What is Digital Construction and How Digital Technologies in Construction Improve Productivity?
Introduction to digital architecture and construction
Digital construction may seem like a relatively obvious term at first glance. What’s surprising here is how broad this term is and the fact that no definition of digital construction is universally agreed upon. The main reason for that is the fact that digital construction means something different for practically every participant in a construction project, making it extremely difficult to figure out what the term itself means as a whole.
As such, we can only surmise the overall meaning of digital construction before proceeding with specific details. Digital construction is a process of improving different stages of a construction project by using various digital tools and/or applications throughout the project’s creation. In the most abstract of its definitions, the purpose of digital construction is to improve the overall working environment for different project stages – improving collaboration, boosting efficiency, creating a safer environment, and so on.
This process can also take a multitude of different forms, including the most mundane solutions possible (Skype, Whatsapp, etc.) or some of the more specific solutions or software – project management software, CAD platforms, construction management solutions, and so on. Even some of the most complicated cutting-edge technologies can be considered as a part of the “digital architecture and construction” sphere if they are beneficial for the construction project in question – this includes robotics, artificial intelligence, the usage of drones (or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, as they are sometimes referred to) for on-site surveillance/scanning, 3D printing, and so on.
Why is construction digitalization a necessity?
At the same time, digital construction is not just about using technological advancements to improve the project’s results. A cultural shift is also a significant part of this process since new technologies often provide capabilities and advancements that have not been used before, creating possibilities for new and unusual business models to be used.
Many businesses would not be possible to maintain without technological advancements both within and outside of their specific market, such as Amazon’s same-day delivery, as well as companies like Uber and Airbnb. As for the construction industry in particular, one of the biggest changes that digital construction brought as a whole was the popularization of BIM (Building Information Modeling), which is an approach that relies a lot more on project collaboration than any of the previously existing construction tactics.
The entire term is a broad assumption based on collective knowledge about how it changed the construction industry. Using the word “construction” in this term is not exactly correct since this particular process can be applied to any project stage, from the earliest design stages to the post-construction maintenance and everything in between. The word “digital” is somehow even less specific, with the possibility of having a myriad of different definitions based on the context of this word being used.
Since this term is very broad, it is rather hard to cover everything it can mean. It is due to the sheer amount of different parties involved in an average construction project, with digital construction being able to improve the results of every one of them in a very specific, often unique way.
Are digital engineering and digital construction the same process?
Digital engineering and digital construction are not the same terms, even though they have similarities. The biggest difference is in scope – digital construction is applied to the entire project, from start to finish. In contrast, digital engineering is a process that mostly works in the design phase, covering various infrastructure matters for the initial project model. This model is later used for construction, which is why digital engineering is also important.
Digital construction engineers
Each construction project is a massive undertaking with many different elements and factors that need to be considered. Add that to the fact that many construction companies tend to juggle multiple construction projects at the same time – and it is easy to see why any drastic change would be extremely hard to implement in this industry.
As such, now there is an entirely new position for companies called “digital construction engineer.” It is easy to understand what this position entails – ensuring that new technologies are implemented and used regularly during construction projects. A person in this position should have a firm grasp of various software appliances, including the newest technological advancements. They also have to work with all of the project’s participants to ensure that new technologies are being utilized as intended.
However, many of these skills are focused on managing all operations within the construction project with the help of cutting-edge software. This is where the topic of digital construction management comes in.
Digital construction management
This particular term is just as vague as “digital construction,” with a lot of context needed for every possible perspective for it to be somewhat relevant. However, we can say that digital construction management refers to advancements in technology that can help manage tasks specifically.
These advancements are usually concentrated in digital construction management platforms – software applications and service platforms that offer extensive project management capabilities with the help of the latest technologies and methods. Such a platform usually has a lot of advantages over more traditional management strategies, with three of its biggest advantages being better project tracking, visibility, and collaboration.
Better project tracking is achieved via built-in tools for quality control, scheduling, budget tracking, and all of the remaining aspects of a project. Better transparency is achieved by the entire approach to how each team member is capable of seeing the current state of the project at all times, which helps with avoiding delays, identifying issues, and so on. On the other hand, better collaboration is achieved thanks to an easy way to share information between a project’s participants via a digital construction management platform, allowing for much better coordination than ever before.
As you can see, many of these advantages are how people usually describe advantages for Building Information Management software – a very similar concept is followed here, but there are also differences. Digital construction management software is broader in its capabilities, offering BIM-related advantages and acting as a connected data environment, along with other possible benefits for the project.
