Five challenges to Digital Construction
Digital Construction brings transparent information that forms the basis of informed decisions related to project milestones, payment schedules, compliance, management and maintenance cycles of the built asset. It is digital working practices that have enabled many projects to continue in some way throughout the global Covid-19 pandemic. Personally, I have worked with technologies for mapping and collecting 3D data for the past 20 years. Over the last 5 years there has been sustained evolution in the digital tools available that bring digital capture of 3D data directly into the workflows of the construction site. Granted, the geometries of digital as-built information are only one ingredient that drives the Digital Construction processes that are being adopted today; but 3D or not, the benefits, trends and challenges discussed here can apply to digital transformation of processes in general. Indeed, relative to how long many types of digital tools have been available, it can be observed from the sidelines that there are still opportunities to use digital tools to reduce waste and project cost even further. As vendors, we need to be even more conscious of technological and organizational challenges that effect the day-to-day operations when constructing, managing, and maintaining the built environment.
What is Digital Construction?
Digital Construction is a term that has become more frequently used in the last 3-5 years, and can be broadly defined as:
“The use and application of digital tools to improve the process of delivering and operating the built environment”
Examples of Digital Construction in practice include the use of smartphones and tablets on the construction site, through to the sharing of digital project information across cloud-based construction management platforms to log RFIs and other timely project information, through to the tools for digitally designing, verifying and analysing construction progress. Processes related to Building Information Modelling (BIM) to digitally manage the three-dimensional geometries, project, and asset information of a built asset throughout its lifecycle have not only become standard practice across institutional and commercial projects across the world, but in some jurisdictions they have also become part of building legislation (e.g. on government projects in the UK since 2016).
Digital transformation in the construction industry is not straightforward though. Adoption can be fragmented; there can be considerable cost, time and effort involved in making changes; and buildings still need to be built in a timely manner. In an industry so often amortised in terms of ‘time and materials’, changes that require investment outside the scope of a project or fail to deliver to project timelines, may get quickly dropped or fail to be adopted at all. Hinting at the advantages that digitalization of the construction industry can bring, research by the McKinsey Global Institute indicates that digital transformation can result in productivity gains of 14 to 15 percent and cost reductions of 4 to 6 percent. While there is opportunity though, we are also reminded of the hurdles that need to be overcome such as poor digital skills amongst the workforce, which was cited as the significant limiting factor to the adoption of processes such as BIM, by the fifth annual Construction Manager BIM survey that was undertaken earlier this year.
To ensure you don’t fall at the first hurdle, outlined below are the five key challenges we have identified, and considerations to stop these tripping you over:
1. Capturing the baseline
All projects are dependent upon the collation and distribution of information. A digital process is a beast that needs to be fed first. Existing drawings and project documents may need to be digitized, structures may need to be laser scanned, and asset information to be populated. Capturing these base-line materials takes time and therefore expense. There may also be differences of opinion on the extent that data collection is ‘complete’: what is fit-for-purpose now may not be in the future, or vice versa. At PointFuse, we work to understand what fits requirements for actual as-built information at different stages in the project lifecycle. With projects always involving multiple teams, there will rarely be one approach to any workflow. The success of a digital process requires the collaboration of technologies, often from different vendors to deliver specific workflows.
2. Managing the data A key benefit of Digital Construction is the centralized storage and sharing of information across a project, bringing transparency and removing silos. This requires practices to be implemented that go beyond simply digitizing information. Projects are frequently multi-person, -tier and -organization in nature; designing and implementing a new information management workflow can be difficult across multiple parties. Without investment in the design of new procedures and education in their use, digital data and tools can inadvertently be misused. Developing IT middleware that enables centralized processes and operations over reduced data bandwidths is where PointFuse fits in.
3. Progressing the data lifecycle Once the digital process has been populated, it continues to need to be fed. Projects work in lifecycles from beginning to end, so does the built environment. For digital tools to bring benefit they need to be able to deliver the right information in unison with the project lifecycle. For example, in construction verification, laser scanning provides great opportunity to capture as-built information at each phase of construction for comparison with design information to avoid costly errors before they happen. However, if the process to interpret the point cloud or to convert the point cloud into a compatible 3D data model don’t fit the projects timescales, then this may deter the use of the technology in the first place. PointFuse has focused on reducing the project time (usually by 70%) to convert reality capture data into 3D as-built geometries that fit into existing time-constrained processes such as clash detection.
4. Multiple tools and multiple opportunities to optimize It is often said that while the construction industry has been one of the slowest to adopt new technologies, it is for this reason that it has often been green pasture for many technology start-ups. With each new offering trying to carve its niche, there are many new digital tools being brought to market to focus on specific processes, leading to variable adoption not only across the industry, but also across individual projects. Projects can be transient in nature, bringing together multiple teams that have worked together previously, each within their own experiences and preferences, bringing challenges in both standardization and collaboration. That is why PointFuse has been designed to integrate with current workflows, accepting all file formats in and outputting directly to any 3D online programmes: no third-party plugins are required.
5. Complexity of new processes – how about we talk about ‘the need to reskill?’
Some terms used in this blog may be alien to some. Construction is complex by its nature and brand-new processes bring learning curves and requirements for training. There are many activities, such as those involving architectural design and engineering, where licensed sign-off and specific qualifications are required. However, while the engineer is qualified to assess a beam’s loadbearing characteristics, they may not be specialists in the digitization of that beam’s geometry from the laser scanned point cloud of that beam. At PointFuse, we believe in processes that place the right type of data into the hands of the right person in the team, at the right time. Within the portion of the project lifecycle where our solutions operate, this means delivering as-built information collected by reality capture into the hands of the construction engineer or project manager, without them needing to spend excess project time on converting point cloud data into the data models that are compatible with their software or process. The intention here is not necessarily to de-skill, but to ease the process of guiding the user through standardised tasks of data conversion and preparation, regardless of who this task has been assigned to.
How can the evolution of digitization in Digital Construction be unlocked?
Digital tools already bring benefits to every stage in the lifecycle of the built asset. The impacts of these new workflows are not uniform though, and ongoing work is needed to continue to evolve the tools used in digital construction for them to be adopted more widely. As technology providers, we need to continue to better understand existing workflows that Digital Construction tools are being designed to replace, and be conscious of not only the initial time and knowledge investments required to implement these tools, but also that solutions are being created to solve existing problems. There is already considerable evidence of the tangible and significant economic benefits that are brought by the tools and processes associated by Digital Construction. The barriers we have examined are definitely not insurmountable. By continuing to work in partnerships with our customers, stakeholders and industry colleagues; we believe that workflows can continue to be designed that make adoption as smooth as possible and ensure the benefits are realised. For more information on how PointFuse can help you navigate around these key challenges, visit our Software page.