The Digital Future Is Here, and Modeling Is the Key

Steve Jones of Dodge Data & Analytics shares his take on technology trends shaping the industry.

The future of construction is digital — and, particularly in some parts of the world, it’s already here. That’s the message from Steve Jones, senior director of industry insights research at Dodge Data & Analytics, who made his case during a presentation to construction and industry executives at the United Rentals 2019 Total Control & Innovation Conference in San Antonio, Texas.

Model-driven automated equipment, model-driven offsite fabrication and 3D printing, digital twins — “this is not science fiction, this is happening right now,” Jones told Project Uptime in advance of the conference. In his presentation, he highlighted numerous futuristic examples of technology-driven projects that have already happened, all with the help of modeling, which Jones painted as the crux of the digital transformation.

“From my perspective, modeling is probably the biggest single important platform for all of this,” he told the executives. Some of the key takeaways from his presentation:

Contractors are now driving modeling

“Contractors at this point are driving this digital modeling bus,” said Jones. With a model in hand, he added, they are finding incredible ways to use it.

Jones cited the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge East Span replacement project, a massive, uniquely challenging undertaking. “They knew what the risks were, they could figure out that there’s five key things that might go wrong. Old world, you just start the project, cross your fingers and hope it doesn’t happen.” But the model allowed them to develop contingency plans for each identified risk, from unforeseen subsurface obstructions to late delivery of prefabricated seismic joints.

We’ll see more model-driven printing

“Model-driven printing is going to become very huge,” said Jones. He referenced a three-story house printed in two days in China for $160,000, a fully 3-D printed office building in Dubai, and the longest 3-D printed concrete bridge in the world, also in China. An example that drew gasps from the audience was the 3-D printing of structural-strength steel with zero deflection.

“Multiple strands? Sure, just tell it to do multiple strands, it doesn’t care. Complex shapes? It doesn’t care,” said Jones.

Reality capture with modeling is adding certainty

Jones highlighted several projects that used modeling driven by reality capture, including an elevated 14-mile highway in Mexico City built in a heavily congested area.

“They laser-scanned the entire length. They had the exact, accurate geometry of all the existing conditions. They could then put into that point cloud the exact pieces of equipment they knew they were going to need to put in place. They knew the turning radius for every single crane in the whole 14-mile length. They knew they could fit the trucks where they were bringing them in, they knew they could put the lifts in place.”

“They modeled every single piece of rebar…every single individual piece of precast. They did a simulated build of the entire process and knew precisely what they were going to do every single day before they even went out and broke ground. What an incredible communications tool for the whole team.”

Modeling, Jones said, was the key to the project. “This is the difference between having a bunch of drawings and hoping for the best versus modeling something and bringing certainty to this crazy, uncertain process.”

Model-driven jobsite automation will increase

“You’re going to see a lot more automation,” Jones predicted. He pointed to projects that used models to tell bricklaying machines where to place which brick, with how much mortar. These machines, he noted, could spare the backs and knees of bricklayers while leaving masons to “do what masons have done for centuries”: strike beautiful joints.

Jones also cited an example of using a computer to drive what he called surgical excavation for a narrow, 40-feet-deep cut. Thanks to a model created using laser scanning, the contractor knew precisely how that excavator needed to behave every step of the way. The model talked to the computer in the cab of the excavator, which was “tricked out” with a camera on the front and GPS for “ears.” “Essentially, the model drove this machine,” Jones explained.

“Automating for real, perfect, surgically accurate performance of a machine — we‘re going to see a ton more of things like this,” he added.

The industry will shift toward component and modular

Another “very big” trend per Jones is the shift away from onsite construction. “What technology is now enabling is rethinking that whole process.”

He cited Project Frog. “They’ve got a really beautiful, architecturally designed kit of parts. You want to make it a data center, it can be a data center. You want a healthcare facility, it can be a healthcare facility. You want it to be a school, it can be a school.” The approach, he said, takes 50 to 90 percent of construction offsite.

