Digitalisation is making its presence felt on construction sites. A positioning system for equipment and materials sets the course for major changes that will help companies in the sector to eliminate risks related to timetables, costs and quality.
“Digitalisation helps solve problems on the construction site and increase productivity. The results are already visible”, says Professor Olli Seppänen, who is leading the iCons intelligent construction project at Aalto University in Helsinki. However, Seppänen is quick to add that it typically takes a long time before a new approach is taken fully on board in an industry with a strong preference for tried-and-trusted practices. New technology alone is not enough. Companies in the industry most also adopt new types of operating methods.
The iCons project was set up in response to long-term problems that the industry continued to struggle with.
“We wondered how to make it possible to obtain real-time information on construction sites through technology. The solution was found in indoor positioning systems. The objects to be tracked, such as materials and equipment, are fitted with small tags or stickers that transmit data on their location to a Bluetooth-enabled receiver, which then transmits it to the internet”, explains Seppänen.
Location data is extremely important in construction projects. According to international studies, 60–70 per cent of the time spent on a construction site is lost in waiting, moving things about and searching for things.
When all parties involved in a construction project have real-time knowledge of materials and various other factors, things become far more efficient. The benefits are also reflected in improved quality of construction, lower costs, greater process transparency and increased environmental friendliness.
Towards a shared technological system
In the startup phase of the iCons project, in addition to the funding body Business Finland a number of companies were also chosen as cooperation partners. One of these was Kiilto Oy. FIRA Oy was chosen for the project as one of the representatives of the construction sector. Fira’s chief technology officer Otto Alhava says the project has been warmly welcomed.
“In the construction industry, the development of digitalisation has not gotten much further than data modelling and 3D design, and at best is found only in separate applications used by the higher-ups. We have invested in software solutions with our own startup companies, but there still has been no overall view of work in the field”.
Olli Seppänen agrees that the construction sector needs a common software ecosystem. In response to this shortcoming, Aalto University has also initiated a follow-up to the iCons extension project. The aim of this project, called DiCtion, is to digitalise workflows in order to create a common overview for all parties involved in a construction project.
According to Miikka Suppula, sales manager for Kiilto’s construction supplies operations, iCons is an excellent learning experience. “iCons has given us unique information on site operations, concrete ideas for our own product development, and the opportunity to develop new types of services and business models”.
Will digital and robots be the death of jobs?
And what will become of professionals when technology further improves workflow and processes?
Olli Seppänen believes that a single project will take fewer hours of work as construction begins to accelerate.“But I don’t believe that the total need for construction worker will be reduced. The only thing that will be cut is the amount of time spent waiting or looking for things. The same amount of resources can then be used to build more buildings, which will only increase the demand for skilled workers”.
According to experts, construction robots are not on the horizon. On the other hand, positioning information and aerial images taken by drones will have their uses in the sector. Artificial intelligence automatically analyses the images to show how work is progressing, and can also detect potential problems with safety and work quality.
Outside the construction site, robots can be used in general prefabrication. A common problem on work sites is that as the pace of construction increases; in residential construction, for example, bathrooms are increasingly becoming a bottleneck. For this reason, they are now being supplied as ready-made elements. Perhaps robots will soon be at work in factories manufacturing bathrooms, just as they are already manufacturing cars.
Material suppliers and consumers also benefit
Otto Alhava of Fira has seen on the company’s own work sites how much the efficiency of construction depends on indoor positioning, scheduling data, data on conditions and data on completed work.
“Digitalisation on the worksite and opening data interfaces will also give material suppliers such as Kiilto the additional information that is important for their product development work”. The data also benefits production planning and help to ensure timely availability.
In the future, consumers will also be able to benefit from the transparency that digitalisation can bring to construction. “Consumers need to know what stage the piping repairs or new construction is at. They don’t want any unpleasant surprises. Technology will also be able to tell the consumer many other things, such as when the bathroom tiles really need to be chosen in order to ensure that there is no additional cost”, explains Seppänen.
Finland at the forefront of development
The system being developed in the iCons project is in high demand, including abroad. It is already in use in China, and plans are underway for deploying it in California, Brazil, Sweden and the Netherlands.
In Seppänen’s view, Finland is at the forefront of development when it comes to indoor positioning: “As far as I know, we have the most advanced site applications. In many other countries, things are still only at the laboratory test phase”.
Finland is ahead of the crowd when it comes to education and training in the field also: “Things are progressing rapidly right now. For the courses I teach, at least half of the content has to be rewritten and updated every year”.