Richard Harpham, Vice President Software Products, Katerra
This year, it’s impossible to write an article on construction technology without re-examining the issues and opportunities Covid19 has created. Clearly, the bump in the road the global pandemic caused is becoming more prolonged and impactful than could ever be imagined. Do we wait, hold on and hope to move on as before, or acknowledge that, with the inevitable changes coming to construction, the tragic human impact of Covid19, might just have offered the chance to leap forward and realize transformative opportunities earlier.
In his book, the Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell shared a set of rules that offer a way of making sense of epidemic change, explaining why significant shifts in process and technology may occur. Clearly, Mr. Gladwell was not explicitly referring to the Covid19 virus, but the human conditions he describes, may help us to understand what our future working state might be.
In this short article, I explore a few transformational dynamics that might unlock incredible opportunities for construction firms in the coming years.
In recent conversations with leading contractors, I’ve heard a common story…
‘We never needed to understand who was on our site, when and where until Covid hit. All we tracked was task commencement and completion on a ‘Post-it Note’ board, usually from subcontractors.’
Rethinking how we leverage data for better outcomes will be the foundation of a modern construction process
How many people were on the job site, their health, their co- proximity, and efficiency was not being tracked. Clearly, that just changed dramatically, with most site shutdowns occurring simply because personnel management systems were not in place. Even material supply chains are affected by similar weaknesses in worker intelligence.
Every contractor is now implementing processes and technologies to track and monitor workers’ health, well-being, and location. However, the payoff that this duty-of-care is creating could be dramatically significant. For example, if I now know where everybody is, on which task they’re working and for how long, it’s possible to capture data that can be used to deeply understand and predict productivity and performance. So, if I know which task is being worked on, I might know exactly where they are on the site relative to the scheduled work plan coordinated with my 3D models. This means I could map out worker routing, proximity, and task timing to dramatically increase the activity per square foot in a building bay across the whole construction site.
In a recent study at Stanford, monitoring a new faculty building over the duration of its build, it was found that no more than 3 percent worker activity per building bay occurred over the project’s duration. This means that for 97 percent of the time, the opportunity to execute work in each bay was not being leveraged. In our post-Covid construction world, imagine the productivity that might be unlocked through better planning of worker movement, task execution and co-proximity, rather than just opening the gates to the site and reporting on what got done that day.
Leveraging this opportunity requires a series of fairly simple decisions to create a highly predictive work plan, however the sheer quantity of those simple decisions creates a challenging and time-consuming planning operation. The great news is that machines are really good at executing large quantities of simple decisions really quickly. You probably have heard a lot about ‘Machine Learning’, where highly repetitive and time-consuming processes can be executed radically quicker and more accurately. In the past, our industry has struggled to fully leverage machine learning and AI at the rate of other industries. We simply don’t aggregate data across our multiple siloed systems with any rigor. Now, that is changing out of necessity, and as we can now better track and understand worker productivity, we can now use that data to train machines to provide predictive intelligence to use in planning in highly innovative ways.
In conclusion, we are at the brink of a generational opportunity to affect significant progress for the industry. In the past, without the necessary data, we have trusted our memories of things that worked ‘just OK, more than facts about future construction techniques and opportunities. Rethinking how we leverage data for better outcomes will be the foundation of a modern construction process, allowing us to repair the relative loss in productivity gains, construction has experienced in compared to almost every other industry segment.
Have we reached a tipping point? Will 2020 be construction’s Digital Leap Year? Most in the industry know it’s well overdue, but only time will tell if this Covid19 created moment will be enough to push us over the edge.