CXO Bytes

Can IOT transform the construction industry?


The Internet of Things (IOT) is widely considered to be a key enabler of the ongoing fourth industrial revolution, dubbed Industry 4.0, even regarded as playing the role of its central nervous system. Powered by IOT, smart factories are witnessing a rapid adoption around the world – a whopping 72% of manufacturing industry decision makers surveyed recently by Microsoft and Intel said that they are currently implementing their smart factory strategy. The survey interviewed 500 senior and mid-level managers in manufacturing companies in US, Europe and Asia.


Notably, IOT and other technologies underpinning the fourth industrial revolution also present a rare opportunity for the global construction industry to catch up with manufacturing in embracing cutting-edge technologies for higher productivity and operational efficiencies. However, the question: whether the industry is ready for wide and pervasive adoption of smart and connected construction on the lines of smart factories is moot.


What is revealing though is that IOT holds the same promise for the construction industry as it does for manufacturing – real time monitoring and diagnostics, optimum asset utilization, reduced downtime and improved worker safety – all of which lead to significant improvements in operational efficiencies, productivity, and ultimately, margins.


A better understanding of how this is possible requires us to first understand how IOT works. In simplest terms, the Internet of Things simply refers to Internet-connected sensors and devices that are typically embedded in machinery and equipment. These sensors continually collect specific and precise data related to the performance of the equipment they are embedded in; and then transfer this data in real-time to a central monitoring or analyzing software, using the Internet – either Wifi, or increasingly, 4G or 5G mobile Internet networks.


The ‘connected’ sensors have evolved significantly in recent years and have become much more affordable today, not to mention being incredibly powerful as well. In the construction domain, these sensors can be embedded in all construction equipment or even in the hard hats worn by construction workers.


The real-time data collected and communicated by these ‘connected’ sensors in turn is valuable enough to aid real-time monitoring and quick decision-making by project supervisors and senior professionals, which can dramatically shorten the time it takes to complete a specific segment, and cumulatively the entire project. For example, IOT sensors embedded in inventory storage can monitor the quantity of materials available on site and alert supervisors if the levels fall below a threshold, so that work is not delayed for shortage of materials.


Enabling data-driven construction

For the construction companies, the biggest draw for using IOT is collecting and analyzing real-time digital data from each machine, equipment, team, workflow, and process. Access to real-time data also means that corrective action can be taken much faster in case of any deviations from the schedule, mitigating errors and rework. Further, the data can also be used to train AI and ML systems – enabling companies to forecast future trends, outcomes, and gain an edge while bidding and estimating construction costs.


In fact, the application of IOT in the real estate or infrastructure construction industry extends far beyond the actual construction process and is beneficial while a building or structure is in actual use. For example, connected sensors embedded in elevators, escalators, lighting, plumbing and HVAC systems of a building can help quickly diagnose and resolve any maintenance issues, so that there are fewer breakdowns. No wonder that ‘smart buildings’ are increasingly becoming popular in most developed countries.


Similarly, IOT sensors embedded in railway or road bridges can send alerts in case of any cracks or other structural weaknesses that are otherwise discoverable only through close human inspection, leading to improved safety and performance.


IOT and Digital Twins

The complete digitalization and seamless data exchange between all construction workflows and processes is at the core of what we term as ‘Connected Construction’, the next stage of evolution for the construction industry. ‘Connected construction’ combines hardware (including IOT sensors), software and services to provide each project stakeholder with all the data they need for faster and accurate decision making.


The adoption of digital twins – or accurate, as-built digital replica of a building or structure – alongside IOT further unlocks the value of connected construction. Digital twins are either created as constructible BIM models using software like Tekla Structures, or in case of an existing structure, by gathering and combining real-world information about the structure using 3D laser scanners, drones, sensors, cameras, and other IoT-related devices. When supported by IoT and AI, a digital twin is able to learn from multiple sources and automatically update to reflect adjustments made to its real-world counterpart.


Ultimately, IOT and complementary technologies like AI and digital twins have the power to dramatically transform how construction companies bid for, manage, and execute even the most complex projects within time and at lower costs. As we noted at the beginning, the global manufacturing industry is already leading in the adoption of IOT to create ‘smart’ factories. Transitioning to smart, ‘connected construction’ will allow the construction industry to march in tandem with manufacturing and herald/embrace the fourth industrial revolution.


(The author is Mr. Paul Wallett, Regional Director for Trimble Middle-East and India region and the views expressed in this article are his own)

Leave a Response