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Not Your Father’s Construction Industry

The construction industry, one of the oldest and largest, plays a central role in the development and economic growth of industrialized nations. It is the largest consumer of raw materials in the world and is responsible for approximately 30 percent of the world’s total carbon emissions.

It is still using the same basic building techniques it has for more than a century and is widely perceived as resistant to change. Yet, the construction industry is beginning to change, due to the twin pressures of population growth and urbanization, the imperative of sustainability, shortages of skilled labor, and technological advances. Just like GNSS receivers, soil moisture sensors, UAVs, image analysis software, and a raft of other technologies have been transforming farming into precision agriculture, automation has also been steadily transforming construction sites.

Many large equipment manufacturers, such as John Deere, Case, IH, and Trimble, supply both sectors, with much overlap between them.

Thumbnail History of Construction

As in most fields of human endeavor, evolution in construction was very slow for millennia — with long periods of stasis punctuated by bursts of innovation — then accelerated rapidly in the past couple of centuries. While the load-bearing arch has been widely used throughout the past 2,000 years, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the use of iron, steam engines, steel, and electricity transformed building technology, leading to a boom in steel-framed, high-rise buildings. The growth of business districts in cities such as New York and Chicago propelled this trend, as high land values incentivized building up rather than out. Notable steel-frame buildings were built in the first third of the 20th century, such as the Woolworth Building (1913) and the Empire State Building (1931). Interest in high-rise construction accelerated further after World War II, due to declining energy costs.

Starting in the late 19th century, several key innovations in both materials and building processes transformed construction, including electric arc welding; the creation of high-strength artificial cements, reinforced concrete, and pretensioning, which applied the elastic theory of structures; the use of shear walls; and slipforming.

The advent of hydraulic and pneumatic devices in the mid to late-19th century led to the manufacturing of earth-moving equipment and other heavy machines that became commonplace on construction sites. The early 20th century saw the advent of cherry pickers, concrete mixers, cranes, and power tools, and the internal-combustion engine replaced hand shovels, wheelbarrows, and working animals with tractors, forklifts, and bulldozers.

Recent Innovations

Over the past decade, the pace of innovation in construction has accelerated again, thanks to advances in computing, positioning technologies, robotics, and materials. The list of innovations over the past decade in the construction industry includes:

  • 3D printing of homes and large structural components
  • advancements in materials
  • AI for construction workflows [GS]
  • architecture apps [GS]
  • augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and mixed reality
    (MR) [GS]
  • building information models (BIM) and building management systems [GS]
  • cloud-based construction software design for manufacture and
    assembly (DfMA)
  • digital twins [GS]
  • exoskeletons (to augment the wearer’s strength and reduce the risk of injuries)
  • Internet of things (IOT) [GS]
  • lidar scanning [GS]
  • machine control for dozers, graders, excavators, and other
    off-road vehicles [GS]
  • modular and prefabricated construction
  • predictive analytics, machine learning, and supply replenishment [GS]
  • resource and workforce management software [GS]
  • robotics: humanoid laborers and robot swarms [GS]
  • smart cities, smart infrastructure [GS]
  • sustainable construction
  • UAVs [GS]
  • wearable technology: connected hardhats, smart boots, etc. [GS]

Of the 21 items on this list, 15 (coded GS) include a significant geospatial component. Let us review a few of these items, in the order in which they are typically employed during a construction project.

Computer-Aided Design (CAD)

How medieval architects designed huge cathedrals and castles without the aid of computers is mind boggling. Today, CAD is widely accepted as essential in the construction industry and has transformed the role of designers. As separate systems — such ducts for low- and high-voltage wires and fiberoptic cables — compete for the same physical space, CAD makes clashes visible during the design phase.

Building Information Models (BIM)

BIM is an intelligent 3D model-based process to create and manage information on a construction project throughout its life cycle. This process, which has been widely adopted by architects, engineers, and other construction professionals, is legally required in many jurisdictions.

A BIM model includes heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), electrical installations, and all a building’s other functional systems, as well as the aesthetics of its walls, windows, and roofs. It allows all the stakeholders in a project to visualize and analyze design decisions, and identify conflicts or errors, before construction work begins. It is also the foundation for a digital twin.

Changes to a BIM occur in real time, so any changes or updates are instantly communicated to all team members when they access the model, ensuring that everyone is always working with the most up-to-date information. Because the schedule can be simulated, a visual representation of the construction process allows team members to plan out each phase of construction.

Digital Twins

A digital twin is a digital replica of a physical entity, including its potential and current assets, systems, data, processes, workflows, people, and devices. In construction, digital twins gather data through sensors to better understand a physical structure and then create its duplicate, helping managers and workers manage a building, detect inefficiencies, and improve safety and quality. Digital twins also connect a physical structure to its BIM and provide essential information about a property from a remote location.

Mobile Devices

Tablets, smart phones, and other mobile devices are now ubiquitous on construction sites, enabling all parties to collaborate using the same information and real-time analytics, such as performance, conditions, and costs, and to automatically generate reports. Mobile business intelligence makes it much easier for managers to keep projects on schedule and within budget.

Robotic Total Stations (RTS)

Traditionally, a team using building drawings, a tape measure, a spirit level, and a theodolite would lay out building services on a site and locate where to attach cables, pipes, and other elements. With complex modern buildings, however, this method — which is labor-intensive, complicated, and error prone — can cause clashes with other mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) services and prefabricated systems, wasting time, money, and materials.

Using a tablet to remotely control an RTS, which combines an electronic theodolite with an electronic distance measurement (EDM) device, a single person can complete a layout, with improved accuracy and fewer mistakes.

