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Connected construction: The future of an industry

For an industry infamous for delays and cost overruns, tech could be a savior.

Construction is the world's largest industry, comprising 13 percent of global GDP. And while construction projects are some of the most visible and tangible signs of economic progress, other statistics related to the industry don't reflect its dominant position: Productivity growth in construction has clocked in at a mere 1 percent over the past 20 years, and earnings before interest and taxes still hover around 5 percent, according to McKinsey.

In part this is because engineering and construction projects are famously complex and difficult to manage. They must bring together contractors, suppliers, equipment, labor, and supply chains, all within an estimated budget and timeline. Doing this intricate choreography well is almost impossible using manual processes. Yet, the adoption of digital tools in construction lags behind almost every other industry. With companies still attempting to manage complex workflows by hand, customers are frequently left dissatisfied by budget overruns and delays, many of which grab headlines for years. Those same problems hamper profit margins for fixed-price contracts. Even when construction firms do employ technological tools, they usually depend on several point solutions that neglect the bigger picture.

These operational challenges are finally being addressed through connected construction technology that unifies project elements, automates processes, and enables more streamlined functioning. This type of full-surround connectivity is poised to transform the industry.

"There's certainly a drive for having more integrated communications and process flows with multiple stakeholders," says Ross Davis, director of APJ critical facilities at Hewlett Packard Enterprise. "It's important that everyone's on the same page from feasibility and design to handover and operations."

Connecting the disconnected

A wide range of software and mobile apps exists to help construction companies manage all elements of their projects, from design and scheduling to project management and field reporting. The challenge for many contractors is that they have too many standalone tools that don't contribute to an integrated vision of the project workflow. Not only is it difficult to manage an array of disparate tools, but this siloed setup requires repetitive data entry and prevents compartmentalized data from informing the bigger picture.

When dealing with a patchwork of point solutions, "companies have to keep up with managing six or seven different systems that all have their own way of administrating things and don't share data with each other," says Sameer Merchant, vice president and global head of product development at Autodesk Construction Solutions, which makes a prominent connected construction platform. "You enter that same data three or four times in different systems and have to keep all this info in sync. No one has an overview of where there might be a breakdown in that data."

Technology managers are increasingly interested in finding a way for tools like these to talk to one another or in adopting a single platform that can encompass all the functions in one system. Shifting to this direction reduces overhead, decreases risk, provides more flexibility in managing and using data, and enables better communication among stakeholders. It's no wonder that a McKinsey study of the construction technology landscape shows a steady movement away from one-off tools and toward connected construction platforms.

What is connected construction?

Deloitte defines connected construction as "an ecosystem of connected job sites, machines, and workers that enhances operational effectiveness and safety" to create the "smart, connected job sites of the future."

In a connected construction environment, technology facilitates communication and increases visibility and control of process flows during the design and construction process. Sensors and tags are used to connect job sites, machines, and workers, allowing for real-time visibility and analytical capabilities for managers. Such technology also enables connection among machines in wide-ranging locations, collaboration among various work sites, and better oversight of worker safety. Connected construction components include asset tracking, synced time clocks, computer vision, augmented and virtual reality, real-time data analytics, and predictive maintenance. All of these elements are tied together to support centralized decision-making and management.

The connected network never sleeps, providing a constant stream of information and analytics to help guide project management. "It's that single platform that has capabilities that span across every phase of construction," says Merchant. "It supports the design phase, planning phase, and construction process itself in-field or in-office, and then during the handover and commissioning phase when facilities are handed to facilities management."

One example is the use of drone technology to conduct initial feasibility assessments of potential construction sites in remote locations. Drones can map sites and look for environmental issues, then transfer digital photography to create 3D models that managers can use to make decisions about a project. Using drones minimizes resources on the ground, bringing down the cost and difficulty of decision-making around feasibility.

With everyone on a project aligned and using the same set of information and communicating seamlessly, it becomes easier to minimize changes, address risks, and improve time and cost issues. "You use these technologies to get efficiencies in terms of the way the work is done and in terms of understanding where the materials are, where the labor is, what phase the project is in," explains Aijaz Hussain, research and insights leader for the engineering and construction industry at Deloitte. "You connect all the off-site and on-site facilities using those connected technologies. Sitting in New York, you can see what's happening in Houston. You can monitor a lot of elements using the command center that connected construction provides."

How connected construction is changing the industry

The rise of connected construction is setting up the industry for a new era of robust collaboration, transparency and control, and data-driven decision-making. These changes will affect more than just the day-to-day operations of the companies that use them; they will shift the entire approach to creating and managing construction projects in ways that may not be possible to predict.

"Looking at the big picture, it's about minimizing risks, providing more certainty of product quality, increasing collaboration, and giving better certainty around time," says Davis. Equipment and personnel can be used more effectively with less downtime. Decisions can be informed by predictive insights that trigger automated processes. And novel avenues for applying technology will become apparent as workflows proceed in new ways.

"As we talk to our clients, we are seeing many more tech capabilities that can be used by the engineering and construction industry, which would pave the way for more efficiencies and more profits and a more sustainable kind of a business model," says Hussain. "You don't want your business just to be making a thin profit. Companies are realizing that. The time is right."

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.