Posted by Ricardo J. Rodríguez - 19 May, 2022
About Ready for Next:
A series that explores the tech trends poised to disrupt the construction industry, culminating in an exclusive virtual event where Master Builders Solutions’ Global Digital Insights Strategist, Ricardo J Rodríguez, and construction tech experts will discuss how these main trends will shape the construction businesses worldwide. Please follow the link below should you wish to learn more and confirm your attendance.
Acknowledging a Transformative Opportunity
The adoption of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is one of the most significant tech opportunities of this century. The last few years have seen an explosion in machine learning and AI use. AI is already prevalent in several other sectors, from traffic management systems on roads to digital advertising and stock trading. All these examples have shown that AI is not just science fiction anymore. Recent advances in technology such as cloud computing and big data have allowed businesses to process unprecedented amounts of data, automatically organizing and interpreting it at scale. Automation in construction helps monitor and manage projects remotely with continuous feedback, innovative methods for pre-construction planning, designing, bidding document management, and post-construction operations.
This week’s Ready for Next post aims to demystify this topic and expand it beyond the “buzz words” common throughout the press. It’s essential to discuss what AI is (what is not), some relevant use cases for the construction industry, and how to get started adapting to its uses in our everyday practices. Artificial Intelligence is not a single “thing” that businesses can procure but rather a set of learning statistical models and algorithms which the system can integrate into several other functions.
While emerging technology and AI have made significant inroads into the construction industry, more could be on the horizon. According to the Associated General Contractors of America, the industry will lose roughly 200,000 jobs to automation in ten years1. Further research indicates that 49% of workers displaced by 2057 would gain new jobs with different skill sets2. That significantly impacts employment prospects in the long run. At present, these emerging skillsets could directly improve the shortage of skilled laborers, continuously plaguing the industry. By implementing AI, gaps in staff can be alleviated while concurrently increasing productivity, reducing costs, and enhancing safety. Considering the breadth of research available, it’s not unreasonable to expect that the construction industry is set for an AI revolution.
What is AI & ML?
While AI has been around for a while, its potential benefits have only recently been more “in the open.” Whether you are aware or not, you use AI every day. By carrying a smartphone in your pocket, you already have a library of AI algorithms at your fingertips. Most of these are integrated into most apps and actively help navigate your experience. This relationship is also bi-directional. For instance, social media platforms harness our personal and usage data to develop new interactions, suggest advertisements, and even manipulate our needs & wants to influence spending habits subconsciously3.
Let’s clarify that AI is, in essence, software. By AI, we do not mean robots. An AI would be the software that helps a piece of robotic equipment (hardware) perform a task. Artificial intelligence allows computer systems to mimic human cognitive functions such as learning and problem solving, with applications in various fields, including construction.
As illustrated below, AI is the broader “umbrella” term, and it’s beneficial to clarify the following further - All ML is part of AI, but not all AI is ML; DL occurs within AI and is a subset of ML but not all AI is DL. For some additional reference, below are more formal definitions of some terms related to AI4:
Artificial Intelligence (AI) - Artificial intelligence is intelligence demonstrated by machines instead of the natural intelligence displayed by animals, including humans.
Machine Learning (ML) - Machine learning is the study of computer algorithms that can automatically improve through experience and data. It is seen as a part of artificial intelligence.
Deep Learning (DL) - is part of a broader family of machine learning methods. It is based on computing systems inspired by biological neural networks with techniques that allow a plan to engage in feature detection or automatic classification from raw data.
*Note: All terms shared under creative commons (via Wikipedia)
The Ability to Do More with Less
With the help of Big Data and Artificial Intelligence (AI), the industry will automate the most basic functions of construction work, making it possible to track progress in real-time. It will be possible to gather data from various sensors and feed it into AI applications to decide which materials are needed for each construction area. While AI is unlikely to replace a human workforce in the short term, we’re already seeing how it sets the stage for practical solutions in construction robotics, drones, and machinery. AI may monitor workers, equipment, and materials on the site. AI-empowered systems can also provide predictive feedback and, alert stakeholders of productivity concerns safety risks, and mitigate errors before they happen., Despite the predictions of massive job losses, AI is unlikely to replace the human workforce in the short term.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is a powerful tool for construction businesses. By automating repetitive tasks, AI can improve efficiency and productivity, helping businesses thrive. Below, we summarize the overarching and tangible benefits driving the case for AI adoption:
- Increase efficiency: AI allows you to plan the whole design-development-execution lifecycle of a project and manufacture buildings in an off-site facility instead of building them on-site, allowing your company to be more efficient with labor and materials.
