Analysis

From AR to BIM: Mapping the future of construction technology

The onset of cloud and mobile technologies is ushering in major disruption in the industry

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Construction technology has seen tremendous progress over the years, with the introduction of building information modelling (BIM), the steady integration of virtual and augmented reality, and the use of converged security systems and drones on construction sites.

In fact, the benefits of these new systems and devices have been so well received that governments and developers are now beginning to acknowledge the effectiveness of implementing them while working on a development.

The first big shift that happened in the industry was the move from using 2D drawings and models for projects to using 3D technologies, says Suhail Arfat, head of Autodesk Consulting Middle East.

“We’ve noticed that there is a dependence on the usage of BIM, where it becomes easy to visualise, simulate and plan a project from its conceptualisation to implementation phase. BIM has also helped diverse project teams to collaborate on a real-time basis, minimising expensive reworks, significantly reducing project costs and improving efficiency.”

He says that he sees the onset of cloud and mobile technologies ushering in another disruption in the industry as it moves towards a new way of working and managing projects.

Speaking about the progress that BIM has seen, Charles Dunk, associate director of the Immersive Technology Group, UAE & Oman at AECOM, says that while it is well established in the architecture and building sectors, civil engineering is yet to fully embrace it across the construction lifecycle.

“Large infrastructure projects make use of geographic information systems (GIS) to collaborate with stakeholders and statutory authorities, so a GeoBIM approach needs to be established for these projects. Work using GeoBIM has started and is expected to grow over the next 10 years.

“Traditional BIM reduces risk for all parties and makes prefabrication a viable option, further reducing time and costs while improving safety and quality. However, consultants, clients and contractors around the world still have many steps to take before realising the dream that is PAS-1192 and Virtual Design and Construction (VDC).”

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But it’s not just the implementation of BIM that deserves attention. Nour Kassassir, CIO at Parsons MEA, addresses the other aspects of construction technology that are used to optimise the lifecycle management of projects through team collaboration.

These include requirement management systems, mobile field tools for facility condition assessment (FCA), and project management information systems to monitor, measure and manage project schedules, scopes and budgets.

“We have used these technologies on many roads, bridges, airports, land development, buildings and water projects in GCC countries. Such technologies have proven themselves cost-effective by allowing consultants, contractors and the supply chain to bring the work where the production staff is, instead of bringing the production staff to where the work is.

“Moreover, mobile technologies that are specific to the construction industry, such as the field defects tracking system, have allowed field staff to be more productive. These technologies have made data available at the fingertips quite literally of project staff, which has enabled swift, fact-based decisions and has avoided unnecessary delays to project schedules.”

Mike Abrahim, buildings development director at Parsons MEA, also shares his thoughts on several other technologies that have been introduced in the last few years which he believes have been game changers for the industry.

“Technology like high definition surveying (HDS) scanning systems are capable of performing 360-degree corridor surveys at more than 50 miles per hour. In fact, combining HDS technology and drone surveying could certainly enhance what these tools can accomplish for the architecture, engineering and construction industry.

“Even things like 3D concrete printing could reduce the time required to produce a critical construction component by several orders of magnitude, from weeks to mere hours. Dubai was actually one of the first cities to experience such a technology earlier this year with the launch of the first 3D printed building.”

While increasing efficiency is one of the main objectives of new construction technology, improving the connection and coordination between those in the field and in the office is another. Arfat notes that with the onset of cloud and mobile technologies, the entire construction process is slowly moving towards becoming more virtual. In fact, he points out that in most markets, construction workers use mobile devices on-site to implement real-time improvements.

Kassassir also agrees that remote or offline access to the same construction data that can be accessed from the office is paramount to improving collaboration on construction projects.

“Ubiquitous access to the internet, wireless email, field and material inspection apps, defects tracking and management apps, GPS and wayfinding apps, and other construction field-mobile apps for iPads and tablets have been designed to optimise the collaboration process between construction field staff and the office staff.

“But the proper implementation of any technology requires the effective focus on the three Ps – people, process and platform. A mature, defined process, supported by well-trained people and enabled by a mature platform, will yield the inevitable result of effective connection and coordination between any collaborating parties, as well as construction field and office staff.”

Development of software and devices that could help improve health and safety on-site is another area of focus for specialists and developers. Arfat says that in addition to unmanned aerial vehicles becoming increasingly cheaper and easier to fly, they are now capable of carrying equipment ranging from small GoPros to more expensive digital SLRs and video cameras which help monitor construction sites.

“Autodesk is now utilising drones to help design and develop maps from an aerial perspective. In hindsight, a drone can capture an aerial perspective of a building, then Autodesk ReCap 360 can stitch the images together to form a 3D model, capturing the building’s exterior clearly,” he adds.

Dunk, however, stresses that when it comes to health and safety, one must not solely rely on technology. For him, the golden rules have always been eliminate, reduce, isolate and control.

“The best way to reduce accidents is to eliminate hazards. If the hazard can’t be removed, then exposure to them should be reduced. Hazards are isolated and controlled using personal protective equipment (PPE) or other methods. So the best way to reduce accidents is better procedures rather than better technology.

“An example is roof construction, where falls from height pose a big risk. To eliminate fall hazards, roofs are constructed at ground level and craned into position. HSE is a very human issue and while technology can help, education and procedures will always be important.

“BIM and 4D technologies help contractors plan their work effectively, if involved early in the design process. Immersive technology such as virtual reality (VR) can also be used for training. Augmented Reality (AR) can overlay data to the real world, possibly providing HSE information for site workers. However, the distraction could cause more issues than it fixes.”

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Despite the rapid evolution of these gadgets and applications, construction technology faces a number of challenges. Kassassir says that perhaps one of the biggest roadblocks is that once an application is developed or launched, it takes a lot of time and effort to change.

“In today’s world, we need to be able to respond to changes in a timely manner and to provide solutions that suit our clients’ needs. By its very nature, construction technology requires time and financial resources to change; this might be one of the challenges that software developers need to take into account by always looking for ways to make technology respond quickly to customised needs.”

Adding to that point, Dunk says that open source software is putting pressure on software developers, which is why many companies are championing data storage and cloud computing, where the profits are high.

“Getting software developers to include features in their offerings that contradict their profitability is difficult. It is also challenging for software developers to work with their competitors, so communities that develop cross-platform file formats help bridge the gap.

“The bespoke nature of construction and projects makes it difficult for developers, consultants and software developers to predict future technology needs. BIM is a great tool for all players in the consultant-contractor-client-technology provider group to rally behind, and invent tools that drive innovation across the construction lifecycle.”

While the industry and developers need to find a way to iron out these issues, the expectations for future technology are exciting for construction professionals. The trio believe that the key is digitisation, and that in the near future the industry will see paper systems continue to be supplanted by digital systems.

“As computing power grows, we’ll see more complex structures and more efficient buildings. In the further future, use of carbon nanotubes, the Internet of Things, lightweight conducting polymers, quantum computing, meta-materials, artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles will generally shape humanity and the construction industry in unforeseeable ways,” Dunk concludes.

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