I recently attended a construction conference and one of the sessions featured a speaker from Dodge Data and Analytics, who do a lot of research related to the construction industry. Part of the presentation focused on industry technology and the impact it’s having on construction firms. Here are some of the takeaways.
Building Information Modeling (“BIM”) software is already in use at a lot of contractors. It is software that allows a contractor to create a digital model/plan of a building, highway, etc. which has significant advantages over a traditional blueprint or paper-based plan. It provides a great visualization tool to job owners during the bid and planning phases, during the construction process to provide updates/check progress, and when the project is finished provides a complete digital map of the final project to the job owner. It can be adjusted easily if a change is needed to the design. It can be used for projections and what if scenarios (like where should I position a large crane, what’s the most efficient placement for materials staging), among other uses that help with planning and in turn reduce inefficiencies. It can also be used to track progress compared to the plan, catch potential issues earlier, and reduce rework. Even though it is commonly called BIM, it applies to construction projects other than just buildings, such as civil projects. To show how BIM can reduce time and costs, the presentation mentioned that Turner Construction reported efficiency increases of 143% for mechanical, 67% for plumbing, and 36% for fire protection from using BIM and related resources. Some of the other technologies available today integrate with BIM making it even more powerful. Learn more about BIM here.
One of the technologies that integrates with and enhances BIM, is laser scanning technology. It uses LIDAR (which is the basis for various self-driving car designs and allows the car to map its surroundings) to map the area and take accurate measurements. Typically, a special camera is used to do this, and the application of the information can be used in a variety of ways. For example, the superintendent on a job can use laser scanning to scan a location, say a room in a building, and then that data is fed into the BIM software, which then creates a historical picture of where that job was at a point in time if you need to refer back to it (possibly for claims disputes). It also allows for the current state of the project to be compared to the plan, identifying any areas that appear to be behind schedule. In some cases there are small robots that autonomously move around the job site after hours, scanning the various locations and uploading that data automatically, so that job site personnel can continue to focus on their other tasks. Another use for this technology, is attaching it to drones and scanning the area where a capital project (maybe a new highway) is going to be built (or widened). Once that’s done, there’s an accurate map of the surrounding area including measurements that allow for planning/design in the BIM software using accurate data about the area the project is going to be built in. It is much faster than traditional methods.
Another technology that can provide some significant time savings is augmented reality. Using something like a HoloLens from Microsoft, the personnel wearing it can see an overlay of the final design (or a phase in the design from the BIM design) for the area they are looking at. For example, if the superintendent wants to check that the plumbing for a sink in a hospital room is in the correct place, he can see where the sink is going to be over top of what is actually there and can see if it lines up correctly or is off. It can then be fixed quickly as opposed to waiting until the sink goes to get installed and realizing it is six inches off plan and requires more rework than if it were caught sooner. This technology can also be used to allow job owners to visualize what sections of the job will look like as they walk through the job site, and possibly ask for changes sooner resulting in cost savings.
Beyond those items, there is prefabrication using the digital designs (for example cutting holes in drywall for HVAC, outlets, etc. or cutting drywall to fit corners, doorways, etc.) based on the BIM design prior to installing the drywall so it is quicker, cleaner, etc. Or, designing a structure, such as a chiller plant, so that the majority of it can be prefabricated offsite and then take much less time to install. The example from the presentation was a job that would historically take three months but was trimmed down to three weeks using that methodology. Then, there’s safety technology such as vests or shoe attachments that vibrate and light up as warnings when personnel enter a restricted area. Also, cameras and artificial intelligence that scan the job site and flag anything that may be unsafe, such as a ladder that isn’t anchored properly, or a laborer that isn’t properly secured on a roof, etc. and generate a warning to jobsite personnel immediately to correct the issue.
Hopefully, this provided some insight on how contractors are utilizing technology to cut their costs. Allowing them to win more work with lower bids, while also increasing their profits. Plus, I think it’s all pretty cool stuff. And fortunately, none of the robots mentioned in the presentation seemed like they could easily kill all of us…yet.