- Reduce cost: AI can help improve productivity by reducing errors, cutting down labor costs, and improving quality control.
- Identify risks: AI can identify unknown risks that could impact your project’s outcome before they become problems.
- Improve safety: AI makes it easier for workers to perform dangerous or difficult tasks due to their location or require repetitive motion.
In construction operations, AI has the potential to manage project schedules, track workflows, and provide real-time information to help predict maintenance issues before they arise. These technologies can also be used for risk avoidance and safety planning by analyzing past incidents to predict future ones, reducing accidents on-site or on the road.
Some companies use AI tools like machine learning algorithms to create predictive maintenance programs that monitor equipment performance over time and predict when equipment may need repairs before they become critical issues. This effort helps prevent equipment failures during peak construction when there may not be enough staff to do preventive maintenance like changing filters or lubricating moving parts. Other companies use machine vision technology combined with drones and robotics to inspect projects from above rather than having inspectors walk through each building on-site during every inspection cycle.
AI in construction will allow builders to monitor and manage projects remotely and track progress throughout the day. The construction industry is getting more automated, enabling intelligent decision-making and smoother execution of projects. Adopting these tools may also open new possibilities for cloud & web-enabled services. Internet of things (IoT) and connected devices will make building safer & data analytics will become more accurate.
AI enables construction companies to automate processes, optimize designs and generate insights that lead to cost savings and increased profits. With so many potential benefits, it’s no wonder that more and more companies are implementing AI in their operations. AI has the potential to transform construction businesses by automating tasks and reducing time spent on mundane tasks.
AI is already being used to increase accuracy and quality control in the construction industry. It helps you catch mistakes early before they become costly problems. AI also improves efficiency by managing resources more effectively. For example, it can help companies plan entire projects at once instead of handling each phase separately. This approach allows for better coordination between teams working on different project stages.
While AI has many benefits and can help improve efficiency in many areas, it isn’t always easy to implement immediately into a product or service. For each AI project or program, its approach or business problem needs to be tailored to the organization’s context. Construction companies can leverage several benefits from implementing AI into their operations. Below we explore a few relevant use cases:
Generative & Optimized Designs - Construction companies typically rely on manual methods to produce designs for new buildings or structures. These designs lack accuracy due to human error and are highly speculative. With the help of AI, companies can generate better designs using generative design tools that provide automated support from concept to completion. These tools can also change existing design layouts without going back and forth between different programs or toolsets. AI can help construction companies design buildings faster and more effectively by automating repetitive tasks such as generating production drawings and optimizing them for space usage, energy efficiency, and other factors. This gain resulted in improved designs that save time and money for stakeholders. For example, several architectural design firms use AI to help their teams generate more than one thousand data-driven floorplans options per day and fewer mistakes or omissions.
- Cost Estimating - In addition to improving quality control, AI also helps construction companies estimate project costs more accurately by considering design models, local labor costs, material prices, and availability. Many large construction projects involve multiple contractors who need accurate estimates for materials, labor costs, and other expenses before working on a project site. Additionally, AI may analyze historical data from similar projects versus current market conditions and coordinate across all parties.
- Risk Avoidance & Safety Planning - AI helps understand what could go wrong by taking preventative measures against accidents or failures. This technology can also help with forensic accident investigation by analyzing data from sensors and other devices to determine root causes for incidents like fires or equipment failures. The use of AI in safety planning allows contractors to identify high-risk areas before work begins and develop mitigation plans accordingly, such as developing alternative routes or providing additional training on equipment usage. AI systems can also be used for safety planning purposes by analyzing risks associated with each stage of construction activities. AI can quickly analyze large amounts of data and accurately assess risk factors related to construction projects, helping contractors better plan their schedules and avoid hazards before they materialize.
- Critical-Path Planning - Contractors can use artificial intelligence to plan out their workflows more efficiently, including when construction equipment should be moved or which specific equipment should be used over another. By using big data analytics, companies can determine how long tasks will take and when they should be completed. Platforms could then create a schedule based on this information that optimizes workflow efficiency throughout the entire project lifecycle. This analysis will lead to significant time savings for contractors who typically spend hours on such tasks. AI can process large amounts of data more quickly than humans can, which helps you make better business decisions based on real-time information.
