After decades of very little improvement in how projects are built, the tech push offers hope that significant progress is just around the corner. To achieve such progress, technology and innovation must play a key role in offering our craft men and women new ways to improve means & methods, efficiency, speed-to- market delivery, safety, and quality control. The goals of increasing productivity, combating the labor shortage, attracting a new generation of talent to the industry, and changing what we design and how we build are lofty. The primary areas where such emerging technology shows the most promise are augmented/virtual reality, generative design and super-computing, scanning technologies, robotics, drones, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, BIM, digital twin, prefabrication, and modularization.
The primary challenge we need to overcome in our quest to build better, smarter, safer, and faster is demonstrating measurable value, not just innovative technology. The transformational solutions we can provide are only as good as our clients can actually count on to increase value. Until the power of the emerging technologies listed above can be harnessed and used to generate measurable value for our trades and/or our clients, they will simply be grand ideas. At JE Dunn, we believe we have a unique opportunity to pair some of our key thought leaders within our team of skilled builders with our innovative in-house technologists to turn those grand ideas into measurable value.
Hear from three JE Dunn experts on three keys to achieving this goal. Trent Nichols, National Director of Virtual Design and Construction, will discuss the technology components from virtual design to augmented reality, while John Jacobs, Chief Information Officer, outlines how we convert data (or raw material) into analytics (fuel for improvement) for a data integration perspective, and Rodd Merchant, Chief Strategy and Client Experience Officer, talks about the real value to clients from utilizing advanced technology on their projects.
Over the last decade—and even longer in some instances— we have witnessed an influx of new construction technology all claiming to solve the industry’s problems. According to Cruchbase.com, “Funding in US-Based construction technology startups surged by 324 percent to nearly $3.1 billion in 2018…” Predictions of over $4 billion suggest that investments in construction tech is continuing to grow. From drones to wearables to AR/VR, and everything in between, the technologies continue to claim increased jobsite productivity, safety, reduction of errors and re-work, and better overall outcomes. All these emerging technologies prove to be revolutionary within themselves, but we will not achieve the goals without widespread adoption and a fully integrated data strategy.
Drones are an innovative technology, and the improvements we see in its capabilities are compelling. Today they allow us to safely capture massive amounts of jobsite data in a very short amount of time. They allow us to access areas and capture data not achievable by other means (at least not efficiently) and do it safely. Orth-mosaic maps can be quickly processed into 3-D models and 2-D analytics to support design and construction processes. Pre-pour scans can be used to validate construction coordination activities and improve quality. Progress photos and videos can be easily captured in a more cost-effective manner than standard aerial photography. Wearables and tracking devices continue to improve how we can monitor the movement of people and material across the jobsites. AR/VR improve visualization, collaboration, and coordination of work. Very similar to drones, they have the potential to produce incremental value by themselves.
To achieve the goal of an exceptional client experience, you first must improve the daily activities of the men and women that put the work in place. Moving technology closer to the actual work and making sure that any one solution does not add to their daily tasks. When the technology limits the number of activities an individual does in a day, it will make them more efficient, productivity goes up, quality improves, and widespread adoption will occur.
This is also the reason a solid data strategy that integrates all these very impressive technologies is so important. Without integrating the data and applications with the daily required task of an operations team, you have an adverse effect. You end up adding multiple additional tasks by increasing the numbers to technology solutions they must utilize to do their jobs, adoption does not occur, productivity goes down, and quality suffers. There is no lack of opportunity when it comes to technology and innovative solutions in the AEC industry. When you identify the real problems to solve, select the best tech, integrate it to improve business process and workflows, move the technology and specialist closer to the work and the men and women who put it in place, then you set them up them up to achieve the exceptional client experience.
Integrated Data Strategy
This leads us to the second key to success: converting the data received from the technologies above into analytics that fuel value-driven changes to how we build. The challenge we are tackling head on is improving how we harvest data, clean it, integrate it, and turn it into analytics and visualization that fundamentally change how we approach construction.
This is similar in many respects to the petroleum refinery process. Petroleum refineries change crude oil into petroleum products for use as fuels for transportation, heating, paving roads, and generating electricity. They do this through four key steps: collection, separation, conversion, distribution. Our integrated data strategy uses the same four steps, and results in the “fuel” for our real innovators: our builders.
Our “collection” process includes harvesting raw data from multiple sources. Today, we are collecting data from CMiC, jobsite cameras, wearables, drones, truck & tool-mounted sensors, and many more. Our “separation” and “conversion” process is led by a team of data analysts and business analysts who convert the raw data into meaningful metrics. And finally, the “distribution” of our newly created “fuel” is available for our builders to use in new ways we never thought possible. Examples consist of outputs such as a PowerBI-driven dashboard, full digital estimate visualization, an immersive augmented reality view into the construction model through Hololens 2 glasses, or even generative design providing options for the new formwork options we might consider; the fuel is being generated and is ready to use.
Rest assured, the infrastructure we have put in place over the past few years is prepared to scale up to meet the rapidly emerging opportunity. Pitchbook reports that VC investments in these technologies were $61.3 billion in 2019 and at the end of Q2 2020, $34.2 billion has already been raised. In the AI/ML technology sector, VC investments in 2019 were $20.7 billion. Clearly this means investors are betting big on data, and more importantly that integration of data through cloud-based platforms, as well as data input from all the other sources such as drones, sensors, wearables, etc. Companies that are aligning these platforms with a well-designed technology and data strategy begin to move their value beyond incremental and start to change the business model on how companies execute and plan work.
Transformational Solutions for Clients
All of the advanced construction technology and data integration is great, but it’s just a new shiny object unless you deploy and adopt it in widespread application to provide real, tangible benefits to clients. At JE Dunn, one of the biggest changes we made in our executive leadership strategy the past few years is to create a new title of Chief Strategy and Client Experience Officer; this position is essentially a hybrid of technology and innovation combined with the highest level of attention to client needs, experiences, and solutions. When I took on this new role, I merged my passion for innovation with my experience as a project executive. I personally believe if the dots aren’t connected between advanced technology and innovation, all the way to providing the most advanced, efficient, and painless project delivery, then we have not provided the best experience possible for our clients.
An example of how we’re working to improve the experience of not only our clients, but all project stakeholders, is through deep integration of the design team’s BIM with our in-house estimating application. Coupled with our digital collaborative project dashboards, this robust software allows everyone involved in the project to not only access critical cost information, but to also visualize those components and systems within the virtual model. The integration with the architect’s model ensures that the design remains aligned with the estimate throughout the design phase, thus giving our clients confidence that the program as designed by the architect fits within the client’s stated budget. In addition, the integration of the model-based estimate with our project dashboard ensures everyone has access to the latest information from anywhere at any time. This type of enhanced collaboration is simply not possible utilizing traditional off-the-shelf point solutions.
The advancements in construction tech will not slow down. Construction technology companies and investors have laid, and continue to lay, the groundwork for disrupting our industry. We must continue to test and push the boundaries outside of our com- fort zone as they relate to emerging technologies with the endgame of delivering the highest and best value to our clients. Providing transformational solutions with certainty of results is our vision, and we will not stop pursuing the endless possibilities technology brings us to achieve this vision for our clients.