Disruption Within Construction: Is Infrastructure the New Frontier for Innovation?

Modular architecture, standalone solutions that integrate with other software, increase the quantity and speed at which data is transferred and analyzed and constantly evolves to meet new challenges.
By George White
May 10, 2021

The infrastructure construction industry has become a hot topic as of late—with President Biden proposing a $2 trillion overhaul of the nation’s infrastructure over the next decade. With that level of investment, it is no surprise that companies specializing in construction innovation are becoming louder.

Innovations over the last several years have made construction projects more efficient than ever, forcing construction companies of all shapes and sizes to adapt or risk being left behind. The rise of technologies, including:

  • Civil Information Modeling (CIM);
  • digital twins;
  • drone surveying;
  • inspection platforms that provide information in real time; and
  • analytical tools that help companies track and optimize their projects and assets using a multitude of performance indicators;

have collectively increased the efficiency with which construction projects can be completed and forced organizations to adapt to stay competitive at bid time.

A Decade of Transformation

While slow to adopt new technologies relative to more digitized industries such as banking or manufacturing, the infrastructure construction industry has seen unprecedented growth in emerging technologies over the past 10 years. A recent McKinsey analysis found that “from 2014 to 2019, investors poured $25 billion into construction technology, up from $8 billion over the previous five years.” With these new technologies becoming available, construction organizations are feeling the pressure to remain on the cutting edge of innovation or risk being left behind.

Technology and Infrastructure Construction

Technology has increased the efficiency of infrastructure construction teams dramatically in recent years, leading to the widespread adoption of new innovations. There are several technologies now available that have allowed infrastructure construction teams to streamline communication, provide real-time data, harness powerful analytical tools and allow the design to be more fluid.

A few noteworthy innovations have reshaped the construction industry.

Civil Information Modeling

Instead of developing 2D drawings in AutoCAD, which was itself a breakthrough not that long ago, projects are now being modeled using 3D software that allows users to immerse themselves in the completed project before construction has even started. The engineering or architectural designer can catch potential clashes in the design, develop and revise drawings quickly, and convey their ideas to contractors and other stakeholders with ease. 3D modeling technology also integrates with other technologies like virtual reality, allowing the owner to “drive” through the model and easily see whether or not the design is meeting the intended goal.

Digital Twins

Modernizing the infrastructure assets are managed through an investment in digital twins can make transportation construction more accurate and less costly in the long term. Digital twins have the potential to cut development costs, speed time to market and assist in long-term asset management. Ongoing infrastructure asset management is expensive; bridge inspections alone can cost up to $1.35 billion a year, so the potential savings of using a digital twin are huge.

The benefits of digital twins for infrastructure construction are not limited to product development but apply to the entire product lifecycle. For example, once an asset is delivered, sensor data can be collected and used to improve the digital twin model in real time, providing data that achieves an even better match to the real asset. The digital twin can then be used to diagnose problems or for predictive maintenance, reducing costs substantially when compared to the more labor-intensive status quo process used today.

In practice, digital twins are still relatively new for civil and transportation engineers but the concept extends to all infrastructure assets including rails, roadways and bridges. The result is a computerized model of the actual build, which can be accessed online from anywhere. The construction team can then remotely observe all stresses or damage due to various causes such as weather or heavy traffic patterns and the intelligent digital twin model can even assist by suggesting appropriate maintenance timing decisions.

Surveying Existing Conditions

In the past, before a design for a facility could be started, a CAD technician would draw in all of the existing piping and other utilities to give the designers a sense of where the new piping could potentially fit within the space. With laser scanning, all pipe locations can now be captured in an instant and uploaded to a BIM model for incorporation into the drawings. Similarly with drones, instead of having surveyors physically gather spot elevations across an entire site—which is expensive and time consuming—much of this data can be gathered quickly with a few drone flyovers to create a 3D surface of the ground profile that is easily merged into the BIM model with little effort by the CAD technician.

Digital Inspection Technology

Documenting construction progress, material quantities, labor and other important project metrics is another area that has seen significant improvements in recent years. In the past, construction inspectors simply completed daily reports with a pen, paper and clipboard while possibly snapping a few photos with their phone, which may or may not have been uploaded with the report.

Today, there are dedicated digital platforms that allow inspectors to gather, share and act on data from the jobsite in real time, streamlining the decision-making process from key stakeholders and ensuring everyone on the project team is working with the latest information. For some owners, using this technology has reduced construction claims by as much as 75% and increased productivity by 24%.

The COVID-19 Pandemic and Technology

Reliance on technology has exploded through the pandemic as business functions that were previously completed in person are now being performed offsite. Through the pandemic, construction organizations were forced to adapt to a new normal of working which more often than not included the introduction of new technologies to the team. During this time, many technology companies realized massive growth as construction partners frantically upgraded their technological capabilities to streamline communication and improve team collaboration.

Many forward-thinking organizations are embracing remote work as a permanent change to keep in place even after the pandemic is over. Those who are unwilling to change have found it difficult to find success in this new environment, in many cases causing layoffs and other cost-cutting measures to take place. This trend is expected to continue as firms that have embraced technology are able to execute projects at lower costs while simultaneously providing more value to their clients.

Where is Construction Technology Heading Next?

Over the past several years, many construction technology companies have released their own individual software solutions that serve a particular business function within the construction project lifecycle. For instance, one company may offer a software package for creating a 3D model of a building while another company offers a solution that allows drone operators to capture topographic surveys. The platforms are used entirely independently of each other and if the construction organization wants to merge the data across platforms, they must do this manually. This might mean physically entering spot elevations from the topographic survey into the CIM model to create a 3D surface, for instance.

The Rise of Integrated Platforms

Having these siloed solutions offers some key benefits. For instance, if a single platform malfunctions, the other platforms continue to function without issue. Also, technology companies can focus on very niche areas of the project execution process rather than spreading themselves too thin by trying to offer everything on a single platform. A software solution that attempts to offer all of the components on a single platform with every piece being interconnected and interdependent is known as monolithic architecture, and case studies have shown that it may cause more problems than it solves.

At the same time, using many different platforms that can’t integrate information causes workflow inefficiencies and limits the analytical power of any individual platform. This is why the construction technology industry is shifting towards modular architecture, where separate platforms are developed but can integrate with each other, increasing the quantity and speed at which data can be transferred and analyzed. Using defined data standards for information exchange between innovations can improve the quality, compatibility and usability of the information collected.

Modular architecture offers several key advantages over monolithic architecture, which is why the strongest construction platforms continue to develop independently while offering more opportunities for integration.

Engineering and construction companies that position themselves to take advantage of the many different platforms that make project execution more efficient will dominate the market in the coming decades, while others will likely struggle to compete on cost alone. It is unlikely that a single platform will encompass the entire bundle of services required throughout the project lifecycle, as this causes vulnerabilities in the system and limits the continuous improvement of any given service. Instead, different platforms that are currently offered as standalone solutions will continue to integrate with other software solutions, giving the user a robust network of solutions that are constantly evolving to meet new challenges as they arise.

by George White
George White’s career has been focused on working with stakeholders in the infrastructure and construction industries to bring technology to the forefront in their operations. During his tenure at HeadLight, he has managed diverse teams and overseen numerous technology projects for customers ranging from Fortune 500 organizations to the federal government. George is recognized as an innovator in the transportation construction industry and provides more than 10 years of management experience and more than 15 years of industry knowledge and connections to the company. George currently serves on an industry-leading technical steering committee alongside members of state and federal government, private sector and academia.

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