Wearable Technology

Sensors are increasingly being incorporated into hardhats, boots, and other items worn on worksites. Many automatically collect data on workers’ locations, in order to ensure that machine operators have the right permissions and that workers steer clear of unauthorized or dangerous work areas.

Some headbands monitor the wearer’s brainwaves to determine that person’s fatigue level and provide warning alarms; some monitor light-headedness, overheating, and falls and alert other workers when an accident occurs. Other sensors flag nearby high voltage or repetitive motions. The data collected by these sensors also enables better assessments of worksite mistakes to help prevent repeat occurrences.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)

UAVs have wide applications pre-, during, and post-construction. Utilizing UAVs for large surveying projects increases survey precision, reduces field time, and increases safety. UAVs can monitor sites and report on project progress or potential problems. Autonomous UAVs and rovers equipped with high-definition cameras and lidar can acquire a construction site each day. AI can then compare those images and scans against BIM models, 3D drawings, the construction schedule, and estimates to inspect the quality of the work performed and to determine how much progress has been made each day.

Additionally, UAV-mounted infrared thermal sensors can help identify inefficiencies in insulation and HVAC. Finally, UAVs can improve workforce safety, by accessing hard-to-reach or dangerous areas.

Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), and Mixed Reality (MR)

VR immerses users completely into the digital world, typically using BIM models, while AR brings digital elements to their surroundings in real time; MR merges the two. VR and AR can help visualize every step of a project, including a realistic look at the final product.

This helps identify potential problems early in the design phase and enables workers to “see” through walls to detect MEP clashes, thereby reducing or eliminating the rework process and decreasing resource waste.

VR headsets are also being used to walk owners, architects, and engineers through a simulation of their project from an office, reducing travel to and traffic at the work site. VR is increasingly being used to provide realistic training on equipment operation in a low-stakes environment where operators cannot possibly be hurt and to run simulations that are too dangerous to replicate, such as natural disasters or major equipment malfunctions.

AR enables workers to see layers of plans and data while on site, such as virtual tags on equipment documenting when it was last serviced. With AR, a contractor can hold a tablet up inside a home and see the locations of every necessary drill hole without having to check the physical building plan a project manager can take a client through several proposed window designs and make plan modifications while standing in front of the window itself a project manager or contractor can walk through a construction site and easily view an overlay of a BIM on top of as-built construction and compare the two, as well as access checklists 3D models can be generated on top of 2D plans.

Artificial Intelligence (AI), Predictive Analytics, and Mobile Solutions

As applied to construction project scheduling, AI can run through millions of scenarios, as well as data from weather and traffic sensors, in minutes and lay out the most efficient sequence of operations, then adjust it as conditions change. It can also stitch 360-degree jobsite imagery into a Google Street View-style map of project progress and analyze the movements of materials and equipment, which are tracked with RFID tags and sensors.

Predictive analytics can be used to analyze a company’s purchase history on project supplies and compare it against the actual amount that was used, in order to generate more accurate orders for future projects, preventing expensive surpluses.

By combining predictive analytics with Internet of things (IoT) software, construction managers can also save money by establishing more efficient supply chain processes. In turn, more accurate inventory numbers can be fed into predictive analytics software to improve estimates on future projects.

Mobile solutions and other software help manage every aspect of a construction project — from preconstruction to scheduling, from project management and field reporting to managing the back office — and allow employees to submit timecards, expense reports, requests for information, and work records. Most of them are cloud-based, allowing users to update documents and schedules in real time.

Robots in Construction

From robotic bricklayers to laying roads, robots are increasingly finding their place amongst the workforce on construction sites. Construction companies use them to shorten construction times and improve work quality. Robots are also being used to help demolish buildings. While currently slower than human demolition crews, they are far safer and cheaper. 

Machine Control: The Example of John Deere

“There’s a perception of late adoption in the construction industry, but our customers are looking for technology, they are looking for solutions to really hit their bottom line,” says Maryanne Graves, senior product manager of construction and roadbuilding at John Deere. “They have to be productive, keep their machines up and running, maintain safe job sites, accurately bid jobs, and tackle all that with a shortage of skilled labor in the marketplace.”

Graves cites three main technologies that John Deere offers to address these challenges: SmartGrade, its integrated grade control solution; JDLink, its telematic solution; and obstacle intelligence, which enhances safety.

SmartGrade, Graves says, enables even inexperienced operators to become proficient and productive within days or weeks, as opposed to years as it used to be. It uses GNSS RTK corrections from either a local base station or a cellular network solution (not StarFire, John Deere’s correction service, which it only uses for precision agriculture), providing an elevation accuracy of less than one tenth of a foot.

The company installs this technology on all its Grade Pro (GP) models of motor graders but can also make it available on other models at the customer’s request. Contractors no longer need to set up their GNSS equipment, antenna masts, and computers before operating the machine, because all these capabilities are now already within it. The dozer can also display elevation levels and indicate where work needs to be done on the field.

Grade management solutions designed to simplify the grading process are available as either 2D or 3D system depending on the machine form. With a 2D system, a local reference point such as a benchmark near the machine or the laser transmitter is used to display elevation of the work tool from the reference plane. With a 3D system, GNSS is used to show the location of the work tool in relation to a global reference.

JDLink enables dealers to communicate with machines remotely and diagnose maintenance and failure issues. Often, dealers are aware of problems with machines even before their customers are, Graves says, and technicians can show up at a job site with a part that needs to be replaced, rather than make one trip to diagnose the problem and a second one to bring and install the needed part.

Obstacle intelligence uses cameras, radars, and other devices to enhances operators’ situational awareness.

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