An array of digital technologies will combine to reshape how the built environment is created for the next generation. Anthony Thompson, BIM Specialist at the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, shares his thoughts.
Everyone in the Architecture Engineering and Construction (AEC) industry has heard of BIM (Building Information Model) by now, the big buzzword that is either greatly misunderstood or championed by AEC Professionals. If you have not heard of it, come back to earth and read this. Yet, while people are just getting up to speed, trying to ground up their BIM implementations, setting up standards and best practices, something really incredible is happening in the background.
Most may believe that BIM software alone is the key to digital transformation and disruption in the AEC Industry, but the truth is that it is only a piece – although an important one – of how technology will upend the way we create and reshape our built environment. In fact, BIM may serve as a cornerstone or foundation for all other building blocks to sit on.
The real transformation will happen when an array of technologies and processes intersect to form a Venn diagram with a sweet spot in the middle that we will call “ const-ruption” (construction + disruption). And although some of these technologies are still in early stages of development, and others are well underway, their potential impact should not be underestimated. We saw what happened with the evolution of the smartphone, and that was only 10 years ago! Similar trends can also be seen in the advent of the internet and what it did to travel agents, movie rentals and physical pictures. Likewise, some of the technologies mentioned here will take a similar approach to adoption with integration and eventually the “const-ruption” they will cause.
There are three main components that will come together, each with subcomponents. They are:
- Software - BIM, Project Management Collaboration, Augmented Reality (AR-also part hardware), Machine Learning, Generative Design (AI Artificial Intelligence)
- Hardware - IOT (Internet of Things), Reality Capture 3D Scanners, Robotic Setting out Stations, 3D Printing, Digital Fabrication, Construction Robotics
- Processes - Prefabrication, Design Build, Mass Customisation, BlockChain
BIM will act as a catalyst for all of the other technologies, offering a radically transparent design and construction project that we are used to seeing today. And where there is transparency, there are greater expectations of reduced risk for all parties involved, which produces better outcomes, overall ROI, and profits.
Let's break down each of the categories and their components to see how we can bring about “const-ruption”. Keep in mind, this is an overview, as each of these topics within themselves could have a book written on them! We’ll define the technology as well as it’s and potential to be a cause for “constr-uption”.
Building Information Models are 3D intelligent representations of physical and functional properties for a construction project created by software. They contain all the parts of the building (or infrastructure) as well as their associated data. Think of BIM as the digital twin of your project that lets you identify each piece of your building or infrastructure with everything you need to know about what that piece is and what it does. Do not think of BIM as 3D CAD. Also to note, eventually BIM will become AIIM - Artificial Intelligent Information Modelling, powered by Machine Learning.
Project Management (Cloud) Collaboration (also called PMIS - Project Management Information System)
These applications allow multiple stakeholders to share documentation and information digitally in the “cloud” through the internet. Teams exchange Drawings, Submittals, RFIs, Markups, Reports and more. It is like a shared filing cabinet on the internet (with your computer, phone or tablet) for construction project team members. This technology becomes more powerful by leveraging mobile applications for personnel in the field, keeping them in sync with the office.
Augmented Reality (AR)
Imagine putting on a pair of glasses and being able to project a hologram of your BIM (or any object for that matter) onto the site before it is constructed. Well, now you can with tools like the Hololens by Microsoft. AR is different than VR (Virtual Reality) because you are not fully immersed in a digital setting (This is how VR works - your vision is replaced with a screen in a pair of goggles). Instead, your sight is enhanced with images in the world you're surrounded by. The impact that AR will have once it is consumer ready will be tremendous and for design and construction, this will surely impact us greatly. Learn more about AR for Construction here.
Machine Learning (AI) and Generative Design
Computers are getting “smarter”, literally. New advances in Artificial Intelligence are allowing computers to do things like recognise images, make suggestions, and create new answers based on (lots of) data. So how does that affect design and construction? Instead of creating a design from scratch, an Architect or Engineer will use AI to produce designs, with little to no intervention. They will fine tune it, and be ready to go. Instant BIM! Additionally, project documentation can be streamlined with the help of image classification in inspections. Estimating and Scheduling can also be semi or fully automated. The very broad explanation, just remember, automation will be automating automation (in all industries), and how we add value to a project will shift because of AI.
