Understanding the types of construction technologies available will help builders, designers and suppliers deliver successful project outcomes. 6D BIM. Point cloud. RFID. IFC files. Augmented reality/Virtual reality. GPS. Drones. Cloud computing. Sensors. Cobie files. Robots on site.
The gambit of technologies available within the design and construction sector can seem overwhelming. Understanding where each fits within the building process can be confusing.
In a recent presentation at the Frame Australia event in Melbourne, Perry Forsythe, professor of construction management at the University of Technology Sydney, laid out a model explaining each of the main technologies and their place within the construction cycle.
According to Forsythe, construction technologies can be classified into four categories: auto data capture, smart processing, new realities and sharing and connecting. These can be considered in their roles within five building stages: design, fabrication, component supply, construction and building operations and facilities management.
Key technologies within the first four types are as follows.
1) Auto data capture
Auto data capture technologies reduce the work in using digital applications. Several of these have applications in building.
First, there are point clouds. A point cloud is a 3D digital image of a real life object. These are produced by scanners, which measure a large number of points on the external surfaces of objects around them.
In construction, point clouds can be used to create a digital representation of a real-life building, structure or site on which buildings and structures can be created. This could be used, for example, to create a digital model of the ‘as-built’ product upon handover.
This would ensure clients have a model of what has actually been built as opposed to what BIM files say should have been built. Point cloud representations of as-built products can also be compared with the BIM model of the architect to identify compliance or any errors made during construction which require rectification. During design, meanwhile, point clouds might be used to develop a 3D representation of the topography of a site.
One tool which is popular in this space is the Zebedee, a handheld 3D mapping system which uses a technology known as LIDAR. A person using this in can walk around and ‘scan’ or capture a point cloud of a building relatively quickly.
Another auto data capture technology is the well-known GPS. In construction, this can be used to track the movement and positioning of people (subject to privacy), objects, materials, vehicles and equipment on site. If you were looking for Bill Smith, for example, you could use GPS to see that he is on the fourth floor. By tracking the overall movement of people and materials on site, project managers could identify areas of inefficient operation and opportunities for productivity improvement.
GPS can also be combined with other technologies such as sensors to improve safety. By tracking the movement and location of workers via mobile phones or sensors in helmets, for example, warning signals could be sent when a forklift was heading their way.
A third auto data capture technology is radio frequency ID or RFID. This is essentially an advancement on bar codes which can be used to track the progress of critical materials as they move through the supply chain. Take for example CLT panels – most of which come from overseas. Using RFID, these could be tracked through the stages of arriving on dock, arriving at the storage yard of fabricators, going through fabrication, going into storage after being cut and leaving the factory and arriving on site – the foreman potentially receiving notification that the material is on its way or has arrived. This provides visibility about where the materials are and how far they are from being available.
Going further, a more advanced form of RFID known as active RFID can send out its own signals (RFID devices which merely scan and read bar codes are known as passive RFID). These could be used, for example to send out warning alerts about the moisture content of the timber in wet area and balcony situations and signal the need to take action on any deteriorating material condition.
2) Smart Processing
Beyond data capture, there are processing applications which endeavour to make design and construction processes less burdensome.
The best known of these is building information modelling or BIM. A common misconception about BIM, Forsythe says, involves notions of a singular piece of software. In fact, he says, BIM is a concept around which many pieces of software and applications have evolved. Early in the design concept stage, tools such as Sketchup or Rhino can be used to deliver a relatively simple model. From there, Revit or ArchiCad take you into more detailed considerations such as room sizes, flooring types and dimensions. This forms the basis for the various levels to which BIM can go to including construction time sequencing (4D BIM), cost (5D BIM) and life cycle information (6D BIM).
Backed by significant databases, these applications aim to reduce workload and simplify tasks. Where architects draw lines on a screen to make up rooms, for example, the software needs to recognise that the object which you are drawing is a wall or a floor.
Further, the tools are becoming increasingly helpful by predicting what you want to know or do next. Where you draw a pattern as a wall, it might helpfully (based on patterns of your previous behaviour) offer you a brick veneer wall. Alternatively, once you have defined loads on a building and are trying to determine column sizes, it could suggest that the proposed column size could be insufficient and that there is a risk of failure.
Beyond this, an interesting area is design review software such as Navisworks or Solibri, which enable architects to review designs and resolve problems before going too far into the design process. These are useful for 3D clash detection, where a duct might accidentally penetrate through a beam.
3) New Realities
The area where the ‘cool’ stuff lies, new realities are mainly visual and enable people to visualise building elements or entire buildings as though they were there right in front of them.
A key technology in this area is augmented reality – a live view of a physical real-world environment whose elements are augmented by computer generated input. In an architectural office, clients could don a pair of glasses or a headset such as Microsoft’s Hololens and ‘experience’ the building in 3D as though they were there in real life.
Further into the future, builders and contractors may go onsite and see a hologram of where underground utilities lie or where studs are intended to be placed in a stud wall. You could pick up a stud and place it where the hologram is showing you that it should be.
Compared with traditional architectural drawings, this provides a more intuitive way of working. Looking at separate drawings for the structure and the duct work, for example, might not readily reveal the existence of a clash. With visual tools such as AR, however, these might become more obvious.
Such tools may also facilitate greater engagement and better informed decision making from non-practitioner stakeholders who may find conventional drawings and models confusing. This includes clients and financiers.
4) Sharing and Connecting
Finally, there are tools which facilitate sharing of information and connecting with others.
The construction sector is a fragmented industry with many players. On one recent project, Forsythe said, 18 subcontractors and suppliers were involved in delivering a façade on a hospital. Where this happens, he says duplication can result as multiple parties produce their own designs for their own purposes.
Whilst much of this information could be shared, this requires information to be entered into a given application in accordance with a standard information format so that when it is transferred to another application, the information can be read correctly. Take, for example, a BIM model created by a designer. Where the mechanical engineer inputs air handling units as an object, it needs to have the right coding and categories so that when it gets passed on to the quantity surveying software, the software takes off suitable volumes of quantities. Where this does not happen, the QS software could miss units and fail to account for the cost of those units.
When sharing files, the most common technology for categorising objects is known as industry foundation class (IFC) – a platform neutral, object based file format which was developed by buildngSMART to facilitate interoperability across the building sector. Using this, Revit or ArchiCAD files can be exported to the IFC file which can then be imported by, say, quantity surveyors into CostX (a quantity surveying package).
From many corners, the design and construction industry is being aided by technology.
Understanding the types of technologies available will help builders, designers and suppliers to identify and comprehend how they can exploit these to deliver successful project outcomes.