However, it is worth mentioning that while BIM may be more popular nowadays than it has ever been, many companies still only use it at the earliest project stages that deal with design and pre-planning. For a BIM solution to be able to reach its full potential, all of the project participants must have the intention of working together, interacting, and collaborating regularly – this is how BIM can become a true centralized location that has every single piece of information about the project and can be used in a myriad of different ways at every stage of project realization from design to post-construction maintenance.
The ability to create a digital twin of the physical building allows participants of the construction project to deal with various issues faster and easier than ever before. This applies to both initial issues that arise during the design phase and anything that may appear later during the construction process, giving the construction company the ability to fix the issue as soon as it is noticed.
BIM as a technology has a lot of potential when used properly. The difference between the bare-bones BIM implementation and a fully-fledged BIM-aided construction process can be massive since many benefits rely on contractors and subcontractors interacting with a BIM model regularly, adding useful information to it while also using that same model to improve their own effectiveness.
Cloud as technology in digital construction
One of the biggest arguments for cloud adoption for the construction industry is data sharing between different parties. For example, data sharing with the design team can be a straight-up nightmare since most of these teams are working remotely in the first place. In this context, using the cloud as a communication tool is a great way to create an easy and convenient communication channel.
Cloud adoption rates show an extremely positive dynamic, and it has been doing so for a while now. This is fantastic news considering how many benefits cloud as a technology brings to the table.
Arguments in favor of digital construction
With the pandemic being one of the biggest catalysts for companies to move towards digital construction as a concept, there are still many doubts about this particular approach to the existing techniques and methods. To try and dissuade these doubts, here are several advantages of construction digitalization:
Digitalization in construction is going to become a new norm for the construction industry; this process is more or less inevitable – and it already began. Every technological advancement you can use before your competition is a massive boost to your company’s success – workflow automatization tools, drones, ERP systems, and robots are just some examples of how digital transformation is already affecting the industry as a whole. Starting the process of changing towards streamlining your business sooner than later is a purely advantageous endeavor for any business right now.
Workflow improvement is a constant battle for almost any company in the construction field, and improving that is a big advantage for anyone – and a massive advantage of digital technologies in construction as a whole, offering visibility for the entire workflow and more data integration capabilities. Some solutions offer help with email tracking, issues/submittals/notices, and more.
Branding is not the most obvious example of digital construction, but it can still be a sizeable advantage. Since a lot of digitalization in construction is geared towards providing a better-finalized experience for the customer, companies that have the advantage of digital construction implemented already would have better chances of attracting more clients down the road as this trend becomes more and more popular, transitioning to a new “regular” at some point in the future.
Moving toward cloud services
“Cloud” as a term has been the harbinger of innovation for a lot of industries, including the construction industry. It allows for general improvements in terms of resource utilization while also being able to securely store important data away from the company’s physical location, improving security and lessening the burden of maintaining physical services at your current location or near it. Adding the cloud into the mix improves all parameters, from general job performance to specific aspects of construction company management, offering a great way for companies to be ahead of their competition.
Implementing newer technologies has been a tried and true method of staying ahead of the competition for a while now, and the construction industry is no different. A lot of time-consuming and repetitive tasks in this industry can be at least partially automated, giving a tremendous boost to overall productivity. This also frees up the time for industry experts and professionals to contribute more to a project’s overall success.
Collaboration and communication
Being able to keep all of your stakeholders informed at all times is a massive advantage on its own, and the addition of being able to monitor the progress of a project makes it far easier to avoid missing deadlines. At the same time, the lack of barriers in communication between different parties improves collaboration, resulting in better overall results for any project.
Clarity and certainty
Confusion can be a surprisingly big issue for a construction project, especially if the communication between different departments is not as good as it could be. Since digital technologies in construction promote collaboration quite a lot, the existence of a seamless way of communication allows for the project as a whole to have a lot more clarity than before, especially if the interaction between teams is remote, as is the de-facto standard of the industry right now.
How does digital construction affect every stage of the construction process?
Building Information Modeling is a significant part of digital construction as a whole, offering the ability to improve the results of every part of the construction process, from the earliest stages of the design process to the process of structural monitoring of a building that has been already completed and handed over to the client.
Even before the initial design process begins, there is an important step that includes surveillance of the future work site – it is usually performed via aerial mapping, laser scanning, or even mobile scanning, and all of that data can be immediately transferred to BIM as a system so that it can have up-to-date information about the work site, including potential complications that may arise.
