What does the future hold for the construction industry in the IoT era?
Historically, the construction industry has been slower to adopt new, disruptive technologies than other sectors. Lacking the capital needed to introduce digitised ways of working, it has relied heavily on manual processes or paper-based plans.
However, change is on the horizon. In the IoT era, digital sensors and connected devices hold the key to transforming the way that buildings are designed and constructed. There are real signs that IoT can create leaner ways of working, reduce cycle times and prevent over-runs on projects. The potential is huge and the possibilities far reaching. Capitalising on these advancements requires investment and a shift in working practices, but could ultimately deliver significant productivity benefits.
In an industry characterised by low gross margins, there’s a growing need to embrace newer models that can help improve efficiencies and reduce costs. This could be the boon that the construction industry needs, as it tries to recover from the post-Brexit slump. Whilst there are challenges ahead, recent reports show signs of growth, following an increase in housing activity and the government’s renewed focus on infrastructure investment.
With these positive signs of recovery, a shift is required in prevalent operating practices, as the adoption of new technologies could drive improvements needed to boost margins in the longer term.
To that end, IoT is a game changer for intelligent and smarter ways of working. The key is harnessing real-time information to make more accurate forecasts, data-driven decisions and to automate tasks that would have relied on manual processes. For example, in ‘on-the-move’ concrete mixing trucks, more could be done with IoT devices fitted. The real-time information provided can regulate the temperature and humidity inside, improving the quality of the concrete mix. Proximity sensors fitted to on-site vehicles could help avoid collisions and, in the future, surveys could also incorporate data collected by drones.
One of the biggest challenges, to have a direct bearing on the cost and time of construction of projects, is managing change. Dealing with unforeseen issues as they arise, and managing multiple parties, hampers progress and escalates costs.
What if we could anticipate these changes before they occurred, to avoid over-runs? In the IoT era, fitting sensors to create a digital version of the building, as construction progresses, means that we can better predict the resultant impact of any change. Sensors feeding back information can provide more accurate models of the structure, which can be updated as the project progresses.
Creating this ‘virtual’ replication means that designers and architects can test and validate key aspects of the design, as part of the Building Information Modelling (BIM) process of generating 3D models. Sensors can supply more accurate information on structures and the impact of changes, as the project progresses, to inform decision making. For example, sensors feeding back information on airflow can determine where air conditioning units should be placed. Architects can make decisions on lighting or how to improve the safety of buildings by determining route times within a building and where emergency exits should be placed. IoT sensors fitted to a bridge could monitor movement and stress over time, and designers can make modifications before the physical construction is completed.
Testing these in the virtual world, before applying solutions in the real world, can significantly reduce cycle times on large projects. I’d predict a future in which it becomes the norm to create a virtual copy and digital view of every building, with information from sensors, so that changes are based on real-time, real-world data.
Although we’re at the early stages of the IoT evolution in the industry, it looks set to make a big impact in the future. As more routine tasks become automated, the construction site of the future could look very different. In order to keep pace with this, and to fully capitalise on these advancements, it follows that we equip the workforce – at all levels – with the skills needed to use these tools.
The use of IoT won’t be confined to the design, planning and modelling of buildings and we must align vocational trainings with more ‘intelligent’ machines and construction equipment. We’re already seeing tools with IoT capabilities, used to improve maintenance and monitor the real time health of machines. With more cutting edge technology and advancements in areas such as diagnostics or video analytics for surface management, digital skills will become a much sought-after requirement.
There are compelling reasons why the industry should embrace the IoT era. From site monitoring to surveys, data from sensors can be used to improve key stages of a construction project, to reduce project delays, and by providing the catalyst for leaner ways of working.