to break down and easier to handle—both of which are important characteristics for any kind of construction project.
More advanced materials, such as “self-healing concrete,” which contains calcite-precipitating bacteria that germinate when water enters the cracks of decaying concrete, to fill the emerging air gaps, or “kinetic paving,” which generates electricity from the footsteps of pedestrians to generate electricity, may not yet make fiscal sense on large scale projects, but show the power of investment into research and development in the construction sector.
Another technology that would appear to be more at home in a video game, exoskeletons truly have the ability to make construction more efficient and safer. These wearable mechanical suits, worn outside clothing to help with lifting heavy equipment, machinery, etc., are getting closer to becoming a viable option. Designed to “augment with humans,” these suits could aid construction workers with everyday mundane, repetitive tasks, supporting better physical health and helping combat conditions caused by common construction activities.
With over 40 companies now manufacturing exoskeletons worldwide, you may see these exoskeletons start to become more cost effective and their use in the construction industry grow accordingly.
Construction, like every industry, is taking advantage of technological innovations and improvements. The important thing is to find the advancements that drive efficiency, are cost-effective and help improve safety. For complex projects, virtual and augmented reality can provide much greater clarity on design and help manage stakeholder expectations before construction begins. If collaboration and productivity are an issue, there are new tools being created to make communication and project management more efficient and less costly.
If progress updates are presenting difficulties, laser scanning and BIM systems are making clipboard checklists and unassisted walkthroughs increasingly obsolete. If machines are breaking down and parts are becoming lost in the pipeline, advancements in the IoT has the potential to make those problems a thing of the past.
In addition, new advances in construction materials and personal protective equipment are happening all the time to make jobs easier and more innovative. Staying on top of new technologies can be difficult, but failing to do so can have long-term consequences.