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From Drones to the Cloud: How Digital Tools are Changing Construction

By Terry Robbins, Chief Information Officer, Structure Tone

From Drones to the Cloud: How Digital Tools are Changing ConstructionTerry Robbins, Chief Information Officer, Structure Tone

We are now in what experts are calling the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.” The first, of course, came with the transition to new manufacturing processes, including the development of machine tools and rise of the factory system, around the turn of the 19th century. The second involved a period of intense industrialization through the end of the 19th century and through the world wars, prompted by large-scale iron and steel production, electricity, the invention of the internal combustible engine and the assembly line spurring mass production. The term was resurrected in the 2000s when economists labeled the digital age the third industrial revolution, where mainframe and personal computing, the Internet and mobile telephony were introduced into business and society in general. Now we’re into the fourth—the era of big data, robotics, artificial intelligence and the other incredible technologies that have changed our world over the last decade.

The construction industry essentially missed the third industrial revolution. While other industries were completely shifting their product delivery model to leverage the power of the digital age, our industry largely stuck to its typical processes. But that era is over. The digital transformation of the construction industry is well underway, and it’s changing everything. Thanks to cloud-based tools and mobile devices, project teams can collaborate anytime, anywhere. With advanced virtual modeling and applications like 3D printing, drones, augmented reality and collaborative pre-coordination, we’re able to test out and find solutions to construction problems without the time and costs of RFIs and change orders.

The Impact

On the human front, this wave of new technologies and processes has meant developing new skill sets for our workforce. Our people must not only have the ability to use these new tools, but also understand the data they’re seeing and how to act on it to improve how we build. This learning curve certainly adds a new level of investment in training and developing these skills.

From a financial perspective, the plethora of new technologies and applications has changed the investment landscape, both in who is investing capital into developing new technologies and how construction companies choose to invest their own resources. Venture capital firms have started to funnel money into this entirely new industry vertical, which has essentially flooded the market with point solutions targeting specific tasks. With the recent acquisitions of Aconex by Oracle, Viewpoint by Trimble, PlanGrid by Autodesk and others, we’re starting to see some consolidation, but the myriad of options requires construction companies like ours to be very judicious in how we research and select the tools we commit to.

Once that commitment has been made, however, the benefits have firmly offset those costs. Shifting our plan management and sharing processes to PlanGrid, for instance, greatly reduced the need for printing plan sets, which saved nearly $1 million over a year-long period. That’s a quantifiable value that extends both to us and to our clients. Better collaboration, communication, transparency, scheduling—these efficiencies benefit everyone involved.

What’s Next

With so many digital tools at our disposal, our industry now has its own form of big data. The next challenge is to use it. Buildings have always been fundamentally “dumb.” You build it, you occupy it, you maintain it and you exhaust it as the cost of upkeep continues to rise.

But if we were to build “smart” buildings—buildings that provide constant input about their own health—owners could maintain those facilities much more efficiently and effectively, significantly extending the life of their investment.

This advancement is already happening. Sensors have been in buildings for years now, but they have primarily focused on monitoring and flagging issues with individual systems, such as a security breach or an HVAC malfunction. The shift to a truly “smart” building—or even a smart city—has come with tying these individual systems into a master network that can tell us everything from how many degrees the temperature changes each day to the paths people take most to move through the building. This abundance of detailed data creates a whole new avenue of opportunity for our industry to learn from how buildings are used to both proactively and reactively build and manage facilities to significantly extend their lives in the future.

The information age is beginning to make its mark on construction, and we are embracing it. But while we’re now able to share and access information more easily and efficiently, this is only the beginning. There is still a major opportunity to integrate the many disparate systems to leverage this wealth of data in a meaningful way to build better. That is our job, after all—to find the most effective, most efficient ways to build a space that meets the vision and needs of our client. Technology, and the abundance of data, it provides has opened the door of possibility like never before.

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