A Wave of Digital Transformation Is About to Hit Construction

The construction site of the (near) future. Picture the scene: as you walk onto the construction site, a drone buzzes overhead. Lasers bounce off every surface.You pull a device out of your pocket to view the latest drawings and fully coordinated 3D models, and record a video to capture progress. As you upload it to the cloud, the objects in the video are automatically recognized and tagged to let other project members quickly find what they need. Nearby, an engineer wearing a smart helmet performs a complex task with the aid of real time information beamed straight onto his field of vision. A few years ago, this scene would have seemed straight out of science-fiction, but it's fast becoming a reality. 


And yet, as fantastic as some of this technological progress is, we've only begun to scratch the surface of digization in construction. The outwardly visible, tangible manifestations of gadgetry on jobsites represent the first distant rumblings of a tsunami of digital transformation which will hit the construction industry in the coming years. Let me explain:

Digitization vs Digital Transformation. Digitization refers to the conversion analog information into digital form. More broadly, it is the trend turning various aspects of our life into digital data, and transforming this data into new forms of value. 


The diagram above is an example of an ever increasing amount of real-world objects and activities for which a digital replica is recorded and stored. Throughout human history we've had complex webs of interpersonal connections. But in the last decade, by having hundreds of digitally recorded connections on online social networks like LinkedIn and Facebook, we can visually map the mutual links within our professional or social circles. Digital Transformation is when business activities, processes and models are restructured to fully leverage the opportunities of digital technologies and their impact across society in a strategic and prioritized way.

The digitization of construction. In construction, site management activities have relied heavily on paper until very recently. BIM and project management software have allowed designers and contractors to coordinate complex designs and simulate construction tasks. But there was always a gap in transferring digital information between site and office. Now, thanks to mobile tools which bridge this gap, a growing number of these tasks are being performed in a fully digital workflow, tracked in centralized cloud databases. Despite the exciting early signs of technological progress, construction is still in its digital infancy:

We've begun to realize some early benefits of digital construction through adoption of BIM, project management and mobile collaboration software. Change orders and design errors have been significantly reduced on many projects. But the change we've seen so far has been incremental, not transformational. If you know otherwise, please tell me in the comments below. Projects still overrun deadlines. Project managers still lose sleep. Site workers are still inefficient, and get injured and killed more than in just about any other industry. Contract structures are still combative and litigious. Waste and rework still standard, projects (when profitable) still have razor-thin margins, clients are still often unsatisfied, and the public still views construction as a wasteful, polluting nuisance. And it still is. 

The wave of transformation in construction will hit when we connect the digital dots. A real step-change in performance will happen once the exponentially-growing digital data streams generated during design, construction and operations start to become interconnected in a meaningful way. The terabytes of images and photogrammetric models captured by drones, mobile devices and scanners. The millions of data points on suppliers', designers' and subcontractors' performance, stored in 3D models and project management software. Growing data-streams from cheap sensors being embedded in building components and wearable technology.

Just as manufacturing was transformed when PLM, ERP and CRM created systems of integrated applications to manage production, logistics and demand, construction will see significant improvement as BIM becomes the true information backbone of the jobsite. Data will be analyzed in a way that reveals actionable insights. New types of contracts, procurement models and methods of managing supply chains will develop to facilitate, rather than hinder, adoption of collaborative construction technology and meet clients needs. Technology companies like Autodesk broadly call this Construction in the Era of Connection. In the UK, the term Level 3 BIM is used. In Germany, they refer to Building 4.0. 

This change will be good for some and painful for others. Many small, hitherto unknown contractors and construction managers who successfully recognize how to get value out of the "I" in BIM will have distinct early-mover advantages. Large, established companies who fail to react, rehire and restructure will be hurt. Whats more, other industries have already begun undergoing this revolution, which could accelerate the rate of change in construction, since we wont need to reinvent the wheel. How can we predict future needs to ship materials to site before they've even been ordered? Ask Amazon. How can humans and robots build something together? Ask Audi. 

This post was originally published by Michael Moran on LinkedIn Pulse, Oct 26, 2016