Mar 21, 2022

Recoding Construction with AI

Ice Towers

Artificial intelligence (AI) is making a home in construction. Project by project, firms are putting smart sensors and machine learning algorithms to work in boosting jobsite efficiency and keeping workers safe.

The days of connected, self-learning technologies are no longer the realm of science fiction. Today, the construction community has access to a range of AI systems that enhance project modeling, automate time-consuming tasks, and combine multiple data sources to generate project insights.

“Our research revealed a growing focus on technological solutions that incorporate artificial intelligence (AI)-powered algorithms,” reads a recent McKinsey & Company report, “These emerging technologies focus on helping players overcome some of the E&C [engineering & construction] industry’s greatest challenges, including cost and schedule overruns and safety concerns.”

Moreover, the report states that the data-analytical benefits of AI stand to bolster jobsite productivity by nearly 50% alone.

Automation at the wheel

One of the most touted benefits of AI is the ability to automate construction equipment. By reading data from onboard sensors (e.g., cameras and GPS systems), AI systems can "take the wheel" and direct construction vehicles to perform automated tasks (e.g., digging, compacting, plowing, etc.) while monitoring and analyzing their progress.

"We talk about robotics as a future technology so much in the media, but construction is actually one of the few places where robotics are being used in practical commercial applications," notes Erol Ahmed, director of communications with Built Robotics, in an interview with CBC. “One of the big benefits of robots is they can work in remote areas with less labour, and Canada has a lot of remote construction projects ... that is ideal for robots to help."

Data-driven insights

SOPREMA Nanaimo Fire HallConstruction sites are awash in information. AI systems can collect and analyze that data in real-time to provide valuable insights and predictions.

“Most of the current reports and dashboards are being used to focus on ‘what has happened’ or ‘what is happening’ on projects, typically after an event or task has occurred. But with AI, you can ask ‘what might happen?’” explains Vamshi Rachakonda, Vice President and Sales Lead for Manufacturing, Auto and Life Sciences at Capgemini Americas, in an interview with Forbes magazine.

“This can be a total game-changer when done right,” he continues. “It has the potential to help deliver projects ahead of time, improve profit margins, and reduce risks significantly.”

Drawing talent: It’s no secret that the industry faces a massive labour crunch. In response, some construction companies are leveraging machine learning algorithms to scan potential candidate pools and tailor their recruitment efforts.

“AI algorithms can also help leaders locate and predict overarching talent pain points such as turnover, skill or labor shortages, and flaws in organizational design,” states McKinsey & Company’s report. “For example, it might help forecast labor shortages for skilled craft in specific geographies, or plan for hiring or locking contracts to limit costs or project delays.”

Using the same AI technologies, employers can also collect and assess employee engagement data to zero in on those most likely to leave the field and take steps to retain their workforce. Moreover, the more that the industry can do to demonstrate its willingness to innovate, the better.

Materials and supplies: One of the greatest advantages of AI is the ability to use current data to predict future trends. And in a time where global supply chains are experiencing strain at every link, a little foresight can go a long way.

Project lifecycle optimization: All projects are built to last; at least, on paper. Actually sustaining the lifespan of a project -- be it a bridge, road, building, or otherwise -- requires the tools to assess a structure condition throughout its lifespan and respond timely when issues arise.

In a panel regarding AI in construction, Mary Van Buren spoke to the ability for AI to extend the life-cycle of a project, noting, “Many new structures, including bridges and commercial buildings, are embedding smart technology/IoT. This data is being streamed constantly and is used to understand the impact of wind on the structure, identify any potential structural weaknesses, and predict when replacements or repairs need to be made. “

“In other words,” she continues. “Fact-based data can complement visual inspections and potentially head off potential issues.”

AI-collected data from one project can also inform future project designs. For example, says Van Buren, “In Ottawa, we have the light rail transit (LRT) project that is well advanced. Imagine the data that will be collected over 30 years and potentially the new services that can be created or the intelligence that can be gathered to improve other LRT projects in other Canadian cities or abroad.”

Safety: The construction industry has done an admirable job of keeping jobsite health and safety a priority. Still, AI can raise the bar even further by constantly monitoring data signals (e.g., wearables, GPS devices, equipment sensors, etc.) from all areas of the project and raising the alarm when work begins going out of bounds.

As the US-based National Center for Construction Education & Research notes, “There are the abilities of AI systems to observe, assess and communicate on-site construction hazards with levels of speed and efficiency that no human can match. AI achieves this by gathering data from real-time footage and assessing that constant information stream for warning signs. Then, these warnings can be fed into comprehensive dashboards for construction site managers who can act to prevent accidents.

These are among the main applications of AI in construction. And surely, as machine-learning systems evolve and the industry warms up to their adoption, expect artificial intelligence to play an even greater role in reducing risks and optimizing workforces.

This is the latest in our construction technology series. Interested in more? Read our overview of cloud-based project management platforms here, and scanning technologies here.