- Alleviate Staff Shortages - Construction companies face a severe lack of skilled labor due to retirement and demographic shifts. The result is often understaffed crews, which leads to delays, cost overruns, and safety risks. Companies can reduce the number of workers required for specific tasks without sacrificing quality or efficiency. Some services allow the capability to perform repetitive tasks at high accuracy rates while reducing human error.
Real-Time Monitoring (productivity & operations) - In addition to alleviating staff shortages, AI also helps improve productivity through real-time tracking of projects, allowing managers to identify bottlenecks quickly. Artificial intelligence will enable businesses to monitor their operations by collecting data from sensors installed at different sites, equipment, and machinery. Mobile devices used by workers on site may help visualize required adjustments in real-time to achieve maximum productivity while maintaining safety standards.
- Predictive Maintenance - Based on usage patterns, AI can help predict when a piece of equipment or tool will fail and thus schedule maintenance ahead of time, reducing downtime and improving productivity and safety. Data collected through sensors can be analyzed using big-data analytics software to identify patterns and trends that may lead to better on-site decision-making processes.
- Industrialized Construction - AI allows you to plan the whole design/development/execution lifecycle of a project and manufacture buildings in an off-site facility, allowing companies to be more efficient with labor and materials. Off-site building manufacturing and modular construction allow multiple crews to work on different project parts concurrently, as in an assembly line, reducing waste and increasing time to delivery. Delays due to weather, material availability, or other factors which can significantly delay construction projects are minimized.
How to Get Started
Construction companies must start implementing AI within their operations to overcome the inherent capability/experience gap and increase productivity within their businesses. Not kicking off AI capabilities would result in an inability to leverage their traditional business and an accelerated inability to remain competitive in their markets. Companies can start by identifying the problem areas they want to improve and the tangible value they want to see from AI. Once they have identified these, they can start looking for AI resources and experts to make their pilot projects successful. Below is a quick guide to some additional steps to accelerate AI-enabled digitalization and tech innovations in construction businesses:
- Digital Transformation and AI implementation are first and foremost driven by culture change and willingness. They are rarely technical-first endeavors.
- Leadership that considers digital-first capabilities integral to business continuity.
- Develop program governance and framework that aligns investment, support, and digital innovation within an innovation platform.
- Acknowledge the AI experience/maturity gap of your organization.
- Provide accessible AI educational resources.
- Starting small by developing pilot programs to validate concepts, ensure “quick wins,” and address tangible business value.
- Hire digital tech & AI in-house experts driven and with the mission to transform the organization.
- Consider developing a lean reporting and analytics system to enable data-driven decision-making.
- Access to structured data is usually the most complex effort. Alleviate this by establishing a task force focused on data integration, storage, and maintenance.
A Present Future
When we visualize the future, we often picture robots and AI-controlled machines which help us in our everyday lives. Rather than focusing on a sci-fi version of this distant future, we should consider leveraging what’s within the grasp of construction industry professionals today. We trust this week’s post provided a better insight into how artificial intelligence helps construction businesses. From predicting risk factors to optimizing efficiency on a broad scale, AI comes with no shortage of capabilities and opportunities. Some would argue that the “machine” take-over is not in the future, but we have yet to notice it has already happened. In contrast, I would suggest we acknowledge that AI is more likely to change how individual roles and services are performed by empowering our business practices rather than entirely replacing them.
The current global economy is manifested both digitally and physically concurrently. The construction industry has long been content with operating exclusively in a physical space, mistakenly believing that the virtual and physical operate independently. Rather than limit our industry’s reach to 50% of the market, it would be in our interests (and responsibility) to be curious about ways to expand our playing field comprehensively. The main scenario that our companies must work to avoid is becoming subservient to parties outside of their industry – i.e., “big-tech” – which have the resources and capabilities to scale up their influence drastically.
The systemic changes required to operationalize several of these trends are fundamental. To start small, organizations may initially use AI to automate mundane / production tasks, freeing up time for their staff to perform more creative or higher value work. Data is the lifeblood of any business, so organizations need to ensure that they embrace data management earnestly. Still, the most significant of these changes is developing a corporate culture of growth and learning. It is crucial to commit support and resources from C-level leaders to create sustainable business models that allow their organizations to compete in the digital-first 21st century.