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Construction Disruption Through Emerging Technologies

By Gary Helminski, Executive Managing Director, Cushman & Wakefield

Five years ago, we kicked off one of the most significant private-sector, mixed-use developments in the Washington, DC area. For such a massive undertaking, our goal was to develop a new technology roadmap. In pursuit of a “better way,” we began utilizing smart design and manufacturing, new materials, data democratization, smart infrastructure underpinned by artificial intelligence, wearable technologies, sophisticated building, and offsite construction.

Organizations have experimented with some of these technologies, but to achieve widespread adoption, it requires a commitment to collaborative innovation. Unfortunately, the construction industry’s adoption of new technologies has lagged behind other industries.

According to McKinsey, the construction industry is one of the least digitized sectors in the world. They estimate there’s an opportunity to add as much as $1.6 trillion to the sector’s value, or about 2 percent of the global economy. With that much money being left on the table, saying there’s room for disruption in the construction industry is an understatement.

Today, the construction industry is being confronted by significant labor shortages and high material costs. The need to identify meaningful solutions that will lead to growth and innovation is more vital than ever. It is essential that contractors, architects, and designers invest in understanding how technologies like BIM modeling, IoT applications, productivity software, robots, and 3D printing can transform job sites and impact businesses in the near- and long-term.

"Today, the construction industry is being confronted by significant labor shortages and high material costs."

The nature of building projects is inherently uncertain, and emerging technology is the future of design and construction. Being open to a better way to build is how the structure will survive and flourish. This means gathering knowledge from industry veterans while infusing modern processes and tools.

Some of the elements we have employed directly on our projects and continue to foresee –

Tech supports workers. Despite advances in technology, our plans continue to be built by humans. In 2020, the story will not be technology replacing the workforce, but technology empowering the human resources to do their jobs better.

We are currently employing wearable technologies protecting and augmenting worker performance, virtual and augmented reality, synchronous data sharing, and back- and arm-support exo-skeletons providing more excellent safety and strength.

Compress project timelines. Integrated productivity software has allowed our engineers, architects, and surveyors to make better decisions quickly, optimizing design, automating engineering, or reducing the risk involved in offsite and onsite construction. Project life cycles have been shortened, boosting productivity.

Artificial intelligence (AI) streamlines design. Labor intensive tasks such as design have greatly benefited from the ability to drag and drop complex design simulations for BIM software to calculate design parameters. AI in building information modeling (BIM) is bringing a paradigm shift to our industry.

BIM tech. One of the most critical uses of technology on our projects is BIM. This is powerful drafting and collaboration software that creates the most highly accurate virtual building models that our design and construction teams have ever had.

The digital prototype also serves as a library of information for the design, construction, and maintenance of a structure, and one can be created for any horizontal or vertical building project. What BIM mostly does is build the entire project digitally, from start to finish, before a construction team lays the first beam. It highlights potential conflicts and design errors on “paper.”

IoT gets embedded. 2018 was the year that practical IoT-based applications became pervasive at our job sites. Our teams continue to make automatic data collection from resources on site (workers, equipment, tools, etc.) a priority. As existing IoT solutions add new types of sensors to enrich the types and quantity of data collected, we’ve expanded the use of data for real-time monitoring and control. IoT has become more embedded in existing construction processes throughout the job site, in areas such as site control and security, to achieve efficiency gains.

On our most significant projects, we’ve employed a software system that requires that different RFID tags be placed on the hard hats of the workers on site.

Sensors placed around the site monitor worker locations. We generate automated reports of labor hours planned versus actual labor hours expended, and broken down by CSI division, individual company, or tradesperson.

Offsite construction accelerates assembly and quality. Every project we do today has some element of offsite construction. This is the technology-driven intersection of design, fabrication, pre-planning, building, and transporting parts for rapid, precise, and high-quality onsite assembly.

Moving construction off-site adds the benefit of a clean, warm, highly controlled environment, where measurements are executed to the 100th of an inch. This guarantees size, shape, and finishes quality with exacting precision. Offsite construction also brings freedom from other onsite trades creating impediments and any number of compromising short cuts.

Major mechanical assemblies for our office, residential and laboratory buildings are constructed off-site, delivered to the site via a flatbed truck, and plug and played in their final locations.

Construction productivity software connects the team. Our team relies on keeping everyone on the same page at all times. Robust construction productivity software provides us the tools and resources that connect everyone who is involved in the project—from management in the office to workers on the ground. It gives instant access to documents, plans, daily reports, punch lists, and more. We keep our office team, design team, trailer, and field team connected.

Projects are also becoming increasingly complicated and often executed under challenging locations—often tight urban, congested cities. They require sophisticated and ever more complex tools, management models, and supply chain logistics. Emerging technologies can only serve these continuing trends. Whether collaborating using BIM and AI, tracking critical components via embedded radio-frequency identification or monitoring progress in a fabrication plant on the other side of the world, the opportunities are endless.

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