Construction and technology aren’t aligned. Technology is undergoing digital innovation while construction is facing supply chain issues and a labor shortage. Tech is automating while construction is scurrying. So how do they converge?
Construction market insights continue to follow the basic theme of uncertainty. The industry continues to face cost escalations, material lead time uncertainty, and most importantly, labor shortages which are leading to unprecedented backlogs. The ABC Backlog Indicator shows the Southeast US in a 10-month backlog for commercial/institutional construction.
Why? The same reasons as other industries:
Raw Materials Shortages / Supply Side
Most traditional construction projects are still largely planned and built with legacy systems. 2D plans, outdated documents, and human supervision allow for gaps in communication and misinterpretation in the field. Plan notes requiring onsite coordination often omit key stakeholders and critical path decisions are made on the fly. These factors, and more, directly impact delivery models causing delays and cost overruns for the owner. Oftentimes, these results are simply folded into the process and chalked up as the cost of doing business.
The Navigant Construction Forum put together a comprehensive report of the Request For Information (RFI) process. They assembled 1300 different construction projects ranging in size from $5M-$5B containing over a million total RFI’s. The results indicated that RFI’s took an average of 9.7 days for response with 21.9% going unresponsive at a cost of $1080 per RFI review. That’s over $1B just to seek additional information. This doesn’t account for design-driven expenses caused by specification change, change orders from the contractor, or fee overages from the A&E team for information deemed outside of their contract.
So how does applying technology to construction projects help? In this case, it comes down to one word: Avoidance.
Responsive feedback from our construction management team this year illustrates three areas of deficiency: 1) insufficient construction documentation, 2) irregularities in the supply chain, and 3) fractured subcontractor labor market. Let’s take a look at what’s out there that can address these concerns.
3D Visualization and Digital Twin Models - BIM vs CAD
Building Information Modeling (BIM) is an integrated workflow, built on coordinated, reliable information about a project from design through construction and into operation.
Computer-Aided Design or Drafting (CAD) is simply the use of a computer system to assist with design.
BIM models can be rendered in engines to create immersive twins that can be put through countless environmental scenarios such as flooding, fire, and seismic events. Because of their workflow integration, they provide responsiveness throughout the construction process and can be delivered as complete digital assets at the end of the project. They also enable platform programming for future tenancy / uses within the building. They allow for the interoperability of sensor data and enable learning, reasoning, and dynamic recalibration - most of which are currently being delivered by disparate proptech solutions after the developer completes the project.
CAD models can be rendered in 3D but BIM files are much more information-rich, including details of performance characteristics, specifications, and other non-physical data embedded in the project.
There are plenty of comparison studies between CAD and BIM like this one and this one but there are surprisingly few CURRENT academic studies. Perhaps the modeling falls in between IT and AEC at the university level. One last mention in favor of BIM is it’s impact on City/Municipal Code and Permitting. Thorough models will undoubtedly allow for technology-assisted plan review, thereby cutting time and cost around the permitting process.
Irregularities in the supply chain have been to blame for countless delays. We’ve seen the price of wood and steel commodities skyrocket and then recover…only to be hit with chip shortages for HVAC, and switch gear availability in electrical. Wallboard, ACT, Hard Tile, Flooring, Paint and other materials have faced their own challenges in terms of pricing and availability - leaving project managers clamoring for answers.
Enter the case for database management systems - RDBMS (relational) and ODBMS (object). Here’s a geeks for geeks breakdown between the two systems. The point is that BIM models are interoperable with Database Management Systems - meaning if the model is thorough, it’ll do most of the timeline adjustment and cost augmentation autonomously. Think of it as the business side of the scenario-based environmental modeling we discussed previously. If the HVAC units are back-ordered, the project timeline can respond, adjust and report. The submittal process around a typical CAD-delivered project becomes obsolete.
The third issue we’re focusing on is the skilled labor shortage. The simple fact that the trades are shrinking while the demand is increasing is the driving force behind Robotic Process Automation or RPA. RPA solutions are available on both sides of the shovel. Back-office processes include billing, invoicing, database management, document management, and site cost management. Examples from the field include heavy machinery automation for grading and mining, drones for worksite monitoring, and small construction robots for maneuvering heavy materials and accessing danger-prone areas. Benefits include improving safety, revealing potential hazards, and avoiding labor-related cost overruns.
Automation is also playing out in modular construction, whereby unitized products are being built in factories and shipped to job sites for local assembly. The benefits of modular construction run deep including materials consistency, less waste, and superior crafted products due to the interoperability of BIM and CNC technology. You can spend days reading about the benefits of modular construction here.
This is really the beginning of the discussion. Specific use cases of the benefits of model-based construction are coming out every day. While most construction projects are still very traditional, current economic and environmental conditions are speeding up the adoption model. What used to be considered a futuristic and unnecessary part of the process is proving to be a vital component to delivering a responsive and nimble construction project. Underutilized buildings, historic structures, and adaptive re-use projects can all see the immediate benefits of scenario planning that models can provide. It’s an exciting time for the future of AEC - especially for those who are willing to try different.