IoT (Internet of Things- Connected Sensors)
How we see the world and ourselves has been visualised into real-time data streams, thanks to the help of tiny sensors that are connected to our objects and bodies with devices (like phones and smartwatches) via the internet. IoT will greatly shape how we monitor our environment and everything around us. The progress of our construction sites is another area where this tech can come into play, by having real-time info of our job conditions, material tracking and also allowing us to see the health of crew members to ensure no one is overworked with enabled work gear wearables. Think of Amazon Alexa for the job site.
3D Reality Capture Scanners
The days of tape measure and string are behind us (although for some reason this is still somehow the preferred method). Laser scanners give us the ability to capture an area's geometry in full with accuracy and then to visualise it in a 3D format (point cloud). Given the amount of time saved using a scanner compared to traditional methods to assess existing conditions of a site, as well as the high accuracy output, we are sure to see this in use much more frequently.
Robotic Setting out Stations
Going from BIM Model to the construction field is now a go-to solution for accurate setting out. These little machines take our model and project them out to where they should be, spot on. As you may image, this saves a lot of time compared to reading plans and using chalk lines and pencils. You can expect this to become a new favourite amongst tradesman in the near future.
3D Printing & Digital Fabrication
Creating physical objects from a digital model is now highly accessible with additive manufacturing 3D Printing (the process of creating something layer by layer using an extruder placed on a 3 axis gantry). 3D Printing is no longer for small household items like combs. Entire buildings have been “printed” with concrete in as little as 24 hours! We can expect this technology to keep improving and will find its way to the making of building parts, be it a piece or the whole thing!
Equipment without Operators, autonomous drones and delivery trucks, robotic arms assembling construction components; these robots will be the standard for our industry. It may be hard to picture, but Construction Robotics have been around and in use since the 80s. Now, they have turned it up a notch and are allowing greater flexibility and a wider range of applications. Sites autonomously being graded and backfilled, Bots assembling building parts, and other autonomous or remote-controlled robots will flood both onsite and offsite construction.
Off-site, construction has seen an uptick in adoption due to its efficiency and effectiveness for delivering projects. Although rectangular modular shaped buildings may come to mind when thinking of prefab, this is not its only use case. Facade panels in large sections, MEP racks-pre assembled Systems, bathroom pods, and structurally framed components all fall into this category. And though prefabrication is not at all new, we can expect that this delivery method will have a high impact in bringing scheduling and quality efficiency to projects.
Traditional project delivery methods are fulfilled by using the well-known, albeit ineffective design-bid-build in which each party operates in its own silo and then attempts to come together to make a whole. There are other methods such as construction manager at-risk, design-build and IPD (Integrated Project Delivery). I believe the winners will be companies or contract structures that include all key stakeholders under one roof. These types of companies and project delivery methods ensure participation and information flow smoothly. In turn, this presents more opportunities to improve design and reduce costs while avoiding mistakes in the construction phase.
When we think about mass production, often a cookie cutter object comes to mind that can be reproduced thousands or millions of times with the same pattern, thus giving large quantities and production at scale. Now, if we take standard parts, and couple it with the ability to make it unique, you get mass customisation. In a nutshell, a cookie cutter cookie, becomes a cookie with chocolate chips, sugar sprinkles, or jimmies! The ability to take one standard component and give it a unique feature will help to further advance prefabrication and provide a wider range of options for Owners.
Block what? Never heard of it! This piece of technology is the underlying engine that makes Bitcoin and other Cryptocurrencies move! It is a distributed and decentralised (not having one authority) public ledger that is backed by an international network of many nodes (computers) and cryptography (mathematical encryption). Maybe you have heard about bitcoins and cryptos being worth a gazillion dollars (ok not quite), and wonder what could a “digital currency” have to do with construction...?
Well, it's not about the “currency” aspect of the technology; it is about the blockchain ledger and what can be built on top of it. The blockchain is a distributed public ledger that also allows for programmable “smart contracts” (a rule-based agreement of transactions that are executed with programmable code). If this, then that scenarios that are then executed on the public ledger blockchain make for a suitable match for bringing transparency through a Project Management Information System (PMIS) that has embedded smart contracts that take action on a project's activities. This is what is truly exciting about blockchain technology. We’ll see how this can work shortly. Keep in mind blockchain and bitcoin are deservingly standalone topics. They have the potential to fundamentally shift society as a whole. You can learn more about how blockchains work here.
Whoa, that was a lot of tech! Perhaps you may now be thinking, “Ok, so what does all that Jetson-like stuff have to do with me and my profession!”. Trust me, these technologies may seem “futuristic” but remember the Smart Phone example we mentioned. At some point in the coming years (a decade or so – maybe sooner), these technologies will all play together like kids in a schoolyard. So, let's run through a hypothetical scenario of how a project can be delivered using these technologies together and see the drastic impact they could have.
