Opinion: Digital Oil

In an increasingly digital world the phrase ‘data is the new oil’ is fast becoming a cliché. But there is truth in the idiom, especially with the digital transformation of the construction industry.

With the push to deliver projects faster, smarter and to a better quality while at the same time improving site safety, technology is seeing a greater focus. And with advances in both hardware and software, data is key. Those that can collect or mine it, store it, analyse it and subsequently make informed decisions from it will win out in the new world order.

Mobile phones are now ubiquitous on construction sites and we are also seeing tablet devices become ever more prevalent. Cloud-based technology, apps and software are being used to gather information about health and safety, quality, compliance and commissioning. All this data is helping to drive efficiency in automating the traditionally manual process of moving paper from one desk to another for approvals and signatures.

Most of these apps incorporate workflow engines which automatically alert the next approver in the chain of command that their digital signature is required, allowing them to review all the information digitally on a desktop or mobile device. The data captured in this way is more accurate as it is captured at source and, more importantly, can be searched, categorised, filtered and analysed much more efficiently than with the current manual process.

The project site is not the only area in construction being affected by automation. The design office, through the use of parametric design philosophies, is seeing a remarkable change. Using the computational power that now sits at most of our fingertips, engineers and architects are able to define constraints and requirements in software programs, which then output every possible permutation automatically. These can then be refined to find the optimal one based on the specific needs of a project. Optioneering in this way saves valuable time and can often produce results that the human inputters may never have thought of.

On the hardware front, the augmentation of 3D models and robotics is leading the industry to explore the practical use of 3D printing in construction. Having already disrupted the manufacturing industry, the lessons learnt from 3D printing smaller parts are being scaled up and applied to an industry in need of improvements in both safety and productivity.

3D printing has the perception of being a far-off dream. However, here in the Middle East we are in the midst of a revolution driven by the demands of pioneering and ambitious leaders. This is epitomised by the Dubai 3D printing vision to see 25% of building elements use 3D printing technology by 2030, with incremental targets such as 2% by 2019. Again, data is at the core of this technology. Ensuring its flow from design intent to physical realisation without corruption or interpretation is essential to fulfilling 3D printing’s potential.

The much-anticipated arrival of autonomous vehicles on our roads is continually in the headlines as the technology reaches new milestones and achieves heightened levels of autonomy. This same technology is also being adapted for use on construction sites, but with much less fanfare. All heavy equipment manufacturers have or are developing autonomous construction plants, from bulldozers to excavators, mobile cranes to piling rigs. With construction sites providing a more predictable and easily controlled environment, many believe that we will see the acceptance of autonomous construction vehicles before they become common on the roads.

The introduction of autonomous construction plants will improve safety in two ways. First, sensors can identify and stop dangers quicker and more extensively than human operators. Secondly, because instructions such as setting out or the assessment of quality can be completed remotely, we would put fewer people in harm’s way in the first place. As more of this type of equipment is used, more data is gathered to improve the prediction algorithms and therefore the desire to use the equipment in the future, thus creating a virtuous circle.

Automation and robotics isn’t coming, it is already here. It will change the way our industry works, from the complexity of projects we undertake to the types of people we employ. This drive towards automation isn’t without risks and uncertainties. However, the more imminent danger comes from the lack of awareness and appreciation of cyber security.

The move towards a digital construction industry is fuelled not by oil, but by data. In order to get the most out of it, it needs to be accessible and connected, bringing with it the risk of abuse. Currently the industry isn’t a major target for cyber criminals and vandals. Inadvertently, our industry’s inertia to adopt technology has sheltered it from the risks of cyber crime. As we become more digitised we must become more digitally secure – we must protect our digital oil.

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