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ConstructionPro Week, Volume: 6 - Issue: 20 - 05/19/2017

Trends in Construction Technology

While the construction industry is not known for embracing change (and technology) it has managed to adapt to a few new technologies over the past three decades. Paper drawings were replaced by CAD and then BIM; emails, texts and mobile applications replaced the handwritten paper trail; and scheduling went from Bar Charts to Primavera P6. Technology also is slowly bringing about mobile applications to manage addenda, change orders, RFIs and RFCs, shop drawings and submittals online. New technology theoretically has made it possible to manage construction projects electronically from start to finish.  How much of it, however, has been adopted by the mainstream is quite another question.

 

Technological progress is advancing at rapid speed bringing new technology that will allow constructors to increase productivity, cut costs and possibly even help in dispute mitigation should contractors, owners, designers, project managers and engineers agree to adopt it.

 

Let’s review the latest technology entering the industry from the standpoint of construction claims management and dispute mitigation. Of course success of a construction project requires impeccable management of time/schedules, costs/budgets, safety and quality of work. But let’s see if and how the new technological advances such as 3D printing, 4D scheduling, RFID, LIDAR, object detection and grading technology could help you stay on track.

 

3D printing fabricates any object from a digital program file. And although there are now projects that test “printing” houses, there is plenty of opportunity to apply such technology on a more traditional project. Prefabrication of different components necessary to complete a constructed project could reduce project time, increase quality and decrease rework, which should ultimately translate into cost savings. It’s worth noting here that to achieve the cost savings through use of prefabrication, it will be necessary to introduce better controls for procurement processes. But the ability to save time might also help reduce delays and potentially liquidated damages and delay claims.

 

4D BIM or 4D scheduling adds the fourth component or schedule to a network of assembled individual CAD components allowing project participants to visualize all scheduled activities in advance. This should allow project participants to foresee and avoid problems such as having multiple tradesmen working in the same small space simultaneously -- something that’s hard to spot when reviewing a typical CPM schedule on paper or on screen. 4D BIM helps spot conflicts built into the baseline schedule thus eliminating and avoiding them ahead of time. This should increase productivity and decrease delay on project sites.

 

Moving forward with visualization technology let’s look at what augmented reality can do for a construction project. Augmented reality allows the architect to see what a building will actually look like combined with the existing local scenery.  It allows visualizing georeferenced models of construction sites including cables, pipes and underground structures. According to the Navigant Construction ForumTM augmented reality may help avoid encounters with differing site conditions and spot design defects and errors before they are encountered in the field, thus avoiding changes and reducing delays attendant to such situations.

 

Mining operations seem to be leading the industry in use of autonomous equipment. Such machines are able to perform tasks while operated by a computer. Some of these need to retain a human operator, while others can be controlled from a remote location and fully autonomous equipment can operate on its own. Such machines are rarely used on regular construction sites outside of mining. But as issues are being worked out and costs of this equipment declines, introduction of autonomous dozers and other machines on construction projects looks more and more likely. Once employed, such machines will increase safety and productivity while potentially minimizing delays.

 

Now let’s look at more familiar terms and their proven benefit for construction projects – BIM (Building Information Modeling) and VDC (Virtual Design and Construction). As the Navigant Construction ForumTM puts it, BIM is the computer model of the project available to all project participants for their information, their input, and/or extraction of information throughout the life of the project, while VDC is the electronic version of the plan for construction of the project. BIM helps decrease RFIs, RFCs, material waste, scheduling cost, unanticipated issues and paper documents. It also helps improve documentation, safety, information exchange, collaboration and productivity. Presently, BIM and VDC are primarily employed by larger firms due to the cost and complexity of implementation. However, more and more BIM is becoming a requirement imposed by owners, which helps adoption. Although the implementation of BIM presents a multitude of challenges, the reduced change orders, delays and claims might represent a greater benefit still.

 

 A newer technology that is gaining adoption is the use of drones. The construction industry is finding a multitude of benefits from aerial photography and the collection of data with laser, infrared and other sensors than can be used to produce 3D maps for earthwork calculations, thermal imaging for inspection, and point clouds for BIM models. Drone development is progressing rapidly with drones navigated by use of GPS Real Time Kinetic (“RTK”) technology and controlled by a robotic total station already available. The impact of such technology on construction projects can be very positive. According to the Navigant Construction ForumTM “the ability to deliver real-time information on project progress and more accurate data for use in surveying, inspections, safety monitoring, etc., should decrease errors and omissions in drawings, changes or constructive changes during the performance of the work, etc.”

 

A summary of current advances in construction technology must include mention of robotics. Potentially robotics can greatly increase productivity and efficiency while reducing delays. Presently, however, the use of this technology is not very wide spread, and has brought mixed reviews indicating that further work, testing and improvements are needed. With that said, there is great potential for this technology because it covers a wide array of tasks from robotic security guards that are still in development stage to bricklaying and welding robots that are being used with relative success. A few machines worth mentioning here are forklift robots, welding and roadwork robots, as well as exoskeletons that enhance abilities of the human body.

 

Summary

It is clear that once adopted, technology can help the construction industry by increasing productivity and reducing claims. And, according to a number of reports and industry surveys, technology adoption is picking up albeit very slowly. Companies with one to twenty billion dollars in revenue seem to be leading the way in adoption and use of new technologies.

 

The driving factors for technology adoption are efficiency, planning and cost reduction, while the main reasons for the slow pace of technology adoption is resistance to change, cost and lack of expertise. 

 

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