He showed an example of a panelized component building. “People think ‘modular’ and they think ‘ugly.’ No. These things are beautiful.”

Of course, modular building is typically faster than traditional building. Jones highlighted a Kaiser Permanente component facility that normally would have taken 21 months to go from hiring an architect to generating money. “By working with the Project Frog folks, they did it in 11 ½ months, and it’s LEED Silver. It’s not a junky building, it’s a beautiful building; any one of us would be proud to have our name on it.”

Jones also pointed to several full volumetric projects happening in Europe.

“These are really power competitive advantages, but you need to be willing to make that leap and take this on. This is really going to be an increasingly important piece of our future.”

Modeling will transform how work is done at the workface

Models also are being used to bring contextual information to the worker at the workface. Jones told of a drywall contractor who’d been out of the field for five years. He was given a Microsoft HoloLens — no drawings, no tape measure — and was asked to put together a bathroom model. “They timed him and he was just as efficient as working with more conventional tools, and no documents were necessary. The model is essentially giving him all the instructions he needs right there through that HoloLens.”

"People will not believe 30 years from now that we didn’t have this."

Steve Jones, Senior Director of Industry Insights Research at Dodge Data & Analytics

Contractors should be prepared to deliver a digital twin

“All of this stuff is heading towards the digital twin,” said Jones. “You’re going to be finding yourselves asked more frequently by owners to give them that as a deliverable. They’re going to want a true digital version of whatever asset you’re doing, whether it’s infrastructure or a building, for handover to operations and maintenance.”

He described being able to walk through a space and, on a cellphone, look right through the ceiling to see what’s up there. “Simple things like that are just brilliant, easy and obvious.”

Jones went as far as to say that the industry is building a virtual double of the entire planet. “We’re going to have an accurate, virtual version of our world to work with because we are slowly but surely creating this on all the projects that we do.” Contractors won’t be hunting around for as-builts and asking how old they are. They will be able to know, for example, what’s underground before digging for a new sewer line and will therefore be able to route the line so it doesn’t conflict with existing below-grade infrastructure.

“People will not believe 30 years from now that we didn’t have this.”

Platforms will replace software

Adoption of digital technology will be easier as we move to what Jones calls a fully connected data environment, driven not by a multitude of competing, often incompatible, point-solution software applications but by platforms.

“Everything you’ll ever need to deal with will just be in the cloud,” said Jones. “It will feel like electricity in a plug. Do you think you have to worry about where that comes from? No, you just plug it in.”

Integrated, multi-party workflows

The continuing market demand for construction (despite a short-lived downturn Dodge predicts will begin next year) together with increasing resource constraints will drive the need for more innovation, more automation, and more clever uses of the data we’re now able to collect and generate, Jones argued. It will also drive new workflows. 

“Integration of what were formerly very separate tasks that happened in silos under different contracts are going to be all about these integrated, multi-party digital workflows. That’s the way to begin to think.”

Every company on a project will be the customer of every other company on the project, exchanging not necessarily money but information. “That’s the economy that we want to be dealing in. It’s an information economy,” explained Jones. “That’s what all these technology tools are there to support.”

The supply chain will evolve to support new project delivery methods

Looking further into the future, Jones said the traditional supply chain “is definitely going to evolve” to support multi-party digital workflows. “Who your customer is, when you have these customer relationships, everything is essentially up for grabs in this new world of the integrated digital workflow. That’s the future.”

Digital is a core competency

The bottom line, Jones told his audience: “Digital is a core competency now at every single one of your companies. It’s as important as estimating or anything else that we do.”

He elaborated to Project Uptime. “The competitive advantage that’s available to companies who have been more aggressive about it and are willing to take a risk is palpable. As we face what is likely to be a bit of a downturn coming up, the companies that have made the investment in how to work more efficiently and effectively by using technology will be able to do work at a slightly lower fee, and folks who didn’t are going to get hurt.”

Marianne Wait is an editor and writer who creates content for Fortune 500 brands.

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