The construction industry is made up of a complex network of stakeholders, processes, and decisions that all need to maintain perfect cohesion and cadence for the successful delivery of a project. Construction projects are only growing more complex and the need for streamlining existing processes and developing new is mandatory to sustain the global growth forecasted.
This article will take the audience through the next generation of processes and workflows looking to expedite existing methods and even bypass them entirely to deliver projects with substantially less risk and better design in the end. We’ll dive into the construction workflow, breaking it down into its parts and pieces that operate together to produce, in the end, an asset or structure that will occupy this physical world for years to come. We’ll examine innovative new processes and technologies, as well as how these methods integrate for defining what it means to deliver a project. And we’ll highlight one of many case studies looking to bridge the gap between the physical and digital with robotics, mobile mapping, and virtual design and construction to expedite the construction workflow.
The Construction Workflow
Our current construction workflow is broken. It is segmented, it is manual, it allows for the entrance of risk at many stages of the process. Construction innovation and development have grown leaps and bounds in the past few years, yet we are still not seeing the true potential in productivity we were hoping for when we “plugged in” technology and read through the infamous McKinsey report again. Many advancements have been made in off-site construction, but these have yet to match the scale of our current industry capabilities.
BIM has been seen as a necessity for the construction industry and has a fixed place in every stakeholder’s toolbelt if they hope to remain competitive. As of recently, many initiatives from large vendors revolve around not only making BIM better, but more accessible and connected. BIM does not do the project much good if it lives with the architect alone, used to create plans and issued for construction. Autodesk has democratized BIM for all parties and stakeholders in the industry with their BIM 360 platform and its corresponding modules. We have seen BIM as a necessity for communicating to all stakeholders past the designers, even past the general contractor, and into the hands of those actually building the project.
We have had a fragmented workflow for so long that the most innovative ideas come from connecting the steps between designing and building. These connections enable fluidity of data first, and by creating this link, they enable automation. This is where Autodesk has begun building the next solution for our industry, Autodesk Forge, to connect the large amounts of data being created and collected. Construction automation is more than robotics, whether on-site or in a factory. It's how we can connect disparate systems today as well as create new systems that enable more turn-key production. This is the construction workflow and it involves a multitude of pieces that must operate seamlessly to simply maintain the industry standard productivity metrics.
Tony Sabat discusses the construction workflow, including how automation and digitization can bring positive change.
So as some technologies and innovations move the needle, why are we still seeing a crawl in construction productivity? We have developed better and smarter ways of planning projects and mitigating risks before construction even begins, but if we plan according to our same ways, we will continue to be as productive as we have always been. Looking beyond the planning stages, if the plan or schedule is not followed, we will continue to see schedule and budget overages. Much gets lost in translation when innovations attempt to move from the office to the field.
If we think of the typical workflow of construction, we have so many steps and processes needed to operate in exact order and timing. Before construction actually begins, the number of variables in this workflow are minimal. We have a broad-stroke idea of the design intent and schedule process. Once the design has been refined and all schedule variations have been vetted, the only next step is to press ‘Go’ and hope everything operates exactly as planned. As most in the industry know, construction has a poor reputation for staying under budget and on time. As soon as construction begins, the number of variables increases exponentially, and along with that the amount of risk. Prefabrication, off-site construction, and other similar innovations have been seen as so effective and attractive because the processes are still very similar, but they are in a much more controlled environment where they create parallel construction segments that then need to only “plug and play” once they enter the job site. When you can mitigate the risk, you can mitigate wasted time and wasted expenses.
Typical building installations do not seem to be variables, however. All materials brought on-site and all installation standards have been specified and strictly reviewed to ensure that once the space is built, it will stand for decades. So these pieces of the equation have already been “solved for” in relation to our overall construction equation. If we have designed the building properly to standard codes, planned for a majority of visible risks that could occur during construction and before, where then do the variables come from? Why do so many projects end up over budget and past schedule even when contingency has already been incorporated? Where are the opportunities for true productivity enhancements?
