For centuries, goods such as food, clothing, houses and weapons were made by hand.

From the 1800s onward, workers were aided by machines powered by water and steam. Out of this, industry grew and expanded from cottage owners to organisations with owners, managers and employees. Industry 1.0 had taken hold.

By the start of the 20th century, water and steam were being replaced with electricity, which was easier to use and enabled companies to concentrate power sources to individual machines. Eventually, machines were to be designed with their own power sources. This made them portable. Industry 2.0.

Toward the latter part of the 20th century, electronic devices such as transistors and integrated circuit chips produced automated machines (which replaced operators) and computers. Integrated systems such as materials planning requirements were superseded by enterprise resources planning tools that enabled people to plan, schedule and track product flows through the factory. Industry 3.0.

Several years ago, the term ‘Industrie 4.0’ (now Industry 4.0) arose out of a project in a high-tech strategy pursued by the German government. It describes a convergence between the virtual and physical worlds and of virtual and physical systems.

For the property and construction industry, this raises questions about what lies behind Industry 4.0 and how the concept will impact the sector.

Phil Christensen, senior vice president, reality modeling and cloud services – Bentley Systems, says Industry 4.0 rests on four principles:

  • The emergence of data and sensors which generate data. Often, this takes place as part of the internet of things (IoT).
  • The concept of the ‘digital twin’ – virtual representations of real world plant and assets. In the world of building, technologies such as building information modelling (BIM) or point cloud serve as examples.
  • The notion that computers and algorithms will provide support for human decision making.
  • Finally, over the longer term, the notion that decision making itself will become autonomous. In many cases, Christensen says, machines will move beyond supporting human decision making and will themselves make and act upon decisions. An example is autonomous vehicles.

Asked how this will impact the property sector, Christensen talks of several areas.

For architects and engineers, he says the main change involves delivering a more complete digital asset model with greater intelligence at handover.

Many designers, he says, already use tools such as BIM and have made the evolution to 3D drawings. At the moment, however, many of those are simply being used as a replacement to 2D drawings for their own purposes and for communicating design intent to the client. Going forward, Christensen says architects and engineers will offer a more complete digital model with greater levels of intelligence to give both to builders and ultimately, to clients at handover.

Greater change will happen, Christensen says, in construction and operation – especially in the area of sensors and data.

In manufacturing and industry, a growing number of sensors are telling operators what is happening with parts or components. In construction, signs of this are emerging. One example is the use of numerically controlled grading machines. Technologies such as drones are also enabling data capture. Context capture software enables the automatic conversion of photographs taken on construction sites to be digitally converted into 3D models. This is not exactly IoT, but it is a similar concept as growing volumes of data are being automatically generated and used.

In operations, physical plant or assets will increasingly be accompanied by digital models. Asset owners and operators will increasingly look not just at physical assets but also their digital twins of their buildings, plants or infrastructure. They will also link this back with their asset maintenance systems. Those using Bentley’s AssetWise database, for example, can create digital reality models with photogrammetry and link this information in with their asset maintenance database.

According to Christensen, all this is being enabled by a range of technologies (and convergence of these). Cloud computing, for example, helps not only to generate efficiencies during design but also to empower mobile efficiencies during construction. Graphics processing unit (GPU) technology is becoming increasingly important not only to enable machine learning but also for transforming drone imagery and data into 3D models. Bringing much of all this together is the common data environment. This, Christensen says, ties together much information and data generated by architects and engineers, consumed by builders and subsequently delivered to operators.

All this raises further questions about how various actors across the sector should be preparing.

According to Christensen, many architects and engineers are already on a journey from a drawing focus to a data centric focus.

In respect of owners, he says understanding of the value of digital models varies. Owners may or may not, for instance, have a plan to have digital twins of their assets in the future or understand how that is going to interface with their existing systems. They also may or may not be informed in respect of the digital deliverables which they are asking for from architects, engineers and contractors.

This, Christensen says, is the most significant gap in understanding which exists within the marketplace.

“That’s the biggest gap that I see at the moment – educating owners about how digital engineering works, what the benefits can be, what they need to ask for in terms of how data gets delivered to them during the monitoring and progress of these projects and then what they ask for in terms of additional deliverables,” Christensen said.

Like any other sector, Australia’s property sector is and will continue to be impacted by Industry 4.0.

Those who embrace this will derive the maximum possible benefit.