The rest of the design phase follows the same idea, creating a digital model that can be easily shared between different parties to ensure that it is exactly the way the client wants it – including the ability to overlook the entire future structure in 3D with technologies such as virtual reality. This same concept also makes it easier to perform various informative design decisions and general concept verification from the client.
The beginning of the actual construction process is where another benefit of BIM comes in. Both contractors and subcontractors can easily see the up-to-date project model, including its layout, to perform more informed decisions. Some of the more advanced machinery also makes it possible for BIM models to be uploaded as data into the machinery in question, making it possible for a part of the construction to be performed automatically by the machinery itself. The existence of machine-to-machine communication in this context often offers results that are both faster and more precise than manually controlled alternatives.
This offers unprecedented precision to the construction project and lowers the risk of accidents when human workers operate close to the active machinery. That’s also not the only way for the BIM model to be beneficial here since it also helps a lot of other, more specific operations. One such task is MEP engineering.
MEP engineers benefit quite a lot from the existence of BIM models, allowing for data-rich 3D models to be used during their work – placing MEP components with the context of how walls and columns of a building are placed in the building. That same model can also perform various as-built checks multiple times during the construction process, offering many opportunities to notice and fix potentially disastrous errors before they can affect the project’s results.
Aside from the building itself, a BIM model can also help plan and create supporting infrastructure – railways, tunnels, bridges, roads, and more. The overall documentation of surroundings for these cases can be performed with something as simple as a mobile phone, providing factual information for other project participants to work with.
Regarding factual information, it is important to mention that the BIM model is always updated throughout the project’s construction stage with real-time structural monitoring. A very similar process is also performed after the project’s completion and regularly during the entire lifecycle of a project’s result.
Many industry experts tend to forget that the BIM model does not become completely useless as soon as the project in question is completed and handed over since that same model can be used to survey the structure’s overall condition at different stages of its lifecycle. Some systems can even create alerts for stakeholders if the structure’s overall condition is below the expected limit.
Surprisingly enough, a BIM model can also help the building at the very end of its lifecycle, offering a wealth of information about the current condition of the structure and other information necessary for either demolition or refurbishment, depending on the owner’s choice.
Why is digital construction popular?
Digitalization has been seen as inevitable for the construction industry for a while now, with the said industry being one of the most conservative industries on the planet. While many different fields of work started their digitalization a long time ago, the construction industry had a very specific worldwide event that many experts believe to be a catalyst for sudden massive changes for this exact industry. That one event was the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Of course, that’s not to say that the construction industry did not have its share of problems even before all that happened. Each construction project is a massive undertaking with dozens of contractors and subcontractors, tight deadlines, limited budgets, strict government standards, on-site safety concerns, and so on.
The issue of a qualified workforce was also present for a while now – a 2019 survey datum from the National Association of Home Builders showed that the median age of construction workers is 41 years. Going by this logic, a lot of experienced workforces are going to retire by the year 2029, and the number of fresh blood in the industry as a whole does not seem to be enough to cover for that – since various technological advancements have led to a lot of young people choosing different industries to work in instead of the construction industry.
Of course, this issue is still prevalent in other countries, not just the USA. For example, an investigation by Grattan Institute in Australia found that almost every second rail or road project had budget overruns of at least 30% or more. These statistics become even more terrifying when you remember that only projects with an estimated budget of 1 billion AUD or more were included in this analysis.
As for the general worldwide picture, there was also a CRUX Insight report from 2021 that reviewed over 1400 projects all over the planet and surmised that the average value of claims was close to 50% of the budgeted capital expenditure, while claims related to time extensions made an average construction project about 70% longer than originally estimated.
With this many problems inside of the industry on so many different fronts, and the overall issue of a global pandemic appearing from basically nowhere, the construction industry had no choice but to start moving towards construction digitalization at an accelerated pace, with a rather clear understanding that failure to improve yourself in these circumstances would be able to sink even some of the biggest players in the field due to the sheer amount of missed potential that could be at least partially solved with various digital solutions.
Digital technologies in construction can be a massive leap forward for the construction industry if companies would be willing to commit to it, to admit that issues exist, and this can be a way to fix them. Of course, adopting entirely new technologies can be an extremely expensive endeavor, especially for larger companies, but the overall project improvements will make that investment worth it sooner or later. The “sooner” part might also be faster than companies may expect, considering how much money and time the construction industry has been losing for decades now.