To dive into this topic, let’s take a look at how the innovation group at construction firm Swinerton has observed construction processes in their more than 100 active job sites per year. Eric Law is the senior director of Technology and Innovation at Swinerton and leads a group studying and testing current practices while assessing new processes and innovations. When looking at a macro scale of all projects, their productivity metrics were inexact and causing, on average, an invoicing cycle of 90 days for approval and final payment. Much of this schedule ballooning developed from an inexact method of inspections adequately quantifying work completed.
This idea of subjectivity and interpretation is common to many job sites and the onus is not only on the inspectors, but also on the installer. One set of plans built by 20 different subcontractors can be interpreted 20 different ways. While it may be standard for the industry, this introduces a large amount of variety that limits the potential for repeatability and scale from project to project. Buildings are designed as specified and should be built as specified. Design intent and the progression of such should be binary, not open to interpretation.
One reason BIM has had such profound impacts on construction is the graphical representation used to depict a structure to a certain level of development. BIM is able to give much more perspective to how floorplans tie together and how construction details look on paper and should be constructed on-site. BIM, in a sense, removes the opportunity for interpretation from 2D plans and details. Swinerton has fully adopted BIM and VDC practices and sees such technologies as a necessity for project success. From there, though, the process for ensuring that the design intent is strictly followed is another step of the workflow with a different set of variables.
Construction companies must reevaluate processes and embrace innovative technologies to keep up with the pace of change, as Tony Sabat explains.
Eric’s group at Swinerton is very knowledgeable about different progress monitoring and tracking solutions on the market, from 360-degree cameras and depth sensing cameras to high definition laser scanning. 360-degree cameras and depth sensing cameras are incredible tools and serve a purpose for communicating project progress easily with the push of a button. Being able to share with stakeholders a daily street view interface of your construction project can be a great enhancement for maintaining transparency on the job site. These tools are incredibly effective at generating a high level of visual fidelity and informing the right user that a certain installation has or has not been installed. But some of these solutions, along with photogrammetry, fall short of what the industry sees as dimensional fidelity, the idea of being able to measure with accuracy and precision the data being captured. So although it can be a huge value-add to see the site as if actively walking around it, it is limited by the ability of being able to measure with confidence if an installation is in compliance with the design plans.
Dimensional fidelity, then, aims to capture accurate and verifiable data that measures objects and structures versus estimating. For dimensional fidelity, high definition laser scanning is the route to pursue for achieving incredibly high accuracy. With such high accuracy of a site, progress monitoring is computed and looked at objectively. Once design intent has been documented with a model, the next step is to compare and measure deviations from the reality model. This is a similar approach to coordination within a building model, but now with as-built data.
Avvir is one group impacting the construction industry that does this exclusively. Avvir sees the dire need for accurate modeling and building documentation as well as the verifiable results generated by laser scanning. Avvir is able to consume multiple data sets and compare reality data against the design model and plans. These will render a deviation analysis report to provide the site with feedback showing what has been installed and to within what tolerance.
Even with this potential workflow, one solution cannot stand on its own for construction productivity, which is why many companies are seeing the benefits of developing and refining what is called a construction technology stack. Like many construction innovations, although they may work in a few use cases, they can rarely scale to the industry as a whole. This workflow, although accurate and objective, is a very time consuming and laborious manual process. The deviation analysis or inspection workflow is only effective with the laser scan data coming in at a rate consistent with that of the schedule. The building model should change minimally throughout construction, but the as-built condition of the project should change every day ideally. The need for Swinerton was to find a solution that could be deployed frequently, similar to site monitoring with a camera, but with the dimensional fidelity resembling laser scanning.
This is where robotics becomes useful. Boston Dynamics has been gaining much attention for their autonomous Spot robot that is able to traverse incredibly tough terrains, self navigate, and even open doors if need be. Spot would be a perfect addition to the Swinerton workflow to now automate this physical capture process for design validation. Spot is able to roam a site in a preprogrammed manner, capture various areas autonomously, and then deliver back the data captured.
Robotics and other next-generation construction tools are key to bridging the digital and physical.
