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COVID-19 has forced huge changes across the entire construction industry. It has required extraordinary, unplanned—and frequently unbudgeted—health and safety measures, as well as necessitated digital transformation to accommodate work-from-home orders and social distancing. In an industry where much of the labor is done in-person and on-site, the pandemic has been a major shock to the more than seven million construction industry employees in the United States alone—and it is unfortunately not over. 

The spread of the highly contagious delta variant—plus continued vaccine hesitancy—has shown construction company leaders that they must rethink their return-to-work plans and health and safety strategies as they prepare for inevitable new variants and outbreaks, while also managing client expectations, project completions and most importantly, their obligation to protect workers and their families. It is a huge and unfathomable undertaking for which there is no existing blueprint.

But, resilience in the face of adversity is a core competency of the construction industry. And one bright spot that has emerged as a result of the pandemic is the preponderance of new technologies launched in response to the virus—and especially the data that these new technologies generate. 

By leveraging this data with artificial intelligence, construction companies can be faster, more flexible, creative and efficient as they navigate yet-to-be-seen challenges, and they will emerge stronger and better positioned for future success than ever before. 

COVID-19: The Unexpected Digital Transformation Accelerator

For many paper-based construction companies, getting caught flat-footed by COVID-19—without the digital solutions, people and processes to facilitate fast changes and flexibility—was not only a wake-up call, but also an innovation catalyst. It became immediately clear that already-digitized construction companies were more responsive to the unknown and rapidly-changing industry landscape, evolving transmission rates, CDC recommendations and stay-at-home orders. Their ability to quickly adapt plans and safety protocols on-site—and in real-time—played an enormous part in allowing them to retain momentum despite challenges. 

Construction has long been the standard-bearer of slow technological adoption; now, innovation is happening at breathtaking speed. New construction technology companies are responding to pandemic-era problems and are shaking up the status quo. From remote camera and machine vision inspection tools, to robots, 3D printer prefabrication, video conferencing platforms, machine learning-powered design aids and “smart” scheduling systems, innovation is touching all areas of the construction ecosystem. 

Unlocking a Treasure Trove of Data

With these new technologies and industry-wide digital transformation comes data—and lots of it. And with data, comes the opportunity to unlock it with artificial intelligence, catalyzing automation throughout the project lifecycle—from design management to preconstruction, resource and equipment management, operations, scheduling and staffing, health and safety compliance and project retrospectives. 

 The biggest challenge most construction leaders face is not the amount of data (or the quality of this data) but rather, the strategy for their data, which determines what they have, what they should collect or purchase, where to find it, as well as how to improve, aggregate and innovate with it. 

 The reality of artificial intelligence is that good data means better outcomes. Many companies do not realize what data they have or how valuable it is, not only for their organization, but also for subcontractors, partners, clients and the construction industry as a whole. There is a veritable jackpot of data.

Supercharging Construction’s COVID-19 Recovery

Three areas in the data and artificial intelligence field are emerging as critically important for construction companies to consider as they forge through the pandemic. They are: 

  1. Data Strategy;
  2. Machine Vision; and 
  3. Intelligent Document Processing.

Data Strategy is vital to every organization and drives competitive advantage. It helps identify valuable data and connects this data to fulfilling core company objectives. It enables business leaders to manage data more like they would manage valuable assets—and not just as byproducts of business activity. AI solutions require lots of high-quality data—and construction is ripe with it. From contracts and cost estimates, to schedules, drawings and blueprints, images and videos, all can be leveraged to create AI solutions that streamline operations and save time, money and lives. 

Machine Vision is the capability of a computer to visually perceive the environment. Immense amounts of images and video data are too time-consuming for humans to process; it would take a person hundreds of lifetimes to process what a computer can do in seconds. Machine vision leverages the latest technologies and methods to inspect and analyze visual data so it can be used in inquiries and controls, processes, and other applications reliant on accurate “sight.” This is especially important for construction during the pandemic, since machine vision enables object detection, object tracking and activity tracking—in both real-time and retrospective capacities, for a variety of purposes, including site supervision, scheduling, health and safety and compliance. 

Intelligent Document Processing is a new AI-driven approach to automated document discovery, classification and data extraction. It is used to turn unstructured and semi-structured data into a structured format for rapid use and accurate information retrieval. Unlike out-of-the-box document management, optical character recognition (OCR) or processing software—which is frequently too error-prone to read, classify and extract data from documents—IDP is tailored to the unique environment and document handling needs of an organization. IDP is ideally suited for industries that have a plethora of documents coming from a variety of different sources, such as in construction, legal services, healthcare and manufacturing.

Examples of AI Solutions in Action

While current AI solutions do not replace humans, they can give employees much-needed “superpowers” during this stressful time. AI solutions are particularly helpful at handling manual, repetitive tasks, thereby freeing teams to focus on tasks that computers cannot do, such as making critical business decisions, providing leadership, implementing strategy, and managing people. 

AI is particularly well-suited for:

  • automating repetitive tasks; 
  • generating useful insights from large volumes of data; 
  • predicting outcomes; and
  • optimizing processes.

With the above business challenges in mind, there are several use-cases construction companies are deploying today: 

  • Real-time health and safety. Construction companies are applying analytics to data collected from site cameras to address productivity, compliance and safety issues as they happen—and even before they happen—and not just retroactively for audits. Cameras capturing video footage and images 24/7 feed data into AI models that interpret the visual data and automatically notify supervisors when there is a safety risk, such as when workers are not wearing PPE, are mishandling equipment, or put equipment in the wrong place.
  • Intelligent Document Processing for change-orders and other critical documents. IDP is particularly useful for construction companies managing a large volume of documents such as invoices, change orders, blueprints, contracts and client correspondence—all of which cannot be fully and intelligently processed by existing software tools. Timely use-cases for IDP in response to COVID-19 include:
    • helping construction companies respond to dramatic fluctuations in wood costs, and handling massive amounts of documents that result; and
    • providing managers responsible for change orders with an “extra set of eyes” (or a thousand extra sets!) to dramatically reduce costly human errors.
  • Predictive analytics-based schedule management is helping firms maintain productivity across a fragmented workforce. AI-powered systems use company data to analyze how long a crew typically takes to finish a task, and recommends when supervisors should schedule the next crew to arrive. This helps eliminate unnecessary downtime, ensure maximum-efficiency worker distribution on jobsites with reduced capacity due to social distancing, and prevent virus transmission between potentially overlapping crews. 
Conclusion

With the pandemic having no clear end in sight and hospitalization rates increasing, construction leaders are wise to leverage the power of their data with the latest technology and AI to charge forward, keep teams safe and healthy, streamline operations and drive success. Technologies developed in response to COVID-19 are here to stay; they helped make companies stronger, faster, more efficient and infinitely more resilient. Companies that hesitated with adoption should not be surprised if they soon find themselves in their competition’s wake. But, it is never too late to catch up; companies can start small with rapid proof of concept data projects to get a system rolling. 

Internal teams are exhausted, motivated to succeed and proud of how far their companies have come in the face of adversity. The future of AI is about solving real, important problems that have never been able to be solved before. Now is the time for AI in construction: what better use of this new technology is there, than to reduce enormous burdens on stretched employees—who are already gearing up for stricter safety and security protocols, staffing shortages, supply-chain disruptions and the whiplash of changing regulations—and give them precious time and energy back so they can lead their colleagues through this challenging time and into a bright future.

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