I’m a property owner who wants to develop a multi-story mixed-use building on top of an existing two-story facility. I contact a Design-Build Firm of Architects Engineers and Constructors. They visit the site and scan my building with a Reality Capture 3D Scanner to assess as-built conditions. The scan is uploaded to another software that examines the cloud point and autonomously generates an As-Built BIM. With the assistance of Machine Learning image recognition, all the parts of the facility are labeled and populated with data. The team then puts this BIM through a Generative Design program that gives hundreds of design options with different variations that all meet the needs of the program and scope of work. AI is once again used alongside this process to generate an accurate cost estimate and projected schedule based on historical record data of similar projects.
The team comes to the site for a kick-off meeting, where they literally walk me through the new facility with Augmented Reality glasses. I examine a few options after being fully immersed in possibilities of my new building, and after some deliberation and advising, I pick an option. Our contract terms are finalised and coded onto the Blockchain ledger which will track all transactions, activities, and milestones of the project with the assistance of IOT sensors on material logistics, crew members and autonomous drones with the BIM acting as the backbone and glue.
Construction begins with site work, while the superstructure is being Prefabricated in parts off-site in a factory, just in time for delivery to the site. Standard parts, like the facade panels, are customised (mass customisation) with 3D Printers to get the wavy reveal brick pattern I selected. Construction Robots lead the way for assembly of other components that are not printed. Optimised, clash-free MEP set outs (thanks to AI) are extracted from the BIM and projected to their proper place using Robotic Setting out Stations.
As the project is underway, all team members are in sync thanks to the PMIS we are using. All files and communications are located in a single place, accessible to everyone. Daily reports are automatically generated from the IOT objects on site; crews with smart shirts (who was there???), site conditions (weather sensors) and what got done....(stay with me here, this next part is important)...
Because the PMIS is backed by Smart Contracts on the Blockchain, when the prefabricated units arrive at the site on a self-driving Autonomous Truck (Robotics), the units are tracked and logged through sensors (IOT), then verified with 3D Scanners against the BIM for accuracy (AI Machine Learning at play), and a payment requisition is automatically released, according to the rules programmed on the Blockchain as the milestone is reached!!
My project is complete, ahead of schedule and under budget thanks to the wonderful world of tech and the powerful combination of man and machine! No need to get a BIM data handover, as my BIM will now transform into a DAO- Decentralized Autonomous Organization (huh?!) on the blockchain. This means that the asset is programmed on the blockchain as a standalone entity, with more smart contract instructions, this time to operate without (human) intervention. It monitors itself with the sensors it has (IOT), so that if a light goes out, (or any repair is needed) an automatic call is made for maintenance. Rent is autonomously collected from the tenants using cryptocurrencies as a payment (there that word goes!). Best of all, I get a tax break for putting my DAO on the public ledger (wishful thinking!).
And so goes the story of “const-ruption” !!
It is easy to get lost in the details of the hypothetical scenario mentioned, but think about your daily workflow and how some, if not all, of the technologies mentioned can positively impact you and your team (or company). Think about where you can add efficiency and productivity by leveraging these technologies. It does not make a difference if you are a residential contractor, or a government entity spending billions, everyone in the industry will benefit one way or another. The early adopters will seem like they are a bit crazy (thats me ;). That is until everyone else sees the maximised value gained by adopting these technologies, then everyone will want to jump on board!
I truly believe we are on the cusp of great change, and although the construction industry is notorious for not adopting new technologies, I believe this time will be different. The current and future workforce generations (millennials, I guess that's me, and minecrafters) will be the ones to bring it forth, as tech has already been embedded deeply in their lives.
We, AEC professionals are constantly changing the built world for the better, developing and renovating buildings to habitat and improving infrastructure that provides a high quality of life. The technological shift that is occurring will help to catapult the success rate of undertaking design and construction projects that are high risk, costly and typically delivered late and over budget.
Let’s Change the Built World and make it a better place!
About the Author
Anthony Ayman Thompson is a trained Architect and Construction Manager residing in NYC with over a decade of experience in all four sectors of construction (Residential, Commercial, Civil, and Industrial). He believes in the power of technology to improve lives and is passionate about designing and building that which benefits humanity. You can find him on www.aythompson.com.More Content by Anthony Thompson