Now that we have a new workflow, Spot allows for physical automation of that workflow, with one caveat: the digital registration and assembly of the reality data. Spot is able to autonomously capture the data, but static scanning requires manual registration, or stitching, of the data together to then be compiled into an overall as-built model ready for BIM comparison.
Even with the automation of a workflow, even if it is a slower manual workflow, it is still time consuming and does not meet the needs of Swinerton being able to turn around data at a rate fast enough to be effective. Boston Dynamics enables incredible autonomy for this problem, but speed is as vital as accuracy, so a combination must be found.
Scaling Your Workflows
Swinerton has been investigating many solutions to solve this problem, from high-end laser scanning to low-end cameras, but the two were on each extreme of the reality capture spectrum for as-built conditions. A solution that met accuracy with speed was needed and mobile mapping solutions seemed to be the next evolution in the industry. For this, Swinerton turned to Kaarta.
Kaarta is a mobile mapping company that actually began in the robotics industry. They saw the need for building more accurate maps of environments for the construction market, but at a pace that can keep up with it as well. Swinerton has explored mobile mapping solutions before, but Kaarta was the next piece of the puzzle needed to fully flesh out this workflow. Kaarta integrated their Stencil 2-32 mobile laser scanner—which offers incredible range and accuracy for capturing detailed spaces such as construction sites—with Spot. Enough of the site was captured while Spot moved around at its own pace without stopping. With terrestrial laser scanning efforts, Spot would have to stop at prespecified waypoints to take a scan, but with Kaarta, Spot can walk the entire site and register the data as it is being captured. The advantage of using mobile scanning is not only the increased amount of coverage of the existing site conditions but also the speed of capture.
With the integration of Spot and Kaarta, this conceptual workflow can become a true use case with a potential to impact hundreds of other construction projects. The concept works on paper: scan, compare, approve or deny, and repeat. But to do this traditionally just introduces more variables that the original solution was designed to reduce. Swinerton looks at how and when innovations will create a tipping point in the industry where the market will no longer have a choice but to pivot. By creating and automating this verification process from capture to analysis, they converted a typically subjective workflow into an objective or binary process that can begin to coordinate with other variables on the project.
Cash Flow Optimization
Swinerton can scan regularly with this solution stack and is able to then generate results back to all involved stakeholders of the project. With this amount of feedback, they are now looking at how this can impact other aspects of the project, such as payments. What this workflow has enabled is the promise of cash flow optimization. Having an accurate measure of the exact amount of work completed per day, week, etc., now allows them to invoice to a finer level of granularity, taking a lengthy invoicing schedule from 90 days to 10 days or less.
Swinerton is now seeing benefits from both sides of the spectrum for projects. With the ability to pay partners in shorter increments and facilitate more nimble payment methods, other parties are able to scale as well and utilize that same level of agility for maintaining cash flow without waiting for payments. On the other end, projects are able to more accurately invoice, but also have a much more accurate understanding of work completed versus planned. They have created a simple binary workflow that reduces the risk of inconsistencies as the project progresses and can therefore ensure projects go according to schedule, if not better. Being able to mitigate risk and deliver projects as expected, or potentially cheaper and faster, is a huge competitive advantage in such a tight-margin industry. Learn more about this case study.
Many construction innovations have demonstrated incredible innovation of typical construction workflows, but what many of them lack is the scale with which they can be applied. The secret to scale is repeatability—our ability to do what we have done again. By reducing the number of variables in your processes and by automating and connecting the necessary processes in your workflows, you can begin to disrupt your own workflows with the potential to disrupt the entire industry.
Tony Sabat is a consultant, adviser, and writer in the AEC/Built World industries focusing on innovative and disruptive technologies and processes. He specializes in workflow, technology integration, and implementation. Tony has experience in the industry working from many different vantage points from the surveyor/engineer to the general contractor/construction side, and now to the consulting and product side. Tony focuses primarily on digital twin technology, virtual design and construction, BIM, project delivery, and distributed ledger technology.