The construction and infrastructure sectors are facing major challenges. Consider, for example, the nitrogen problem, major staff shortages and high material prices. But also the call for more energy neutrality, which is necessary to tackle climate change.
More and more parties and stakeholders in the construction industry are firmly convinced that the adoption and use of advanced digital solutions is the way to successfully tackle the issues and challenges of the future. Digital techniques create opportunities to increase the sector’s productivity and innovate at a faster pace.
But what will the situation be like in 2022 when it comes to digitizing the construction industry? Are the sector and its employees ready for the digital future, or do we still have some catching up to do?
Digitizing construction with digital tools
Many construction companies have already started the digital transformation process that is radically changing many sectors and our daily lives. And that’s a good thing. Many construction companies already work with laptops, iPads and a lot of other digital tools (like even drones) and often have a document management system and software for quality control, for example.
A good example of a digital technology that is often used in construction is Building Information Modelling (BIM). BIM uses (usually three-dimensional) models that make all relevant information in the construction process available to all parties involved. A BIM is therefore actually a digital representation of the physical and functional characteristics of a building.
All kinds of parties – ranging from architects and engineering firms, construction companies and subcontractors to suppliers, clients and managers – are actively involved in the introduction and application of BIM, but is it truly the Holy Grail?
To use smart software in the realisation phase, you need a lot of data from the design phase, that you can then put into your model.
Room for improvement
So although the construction industry has already taken steps towards a far-reaching digital transformation of the sector, it is not yet moving as quickly and efficiently as in many other sectors. For example, many construction companies are not yet using the aforementioned BIM technology consistently and on a large scale in the realisation phase of projects. The reason? In order to use smart software in the realisation phase, you need a lot of data from the design phase that you can then use in your model.
The problem is that this data is often not available or insufficient. Sometimes this is because structures were built years ago and no data is available from the design and realisation phases.
Additionally, in practice we see that construction companies do not know how to exploit their data. Often, they do not know what information they need to retain, or they do not retain any information at all. The information exists, but it is not clear how it changes from time to time. As a result, data ultimately provides only a limited picture of the current and expected behaviour and use of a structure, or process. So, although there is attention for digitization in the construction sector, it is still not done enough in practice.
More and more big data
This is unfortunate, because the potential for valuable information from which the construction sector can draw is greater than ever. In the past, the information landscape consisted mainly of static data (data that does not change over time, such as the materials used or the construction method of a building).
Nowadays, construction companies also have a wealth of dynamic measurement data at their disposal. Think, for example, of information about deformation, energy efficiency or the crack load of a structure due to the gradual degradation of the material and the construction.
The big challenge – one that many parties within the building sector are still struggling with – is to extract the right insights from the mountain of static and dynamic data. And that is easier than you think, if you use the right tools. Tools that are so smart, that they recognise where your valuable information is located and help you to improve your processes. Targeted use of the right information shows whether you are currently working efficiently, tells you in which areas you can still make gains and enables you to perform predictive analyses on the behaviour and sustainability of buildings.
Good data analyses also give you the opportunity to identify failure costs and thus increase your margins.
What we actually see is that digitizing is a partly outdated concept that is better replaced by automating.
But what steps should parties in the construction industry take to boost digitization and make the most of the enormous data repositories at their disposal?
Combining information flows
Information often enters an organisation via multiple channels. The result is that data is often scattered across different systems, a phenomenon known as silo formation. Moreover, the software and various apps used in the construction industry are often not well coordinated. Software packages for the construction industry are often partly stand-alone systems.
The integration of systems, applications and databases is therefore the first step towards optimal digital information use. What we actually see is that digitizing is a partly outdated concept that would be better replaced by automating.
By automating, we mean that the integration of systems and applications is no longer a manual task, but happens automatically. For example, by working with smart APIs and integration layers. This creates one universal version of the truth and you always have access to the latest data through all channels.
A powerful integration gives you the possibility to combine information flows and thus to bring different facets of the business and project management to a higher level. Here are a few examples:
- Sharing and understanding real-time status updates on employees and the progress of construction projects in different locations.
- Create visibility into active work hours and compare them to the schedule.
- Identify, track and locate materials and equipment throughout the supply chain.
- Inspect remote construction sites. This can be done, for example, by sharing photos via apps.
- Predict the future condition and use of a building or infrastructure structure.
The predictive twin
The pinnacle of digitization in construction is perhaps the so-called ‘predictive twins’, predictive digital replicas of physical structures such as homes, tunnels, bridges, factories and offices. Predictive twins can be used to predict the technical lifespan of structures, but also as a forward-looking tool to better align the supply and demand of circular building components when building circular homes.
A predictive twin consists of three components:
- Static and dynamic measuring data are the eyes and ears of the predictive twin.
- A predictive twin contains predictive models that learn from the information you feed it.
- A digital twin has the ability to simulate and decide.
With predictive twins, it becomes much easier to make predictions about future maintenance, future construction trends and future material needs. An opportunity, therefore, for construction companies to work more cost-efficiently and less wastefully, thereby taking their profit margins to a higher level.
Towards a data-driven construction sector
Although digitalisation is now also firmly established in the construction sector, there is still plenty of room for improvement. There is still a lot to be gained, especially in the field of data-driven work and the integration of data and digital systems. The construction companies that are able to take these digital steps quickly and efficiently have a competitive advantage over the rest.