During two days in the beginning of June, the most prominent innovators of the European construction industry gathered together in the Czech capital, Prague, to share ideas and experiences around digital construction. I joined the conference with mixed expectations, not sure whether I was about to see traditional ways of thinking prevail despite the declining productivity or to see indeed clear initiatives and latest innovations presented by forerunners of modern infrastructure construction.
Building construction is leading the way
The building construction industry knows how to be more productive. It was good to see in presentations how lean methods are more and more adopted in construction. We often mistakenly understand that lean would mean only lean construction, meaning the use of big rooms, last planner and improved cooperation in integrated project deliveries. However, the basic lean methods that were developed by Toyota are aiming at concentrating on value-adding tasks and reducing waste. Lean is a method for process development and a digital process with the use of modern BIM technology helps us achieve a whole new level of productivity.
One innovative lean solution already taken into use by the building industry is prefabrication. Kitchens and bathrooms can be tailored to individual customers, manufactured in a factory and finally installed on site using BIM and lean production methods. To actually make the change happen from traditional methods to the use of lean and BIM is naturally challenging. One construction company presented their approach in the form of digitalization change cookbook in order to mitigate the fear for the change.
There were numerous examples showing how virtual design and construction (VDC) methods were used in building construction. Sub-designs are used to produce 3D collaboration models which help to spot design mistakes before construction and simulate, how construction would proceed in practice. A digital twin of the construction project also helps to share information within the project team. New automated systems enable a production of an as-built model by automatically adjusting the location of building objects like various pipelines in a plant design.
It was particularly interesting to see the first solutions based on IOT, robotics, big data and Watson. IOT is all about sensors that you can install into a building to monitor almost all possible issues and to collect a bunch of information, i.e. a sort of ‘big data’ of the building. IBM Watson is an artificial intelligence system that can be taught to react on certain incidents. The system can monitor building temperature in different rooms, observe the reactions of the residents and even respond, if many residents say that there is too hot or too cold. The system can even distinguish meanings of speech. For instance, it recognizes when a word ‘hot’ points to a room temperature and when it can, for instance, refer to the outlook of a person. There were also examples on how 3D printing can be deployed to produce challenging building structures and how robotic trolleys can follow a construction worker and carry heavy loads on site.
Great digital initiatives start to emerge in infra construction
Despite all of the clear benefits achieved in building construction, it seems that still only few businesses have adopted VDC methods in civil engineering. Therefore I was excited to see the presentations given by construction giants like Ferrovial Agroman, Per Aarsleff, BAM and Bouygues Construction and to notice that they are all actively looking to digitalize also their civil construction projects.
I was particularly delighted to hear how application of new technology and innovations is now understood as a clear value generator for the project owners. Many of the contractors have in fact made big investments in the application of 3D and use of BIM models over the past three years, and further investments are in the plans.
The fact that VDC technology provides a holistic overview of a construction project, frees up time in the closing phase of tendering and makes the impact of design changes visible calms the nerves both at the office and on site. The use of VDC tools a daily basis ensures that possible construction issues can be handled on the fly without misunderstandings and unnecessary risks. Many of the speakers emphasized the need for open formats considering them a must to ensure a longer lifespan and accessibility of the design data.
Based on calculations made by one of the construction companies, the use of new digital tools is estimated to deliver a productivity improvement of around 15% and the enhanced collaboration and contracting is expected to result in cost savings of up to 10%. However, in order to succeed, the contractors clearly see that there is a need for respective processes and resources that together aim at enabling a new BIM-based collaboration.
In the evening of the first seminar day, when walking through the beautiful city centre of Prague and admiring successfully renovated old buildings, I felt confident that the infrastructure construction is finally breaking the prevailing trend of declining productivity. In the end, I found the summit extremely interesting since many of the most innovative European construction companies were present and was especially happy to notice how many of the large construction businesses are ambitious to implement new digital-based civil construction processes within the next few years.
About the author
Heikki Halttula (M.Sc.), President and CEO of Viasys VDC, has for over 30 years of experience in civil engineering including GIS and CAD software development as well as BIM and lean implementation projects. He is an active member of RIL Finnish Association of Civil Engineers, a member of Building Smart Finland Infra committee as well as a member of Finnish Transport and Communication Minister’s advisory group. His PhD research at the University of Oulu is focusing on the simultaneous use of BIM and lean methods in construction projects.