Geospatial technology, automation and robotics are most easily implemented in scenarios where work is repetitive or can be controlled in a non-physical environment.
These are also reasons why construction falls behind other industries in geospatial, automation and robotics adoption. The industry is highly physical in the work that it does, and since most building projects are customized or involve onsite changes, the physical realities of building don’t always conform to what the blueprints say.
“When you compare the unique qualities of building onsite with the manufacturing of an item like an iPhone, you can see the differences,” says Joe Blair, vice president at Obvious Ventures, a venture capital firm. “When an iPhone gets manufactured, there is an ironclad set of specs that the manufacturer executes over and over again as multiple units are produced. However, in construction, there are always anomalies that come up at building sites that force builders to improvise. The uniqueness of building can make the automation and digitalization of workflows far more complex.”
There are other obstacles as well.
Construction is dominated by tradesmen in specialties such as framing, finish carpentry, electrical, plumbing, etc. Most of these tradesmen are highly skilled in their trades, with years of experience in non-digital methods that have worked for them and are not likely to abandon. Confidence in these age-old techniques can make it more appealing to find a stud in a wall with a laser stud finder than by using augmented reality glasses that can superimpose blueprints and show you the infrastructure of the building beneath the drywall.
Nevertheless, the pace and expectations for construction are changing—as they are for other industries. For this reason, Blair encourages construction companies to be more aggressive in looking at new technologies that can speed the builds of projects and also deliver more profits to the bottom line. Among these technologies are:
Prefab Construction – Where CAD-developed designs can be plugged into a combination of human and automated manufacturing, with modules of buildings pre-built at factories, and then transported and erected at building sites. “In China, construction workers were able to build a skyscraper in 19 days by assembling pre-built modules of the building and then moving the modules to the construction site,” Blair says. “If they had used conventional construction techniques, the same project would have taken years to complete.”
Robotics – Construction is an inherently dangerous job where robots can offload many of the riskier tasks that can lead to injuries in the field. Autonomous bulldozers can now take on preliminary site preparation before actual building construction begins. Tasks like bricklaying, including the application of mortar, can also be automated. “The automated bricklaying can proceed at three times the speed of doing this task manually,” Blair says. “You still need humans to design and oversee the task, so the relationship between the automated bricklaying machine and the human worker on the site is symbiotic.”
Drones, BIM and Geospatial Technology – Pre-construction site analysis and the plotting of building sites in 3D geospatial representations can be done with the help of drones that can photograph and assist in plotting a site. Once construction is underway, difficult to access areas of construction such as the tops of buildings can be monitored with the help of LiDAR cameras and remote sensors for purposes of security and monitoring the progress of construction. The capabilities of these technologies are further leveraged when they are combined with BIM representations of the project build, which can geospatially track every construction activity that is going on. “The key is to have a 3D BIM model of the building on which you can superimpose robotics, LiDAR, sensors, augmented reality and other technologies that deliver efficiencies to the building process,” Blair says.
What Builders Can Do Now
More widespread adoption of geospatial, robotics and automation technologies is in the construction industry’s future, but to take advantage of these technologies, each company should assess its particular construction niche and what makes sense.
Here are three recommendations:
#1: Get Educated: One way companies can get started in looking at more advanced geospatial technologies, automation and robotics is by talking with companies that are already using these technologies. They can tell you which technologies are really paying off for them and where they have experienced problems. They are also an excellent source for learning about different products and vendors.
#2: Experiment: The best news for construction companies that want to move into more digitalization and automation is that you can try new technologies on a trial basis. BIM geospatial technology trials can be conducted inexpensively, and so can the deployment of drones, sensors, etc. In many cases, a prospective vendor can help you set up a trial case for the technology you are considering.
#3: Adopt: Once you try out a new technology and can see that it works and delivers benefits, you can begin to insert the technology into your construction workflows and train your staff. By incrementally adding technology to your workflows, you can improve efficiencies and performance – and also create a gradual transition to more automated techniques that your workers can more easily adapt to.