Crossing the Chasm: A Closer Look at Disruptive Technology in Construction

It’s an exciting time to be in construction with automation and disruptive technologies such as AI, machine learning and IoT. These significant changes will drive a digital revolution and lead to productivity gains.
By Chris Moor
November 29, 2018

The rise of automation and disruptive technologies such as artificial Intelligence, machine learning and the Internet of Things makes this an exciting time be in the construction industry. While most industries are on the verge of revolutionary changes, the construction industry is possibly in the midst of the most significant change.

Advances in technology are bringing more data than ever to contractors’ fingertips and opportunities for using that data to transform the way buildings and highways are designed, built and operated. With challenges facing the industry that include a skilled labor shortage, tight budgets and condensed schedules, data and technology are bringing much needed relief. This shift is also preparing the construction industry for emerging generations of digital natives who know nothing other than automation - and not only embrace technology, they seek it out in search of ways to work smarter and more efficiently.

Today, with endless data and new technology to help make use of it, where does the construction industry stand on adoption? Is it making the best use of the opportunities? Consider the 1991 book, Crossing the Chasm, in which Geoffrey Moore explains his variation of the technology adoption curve – a concept that is still relevant today and when applied to the construction industry, paints a picture of how far it has come and how far it still has to go.

The chasm, Moore states, represents the gulf between two distinct marketplaces for technology products– the first, an early market dominated by early adopters and insiders who are quick to appreciate the nature and benefits of a new development and the second, a mainstream market representing “the rest of us,” people who want the benefits of new technology but who do not want to “experience” it in all its gory details. The transition between these two markets is anything but smooth.

At different points on Moore’s version of the adoption curve are innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards. With the new year just around the corner, it’s encouraging and exciting to apply this adoption curve to the construction industry.

Technology advances that brought positive change and those just starting to take hold

Innovators are the earliest adopters of technology and would be the first to use a product. Today, innovators are exploring advances including machine learning, artificial intelligence, advanced robotic manufacturing, blockchain and semantic web technology. By way of example in construction, innovators are beginning to understand how to leverage large amounts of data to predict and offer automated solutions based on similar historical situations during the design process. Others are beginning to invest in Blockchain technology, developing smart contracts that attempt to streamline project delivery and payment, and automate many of the administrative and regulation-laden processes in construction.

Early adopters are a small group of “visionaries” who take on what the innovators started, at a slightly lower risk. In construction, early adopters are using BIM collaboration platforms, where open data enables real-time collaboration and everyone involved in a project can see the big picture right down to the tiniest detail. Some are experimenting with mixed and augmented reality such as Microsoft HoloLens, allowing workers on the jobsite to use holographic data to review their models overlaid in the context of the physical environment. In the fabrication arena, innovative steel fabricators are starting to use automated equipment that reads information from the BIM and then automatically assembles and welds the pieces in the shop. Most importantly, early adopters take a constructible, purposeful approach to building design and construction that coordinates and optimizes the entire design, build and operate lifecycle.

Early majority are pragmatic and thoughtful in accepting change and while the adoption of new systems or processes tends to take a little longer to implement, the chances of a successful ROI are much higher. File based data exchange and interoperability via email or FTP sites are a good example. The shared data takes the early majority to the next level of collaboration while preparing them for the future proliferation of live data sharing. Another example is the advanced use of BIM for such things as digital layout of the jobsite using lasers and total stations.

Late majority tend to adopt technology after its well established and are somewhat skeptical in their attitude toward change. In the construction industry, examples of technologies that are adopted by the late majority today include basic 3D modeling, the use of BIM for clash detection and the extraction of data from the model to drive CNC machinery and basic processes on the shop floor. Even the use of the internet for such things as document storage may fall into this group.

Laggards are the most conservative of all. Laggards don’t really look to adopt new technology and aren’t overly concerned about it, believing that the changes aren’t necessary and won’t improve productivity. Laggards in the construction industry likely continue to use 2D CAD.

Looking at the technologies across each group in Moore’s adoption curve, contractors need to ask where does their business – or where do their people - fall? It’s not everyone’s role to push the boundaries of what can be achieved with technology in construction. However, contractors have a responsibility to continue pushing for more efficiency in an industry that is often slated as being slow to adopt and change, and whose productivity has been stagnant for too long.

Think about this: given the clear upstream and downstream benefits BIM and truly constructible models can provide, it’s hard to accept that the construction industry is still only scratching the surface. While the majority of the industry may in fact be using BIM in one form or another, only a small minority are taking advantage of the opportunities that lie within these data rich models. BIM has moved beyond clash detection and is here to stay, but the industry needs to understand just how to better take advantage to collaborate with project teams, drive fabrication and manufacturing, streamline material acquisition, take advantage of mixed and augmented reality, ensure constructability issues are found before the job gets to site, share live data streams with other team members and ensure nobody has to wait or ask for information they need to get the job done.

Opportunities Ahead

The construction industry is big. The market is expected to break $20 trillion by 2020. It already consumes 40 percent of the world’s energy and employs seven percent of the world’s working population. Yet, it is also incredibly inefficient. Ten percent of materials are wasted, 30 percent of jobsite work is moving things around, 40 percent of projects are over budget and 90 percent are late.

Part of the reason for this is that the industry is complex, fragmented and historically slow to change. When analyzing the core reasons for many of the inefficiencies mentioned above, the underlying trend points to a lack of information and incorrect or poorly timed information. This represents a tremendous opportunity for improvement that is within reach with tools available today.

At the end of the day, BIM is about moving data from being “human readable” to being “machine readable.” Documents need to become data, consumable in any format. Today 80 percent of time is spent creating data and only 20 percent consuming it. Those numbers need to be reversed. Gen “Z” and even millennials who are entering the construction industry will expect to consume information from anywhere on any device, as they need it and as they want to see it. Data and access to information will change behavior. If the right information is put into the hands of the right people at the right time, it will drive this digital revolution and evolve in process and finally achieve the productivity gains the construction industry needs.

by Chris Moor
Chris Moor is the Business Area Director for Collaborative Workflow at Trimble. He has more than 30 years of experience in the international construction software industry and came to Trimble through the acquisition of FabSuite, where he was COO. He has served in several executive leadership positions across the industry and volunteers in various organizations and committees including BuildingSmart, where he is former Chair of the U.S. National BIM Standard Project Committee.

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