Eoin Byrne

02 November 2020

Post-pandemic construction: Could COVID-19 be the catalyst for digital adoption?

With the construction industry representing 13 percent of the global GDP, it has been an important sector for providing employment, building the economy and more recently, responding to the pandemic through the development of medical facilities and essential infrastructure. And yet, during this time, there have been minimal changes to how construction projects are run. Before the pandemic, practices did not need to be updated as the industry could still rely on their old methods, but COVID-19 has challenged these traditional construction processes. For an industry that relies on manual labor and on-site workers, there were suddenly massive site closures, reductions in the number of on-site personnel and a need for more remote staff. In order to keep sites running efficiently, the industry must modernize their processes.

Even with technology like pavement sensors, crane cameras and digital twin technology available, the construction industry has been reluctant to implement new solutions. Construction firms need a dramatic overhaul in order to realize the benefits of digitization. And while restrictions are lifting across the globe, technology has become critical for the future success of the industry. McKinsey has estimated that with long-term lockdowns or severe restrictions in place, economic activity will not return to 2019 levels until 2023 at the earliest. Ensuring that projects are leveraging technology to stay on-target and on-budget can help the industry recover. 

REMOTE VISITS AND MONITORING

Although there are numerous aspects of a project that cannot be completed remotely, site monitoring is one area that has benefited from technological advancements. Video conferencing tools can be leveraged by remote and on-site workers to facilitate site visits and inspections, allowing for all stakeholders to monitor progress safely. By implementing cameras on-site, they can also continuously monitor the site as it remains closed to ensure there is no damage. Using technology is also beneficial as it creates a digital record of the site, which can be used in the event of a conflict. Monitoring solutions can also be adopted for construction practices, with sensors implemented to predict concrete curling or other issues that may arise.

Drones have also been effectively leveraged to monitor site closures or to review the progress of the project while off-site. With their advanced capabilities, drones can provide accurate data to site personnel for mapping and surveying purposes. They can also provide accurate project timelines of the site by monitoring progress. With fewer personnel allowed on site, these tools can be leveraged to collect data without having to add workers to the site. They can also help to free up users from performing manual surveying and mapping, allowing them instead to focus on analyzing data, which in turn speeds up project timelines. 

In addition to site monitoring, systems have also been introduced to monitor worksite health and safety compliance. Wearables and AI sensors can be implemented to detect when workers are not maintaining proper physical distance or to limit the amount of people in a worksite. Some projects have even implemented employee tracking for contact tracing purposes, monitoring how long individuals are in close proximity of one another. In the event of a COVID case, these trackers can identify potentially infected individuals, which could help avoid a shut down of the entire site. They can also help to alert employees when they are in a zone that they shouldn’t be in, due to the number of individuals in the area. Contact tracing is becoming incredibly important, and individual tracking devices can help to reduce the risk of site closures. 

COMMUNICATION AND COLLABORATION TOOLS

Throughout the pandemic, the construction industry has seen an increased reliance on digital collaboration tools. As more businesses move to a permanent remote work model, this reliance will only grow. This includes simple communication tools that allow for collaboration between teams and stakeholders. It also extends to more sophisticated tools that allow for large data sets, which are typical on construction projects, to be shared. Increasing communication between stakeholders can also help the industry recover financially: rework caused by miscommunication or inaccurate and inaccessible information cost the U.S. construction industry $31 billion in 2018. Ensuring that all stakeholders have access to accurate data can minimize errors and rework. 

By increasing the use of digital collaboration tools, delays and high costs can be mitigated. Collaboration tools such as building information modeling (BIM) tools can be effective for remotely planning, designing, constructing, and managing buildings and infrastructure. Modeling data from BIM tools can also help decrease the amount of duplicate work from different stakeholders, as information can be updated in real-time. Digital building replicas, or digital twins, can help to predict the outcome of changes to existing buildings, reducing costly errors. Contractors can also use 4D and 5D simulators to optimize the scheduling of workers and shipments. Although remote working reduces the ability for spontaneous innovation, improved collaboration in construction projects is possible. With 52 percent of rework caused by poor data and communication, this will be increasingly important to accelerate project timelines. 

ROBOTICS AND AUTOMATED CONSTRUCTION

Although robotics may seem like a far-off concept, various construction firms adapted to the pandemic by using automated construction techniques. Automation can be useful as it can increase the speed of a project by up to 52 percent, compared to industry averages. There are a variety of ways robotics can be implemented to help construction processes. In combination with 3D printing, robots can build large-scale projects on demand, reducing the need for on-site personnel. With a set of preprogrammed instructions, these systems can create structurally safe buildings. 

More generically, robots can help with typically time-consuming tasks, such as brick laying, masonry and cement pouring. In the pre-construction phase, robotics can also help with demolition projects. Due to the repetitive nature of these tasks, it can be easy to program a robot to complete them safely and efficiently. Post-pandemic, the application of robotics and automation will be useful to drive down project cost, address health and safety issues, and improve lead times.

EFFICIENCY IN THE INDUSTRY

If there ever was a time for construction to modernize, it is now. After months of economic shutdown and site closures, digital innovation will be important for getting the 11 trillion dollar industry back on its feet. This presents a transformative opportunity for construction firms to invest in new solutions. Investing in technologies can be costly upfront, but the reality is that companies that fail to modernize may experience difficulty coming out of the economic downturn. These investments can help with faster and more streamlined project delivery, fewer errors and more efficient labor usage. There will still be impacts on projects for the foreseeable future, but prioritizing solutions that lower costs, enable shortened timelines and ensure health and safety will help the industry move forward efficiently. 

Written by Eoin Byrne - Director, Linesight

Eoin Byrne joined Linesight in the US in 2015, having worked as a cost consultant and site manager in Ireland for seven years beforehand. He has a wealth of experience across a diverse range of sectors but has focused primarily on data centers since joining Linesight. Having previously led the team on a Data Center program for a large client, Eoin is now leading the managed services on a significant Data Center program for a world-leading technology company.  

Link to the original article:

https://constructionexec.com/article/post-pandemic-construction-could-covid-19-be-the-catalyst-for-digital-adoption