Dr Stephen Hamil, Innovation Director at NBS, explores the growth of digital technology within the construction industry and how this is driving productivity
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Construction and technology
The biggest external factor influencing the construction industry is arguably the world’s rising urban population. This is forecast to grow from around four billion to more than six billion by 2045, creating a huge demand for increased construction.
A recent construction report from the McKinsey Global Institute found that the industry had made few improvements in productivity over the last 60 years. It went on to say that productivity could be greatly improved in a number of action areas. ‘Infusing’ digital technologies into construction processes is believed to be the most beneficial of these, providing a 14-15 per cent improvement on productivity.
But productivity and cost savings are not the only factors to consider. The Building a Safer Future proposals – published in response to the Grenfell tragedy – indicate that there will be legal requirements for the delivery of a ‘digital record’ for residential buildings, including plans, specifications and 3D models from planning stage through to occupation by 2020.
Time and time again, digital technology is presented as the answer to improve not just value but also safety. This is critical, as the industry rises to meet the challenge of a worldwide increase in construction. The industry recognises that this is the case, and as a result the development of standards defining information structures and processes has been happening worldwide. As part of the UK Government’s BIM mandate, the ‘1192’ series of standards was developed. More recently, as a global ISO initiative, the ‘19650’ series of standards (that build on the UK’s approach to BIM) have been developed.
Earlier this year the NBS Construction Technology Report examined how technology is now starting to be used throughout the project timeline. 3D models are being employed collaboratively to generate and communicate designs. The models are being checked throughout the process to verify data quality against
standards agreed in the execution plan. Additionally, this data is being shared in an agreed structure, with enforced permissions and workflows, in cloud-based extranets known as Common Data Environments (CDE). Building information modelling is far more than a 3D design software package, it is an interconnected platform of services from a number of software providers.
It seems that ‘cloud’ technology is having the biggest impact today, with 63 per cent of the industry using it in some form. The biggest benefit to both the team and the project is the ability to collaborate more effectively. In the cloud, many users can be invited to securely access, use and contribute to the data. This move from the traditional method of exchanging exports of information via paper or email is arguably the biggest change.
Across all the technologies examined in the NBS report, there was a recurring theme of not just utilising technology but also giving greater meaning and structure to the data. For example, within design tools, a 3D model built from objects is of more value than 2D drawings.
When generating documentation, a digital structured specification is of more value than a word processing file. And a CDE that models the construction workflow is of more value than a generic extranet. All of these solutions focus on giving data meaning, and all have built-in quality assurance to reduce the risk of mistakes being made.
Looking at the future technological landscape there will further improvements in machine learning and AI as we gather more ‘big data’ on the cloud. The data will be a combination of information developed through the design and construction of buildings, and material gathered from sensors monitoring asset performance.
As clients and their supply chains expand, there will be a demand for global standards. We have seen this with the development of standards such as industry foundation classes (IFC), geographical information system standards (GIS) and the Construction Operations Building information exchange (COBie) format.
Global standards allow physical assets to have digital meaning
Standardisation allows the data that is gathered to be more accurately analysed and processed, and when companies operate globally, international standards are required. The ISO 12006-2 compliant Uniclass classification system, for example, can be used by a private developer to consistently classify all of its built assets globally, irrespective of the local language.
The digital audit trail provides a record of decision points throughout the project timeline
In addition, information needs to go beyond being just a digital record of the serviceable items in a built asset. A transparent record of all decision points is what is ultimately needed if a better, safer built environment is to be created. Going forward, technology and common standards will make this achievable. The illustration above shows an example of this thread of digital information representing the decision-making process.
In conclusion, the BIM conversation has evolved from a sole focus on the 3D model to a rich cloud platform of connected technology from multiple providers. This opportunity to connect platforms will lead to an era of rapid innovation that will make the construction workflow much more efficient and more transparent for all.
For more information please visit the NBS website, email or call 345 456 9594.
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