Big data is revolutionizing business: the construction industry in general and building sites in particular

Construction is one of the few fields where productivity has declined worldwide over the last 10 years*. The explanation is two-fold: buildings have become more complex due to developments in safety, quality and energy efficiency standards and, at the same time, there has not been much digitization of the processes involved in this unique field.

Construction sites are delayed by 15% on average, there is little improvement in working conditions and considerable expertise has been lost because of a wave of retirements. Companies are trying to overcome these difficulties by creating digital building models. But there is a level of complexity specific to the construction industry that must be taken into account. For example, each building is unique, there are 30 times as many workers as on an aeronautics project and there is a significant difference between the design (as planned) and the finished product (as built).

The idea is simple: copy what was done in the automotive and aircraft industries with advance modeling to reduce design costs, manage time more efficiently, control on-site quality and, upon completion of construction, deliver a digital model on which all the events, tasks and materials that affected the building are flagged. It is easy to imagine how much easier this would make building maintenance in the future. Around the world, the entire construction industry is focusing its efforts on this BIM (Building Information Modeling) concept.

Data acquisition

This is the climate in which new companies like FINALCAD, have taken up the challenge of digitizing as many processes as possible on worksites, using easy-to-use, inexpensive tablets and smartphones. It is a straightforward principle with a huge impact: give the stakeholders at a worksite, such as a foreman or project engineer, the ability to easily submit photos of any events that affect construction work as they arise — in just a few clicks. All the information entered is aggregated at centralized location, resulting in extensive databases for a given worksite and/or multiple worksites.

What types of information are included? The data includes all the tasks carried out, of course, along with the time spent performing these tasks, any shortcomings identified, which materials were actually used, the subcontractors who completed the work, etc.

What is it used for?

The possibilities are unlimited once all the basic information is known. Let’s imagine some of the potential advantages for the construction industry:

- Analysis and prediction of delivery delays on a site (based on historical data from comparable worksites and progress reports relative to the construction completion date)

- Warnings about subcontractor problems: unusual defect rates are signals that can easily be reported to the key players involved in the project

  • Automatic recognition of defects in photos developed from all the pictures of problems submitted to make it easier to input and categorize defects

- Automatic reporting of all the actual worksite data so that it can be pinned automatically on the digital model to deliver as-built records (a digital “as-built” file)

For multiple worksites:

- Analysis of correlations between implementation problems and issues with materials used: for example, the same problem is regularly encountered when a certain radiator type is installed in a particular setting

- Variations in the time some procedures take, enabling users to identify, analyze, then share best practices

At the international level:

- Construction industry stakeholders can have international benchmarks to compare the various aspects of their work with their competitors and undertake targeted, quantified improvement initiatives

Who might benefit from this?

- Architects and project managers will finally have a detailed feedback loop at the worksite level about what is working and what is not, what is expensive, and what causes quality problems. The model they work with will continue to have a useful life after the design phase, which will enable them to invest more on modular, reusable assemblies.

- The project manager will get a lot more visibility on the progress of construction and be able to generate realistic projected deadlines

- The general contractor will be able to make more informed choices when selecting subcontractors and work with them more easily at the site. They will also be in a position to choose the best materials and quickly find ways to alleviate major problems

- With a better understanding of the setting they are working in, subcontractors will have greater awareness of planning concerns and the purpose of what is being asked of them

- With a true digital model that accurately depicts the building, the manager can easily plan and optimize maintenance and inspection tasks

- If there is an accident, it is easier for insurers and equipment manufacturers to distinguish between an implementation problem (when the applicator/craftsman is at fault) and a problem stemming from the products and/or materials (when the manufacturer is at fault)

At this point in my post, you must be thinking that this wonderful world does not exist and that it will not become a reality for many years. To be quite honest, this is both true and false. That observation is true because software companies like FINALCAD are already capable of processing and implementing all the tasks mentioned above. It is also true because the incredible amount of data that has already been accumulated on thousands of worksites around the world allows us to use these helpful analyses. Finally, it is true because the whole industry is investing heavily in BIM to make this dream a reality. However, the observation is also false because it will take some time before all of this is deployed on a large scale: innovative projects with famous architects are all trial runs that will move things forward, but it will probably be another 10 years before there is a full revolution in the bulk of public housing being built around the world. In any event, the BIM and Big Data revolution in construction will not go unnoticed because it will profoundly change the industry and enable it to make a quantum leap in productivity, quality and time management.

*Source: US dept of commerce, bureau of labor statistics. Paul Teicholz.

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