“It’s magic”: Construction is digitalising more rapidly than you might think

Construction has a reputation for resisting technological advances, but that is changing.

In the US we’re seeing a huge investment in construction technology start-ups and, as a result, the market for digital solutions designed to solve common construction problems is ballooning.

According to the Wall Street Journal (reported by Construction Dive) investment into construction tech start-ups has jumped from a meagre $352m in 2016 to more than $6bn in 2018.

And it doesn’t seem to be a blip, since as of the end of June this year, investments have totalled more than $4bn.

One example we see are 360-degree cameras, which were not intended for construction at all, but rather for lifestyle and extreme sports. Construction companies are using these to capture images in every space and room of the building under construction, creating a living digital version of the job site.

Rather than snapping part of this wall or that column, one click captures the entire space. Sites are complex, but these cameras allow you to see everything, including something happening in a corner you may not have cared about a week ago, but care about today.

Processing the data is faster as well, because machine learning systems can identify what is in the photographs for the purpose of identifying quality or schedule issues, about which the contractor can be alerted as a priority.

As contractors take up these cameras, vendors have started building software to make the most of them. This is crucial because project teams are overwhelmed with information, and we’re only piling on more, so we need systems to manage and assess that information so we know what to do with it.

The data is likely to come even faster as the technique becomes more widespread. Now, typically, the cameras must be set up manually on a tripod and moved from room to room, but there are instances of companies putting cameras on supervisors’ hard hats to capture images as they move around. It is unlikely to stop there. Companies like Boston Dynamics are developing robot-mounted cameras that take themselves about a job site.

Off the top of my head, I know four companies working right now on software to manage and analyse the data cameras capture. It tells you something about the potential size of the market when you have four companies working essentially on the same thing.

It’s often said that we’re on the verge of a Fourth Industrial Revolution, where technology, physical systems and biology are starting to blend. The leading indicator of that is the way we use pocket computing devices, which are portals to an entire world of digital information.

A mobile phone used to be just that, a way of making telephone calls on the move. Now, thanks to miniaturisation, precision engineering and a supporting ecosystem of software development, it’s a satnav, camera, movie screen, diary, thermostat, remote actuator, people finder, and much more.

The same process is happening in construction. I recently attended a presentation by one start-up pitching the idea of all-day, battery-powered lighting for construction sites. This is not revolutionary in its own right, but the poles holding the lamps also functioned as wi-fi hubs and video cameras.

That is radically different from the world of ten years ago.

At Bluebeam we’re responding by transitioning from a document-based solution provider to a project data solution provider, to help construction companies get what they need to know faster.

One solution we currently have in development, Bluebeam Atlas, is a map-based product as opposed to more common drawing-based products. It allows users to store information about a project in its real-world coordinates, so if you need to query a sink in a restroom in a building under construction, the sink data shows up as a blue dot on the map, with all its specifications and event history attached.

I’ve been in the industry for 17 years and, looking at the last 12 months, I’d say we’re on an upward trajectory of innovation that is only increasing. We’re one of the last industries to embrace digitalisation but, because of that, it is happening rapidly and intensively.

In this, we’re assisted by the trend toward standardisation and interoperability. When the US construction sector started migrating toward paperless design in about 2010, we had to adapt systems from other sectors, or build bespoke systems, which was slow, risky and expensive.

Today, there are hosts of systems and they are all integrated, so they are simple to pick up and start using.

A good example is the Virginia-headquartered start-up, Pype, whose platform lets you upload a project’s entire specification, thousands of PDFs, and its algorithms can detect crucial, time-sensitive tasks, such as the need to submit a carpet sample to the architect weeks prior to ordering it. It used to take people several weeks to scour piles of documents in order to manage that; now it takes minutes, even seconds.

To me, the state of digitalisation in construction right now feels like being in manufacturing at the beginning of the first Industrial Revolution. It’s magic.

  • Joe Williams is VP of Global Industry Insights at Bluebeam. Bluebeam is a member of GCR’s global content partner network

Image: Developer Ballymore uses Bluebeam’s Revu on its London tower scheme, Wardian (Bluebeam)

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