A sold-out audience of construction professionals, venture capitalists and technologists at ENR’s recent FutureTech conference in San Francisco were repeatedly warned that the construction industry still is plagued by inefficiency and a lack of technology adoption, but they also were shown many hopeful signs of change, including several examples of the advantages gained from new levels of sharing and managing data.

In order to counter the effects of a shrinking workforce while meeting growing demands for connected, sustainable buildings, construction professionals must learn to capitalize on the troves of data accumulated from digital processes and increase the adoption of building information modeling and design and project collaboration, the presenters stressed.

More Shared Data, Better Outcomes

Design-build-operate project delivery is improving as a result of forced collaboration, observed Jose Luis Blanco Alvarez, a McKinsey & Co. partner, in an opening-day keynote on May 30. Better data storage and analysis and better contract models, such as shared-risk integrated project delivery, are driving beneficial BIM adoption and better, more efficient building projects, he said. 

Speaking about recent Dodge Data & Analytics studies on construction risk patterns, Dodge Vice President Cliff Brewis said the results affirm the benefits of collaboration, suggesting that the most consistent differentiator between “excellent” and “typical” construction projects is the level of participation during design by multiple disciplinary stakeholders. He said 42% of the “excellent” projects also had high participation in design by all stakeholders.

Attendees were given examples of how  big data and machine learning are giving rise to real-time project indicators that can be visualized and measured to spur corrective action in a way that would not have been possible just a few years ago. Better data is being mined, analyzed and used for predictions as well as lessons learned. Visualization and predictive analytics were two of the transformative technologies that kept cropping up in presentations throughout the three-day conference.

Automation and Drones

Thai Nguyen, director of virtual design and construction at Hensel Phelps, delivered a presentation that described how his firm used photogrammetry from indoor-flying drones and laser-scanning by autonomous robotic crawlers to validate 700,000 3D model files during a massive upgrade to a chip fabrication facility.

Validating the fast-paced and complex installation work to spot installation errors and address them quickly required constant updating, clash detection and coordination of 80,000 models. The team updated as many as 250 models a day using data from the 200,000 scans, completed in two years. The scans totaled 16 terabytes of data. Nguyen says processing that much data was made possible because of emerging services for automated scanning, quality control and productivity reporting, provided by Doxel, whose co-founder and CEO, Saurabh Ladha, shared the presentation.

Jobsites are becoming more connected, with general contractors testing systems for real-time tracking of people, equipment, tools and building materials, the speakers noted. Rosendin Electric showcased a robust implementation of its RFID-based system for tool inventory control on a national scale.

Mortenson Construction and tool vendor DeWalt presented a field test of a WiFi mesh-network system of ruggedized wireless nodes. Also at FutureTech, DeWalt announced that it is developing the pilot program into a jobsite WiFi product line, which will be released in Q4. The system promises seamless, plug-and-play, high-bandwidth wireless coverage on jobsites, enabling the kind of “always connected” environment many of the innovations discussed at the conference will require. Later this year, DeWalt also plans to launch an “internet of things” sensor and asset-management platform.

What To Do With All That Data?

Chris Mayer, executive vice president and chief information officer at Boston-based Suffolk Construction, explained how his company is preparing to open a network of facilities, called SmartLabs, to support Suffolk’s digital transformation by helping to develop and institutionalize consistent virtual design and construction standards as well as learning and development programs for the company. The ideas that graduate from the labs will get formal pilot programs on Suffolk jobsites.

“We want to determine how to use the right mechanism at the right time and create standards for where, how and when we communicate,” Mayer said.

One of the pitfalls that presenters lamented was “garbage in, garbage out” data that can plague even the smallest construction project and bog down, rather than enhance, collaboration and efficient delivery. “Models converted incompletely to 2D plans do not enhance collaboration or understanding, so why use them?” asked Hitesh Dewan, operations and technology manager at Milpitas, Calif.’s XL Construction. Dewan also demonstrated how rapidly proliferating inexpensive 360º pocket cameras are helping him to connect his projects with owners and other stakeholders with quickly captured and easily shared imagery.

EarthCam, a job-cam service provider that exhibited at the show, announced a new product based on 360º imagery to capture, tag and integrate such images in project data-management systems. The company also announced an integration of the new product into PlanGrid’s field productivity platform.

Trimble showcased its Building Points model-management system and how it can be used with Microsoft’s HoloLens headsets to plan and validate material and equipment placement via mixed reality. Owner buy-in was a key metric.

Mark Dinius, technology manager at Satterfield and Pontikus Construction, demonstrated a sophisticated reality capture and analysis solution that uses a handheld 3D-imaging scanner and processor to create a point-cloud scan to compare with the design model the work in place on a small site having tight steel-frame placement demands. Dinius described the experience of trying to convince major subcontractors to work with such technology as “heartbreaking.”

The World Economic Forum, an organization dedicated to propelling industry efficiency worldwide, recently released “Shaping the Construction Industry,” a report on what governments must do to enhance safety and productivity in their construction sectors. Michael Buehler, head of infrastructure and urban development for WEF, said $1.2 billion in infrastructure investment could be unlocked if countries would simply agree to project approval timelines and deadlines. Buehler implored construction companies to use standardized products that feed into a robust and well-sourced supply chain with uniform specifications for bids to solve the age-old productivity problem on U.S. and international project sites.

By Jeff Yoders, with Jeff Rubenstone, Scott Blair, Aileen Cho and Tom Sawyer in San Francisco