At the Digital Construction Week trade show in London, it was clear that the construction world is making measured progress toward digital transformation. Back-end data systems are evolving from storing data models to more interconnected digital twins.
One big challenge is that the construction industry is fragmented and not necessarily known for adopting innovative tech. After all, construction workers tend to be more proficient in wielding hand tools than typewriters. But this is starting to change as a younger generation, more comfortable with digital technology, enters the construction industry. That and the graphics are getting much better.
A picture speaks a thousand Gantt lines
I first spoke with Simon Beard, principal planner at Laing O’Rourke, working on the Everton Stadium in Liverpool. He has been working with cutting-edge 3D modeling and planning tools for about a decade and in the construction industry for about 23 years. He said the adoption of new digital workflows has been slow, but the COVID restrictions accelerated interest.
They adopted Bentley’s Synchro planning platform as a base layer for harmonizing all their planning data across teams. They are trying to juggle the best sequence of about 25,000 activities that could grow further before the project is complete. The graphics make it much easier for everyone to get on the same page. Beard says:
A picture speaks a thousand words. You can see only so much on a Gantt chart with lines and activities. We can project it up on a big immersive screen on-site, which has attracted a lot of positive attention. Now it’s one of our fundamental venues for coordination.
One screen shows a 4D model of the construction progress that can be rewound and forwarded. This allows different teams to spot problems collaboratively. A second screen composed of drone footage enables them to compare progress against the plan. A last screen lets them see the GANTT chart. Beard quips:
No-one ever looks at that. The planners do, but everyone else looks at the main screen to compare where we are with the drone images against the 4D model.
This has improved coordination and helped keep the giant stadium on time and on budget, which is a bit novel since Beard observed that many other recent stadium projects have struggled. The upshot is that other teams at Laing O’Rourke are exploring how to adopt a similar planning workflow.
From data to information
Next, I caught up with Daniel Biagi, co-founder of Voyansi, a digital twin consultancy in Madrid that has been building digital twins for 20 years before the term was even invented. He said the big innovation of the last couple of years had been the evolution from a common data environment to a common information environment. When he started, Autodesk Revit was all the rage for sharing 3D data across teams more efficiently. These days he thinks of Revit models on their own as digital twins of low maturity. He explains:
With data, you just access the model, drawing, spreadsheet, or takeoff, while in the digital twin, you access the information. Now you can see how it overlays and relates to other data. It also allows you to interact with data more comprehensively.
Another big difference is that these models were only an option for new construction projects built on digital tools from the get-go. Now he is helping construction and building operations teams jump-start the process with laser scans of existing facilities.
He is also seeing increased adoption of business intelligence tools to make sense of building progress and operations. He explains:
Five years ago, Power BI probably existed, but it was not something that we talked about. We talked about Excel and pivot tables, but now BI is more accessible to everyone through tools like Google Data Studio, Microsoft Power BI, and Amazon Quicksight. That definitely helped because it put insight into users’ hands that was only accessible through large platforms such as IBM and Oracle.
Build your own apps
Another big innovation has been the rise of digital twin platforms to help orchestrate data from various tools and partners. This allows construction teams and building operators to customize their viewports into these virtual worlds for their own needs and preference. One upshot is there are many ways to think about digital twins, from better 3D graphics on the one hand to better tools for updating numbers in a bespoke dashboard.
Brian K. Smith, Digital Twin Solution Architect at Invicara, which makes the Twinit digital twin platform for the built environment, says:
We joke that if you ask five people what a digital twin is, you’ll get ten different answers.
The platform approach to digital twins makes it easy for companies to build new applications on the platform. Then the users might decide there are other special features or data they want to see that they can add to their own bespoke digital twin.
Companies use the platform to hand over buildings and aggregate IoT data into meaningful insights. Smith believes recent progress in machine learning will help distill the appropriate insight from many data sources more efficiently.
The construction industry is also improving the use of APIs to stream data across different apps, said Martyn Horne, Director of Digital Practice Strategy UK at Vectorworks, a building design platform. It’s also a subsidiary of Nemetschek, which provides a comprehensive suite of tools across the architecture, engineering, and construction industry. Horne explains:
What we’re seeing is more use of APIs to tap directly into the different data feeds and streams that are available. Now that might be a piece of software. It might be a desktop app, something that’s cloud-based or a service that exists as open data somewhere. So, we’re looking to explore as many ways as possible of bringing that data in. One of the downsides of data import has always been if the data changes, you have to go through the import process again, but if it’s live and streamed then it’s more of an update and you can manage the data more easily.
His team recently released a connector for the NVIDIA Omniverse Platform. They are also working to promote interoperability through OpenBIM, a buildingSMART International effort to to promote open file formats within the construction industry.
Nemetschek is also working on a Building Lifecycle Intelligence initiative that envisions helping construction industry stakeholders manage building data as an unbroken chain of interconnected information across the building lifecycle. Horne says:
It taps into the idea of digital twins, and it helps facilitate those digital twins. It will start by joining and connecting the dots within all the Nemetschek brands together so that we can exchange information more fluidly from that perspective. But we’re very much into OpenBIM at Nemetschek. So, we’ll be looking to open that up to as many different partners as possible.
Simplifying the UI
Down the road, innovations in generative AI combined with digital twins could help simplify the user experience. Varun Bhartiya, CEO at nCircle Tech, a bespoke software development studio for the construction industry, has been helping customize and enhance construction software for the last decade. He observes that Google revolutionized the search industry by replacing a complex search experience with a single search bar:
Right now, all the platforms in the construction space have a very elaborate user interface with hundreds of buttons and interactive things. People often search for the button or search field rather than the information itself. With the advent of ChatGPT and similar solutions, I think in three to five years, the way humans will interact with all these platforms is going to change. It will become much more human friendly.
The construction industry has been much slower in adopting digital technology and new workflows than others. One big challenge is that the focus is on organizing physical things. The recent evolution in tools for digitizing the physical world could help accelerate this process.
This kind of innovation will be critical in helping the construction industry keep pace with zero net energy goals and improve sustainability.