Big Data Boosts Big Construction

Big data is boosting the construction industry in many ways. Besides digitized records and plans, today’s computers and machinery—which includes cranes, backhoes, and bulldozers—spit out data from sensors, making for big data backlogs. How do construction companies make sense of this data overload and use it to their advantage?

In the design phase, construction firms now can analyze weather data, social media, machine-generated information, third-party communications, and other intelligence to decide any number of details, including how, what, and where to build.

“The predictive piece that sensors, augmented, and virtual reality provide is critical,” says Konkana Khaund, director of consulting for energy and the environment at Frost & Sullivan,, San Antonio, Texas.

“Construction firms are leveraging data to visualize patterns that could offer insights for pre-empting an interruption or a shutdown due to weather,” she says.

The data also helps firms consider alternate resources or material sourcing options needed in case of crisis, keeping scheduling, and delivery on track without significant cost overruns, Khaund says.

Such analysis enables construction firms to revise their budgets on the fly to plan for delays, new regulations, and other unexpected changes they can monitor in near-realtime.

Sensors can send out alerts if a counterfeit is usurping a legitimate product, as well as whether a piece of equipment is being tampered with, physically or via cybercrime.

Collaborative data can be stored in the cloud, but the cloud isn’t limitless, so companies are moving more realtime data to the cloud’s fringes in native environments.

“They want to keep certain critical data at the edge and make sure any services around that data can be offered right there,” Khaund explains.

Regulatory and compliance-related information can be shared via industry collaborative clouds, as can risk-oriented information, such as anonymized customer, payment, and behavior information, according to IDC Consulting’s,, Framingham, Mass., “FutureScape: Worldwide Cloud 2018 Predictions” report.

Companies must design strong API (application programming interface) architecture to recognize new revenue opportunities from digital platforms, but they must pay close attention to data privacy and governance issues (data controls) that come along with API developments, the IDC report warns.

One example of today’s smart construction is the famed architect Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. Designers scanned the hall’s physical model with a laser device that transmitted coordinates to a CATIA (computer-aided three-dimensional interactive application).

CATIA shows a 3D section of the model, which contractors and construction crews can see as a movie that gives structural coordinates as well as a time schedule for project completion, according to the project description. Builders have also used CATIA to guide them in constructing the Guggenheim Museum and a giant fish sculpture on the Barcelona waterfront, both also designed by Gehry, who still starts his construction projects with a hand-drawn sketch.

By giving exact dimensions for manufacturing, the software can create sheets of material ready for use in the building. This gives the designer exact dimensions of steel beams, columns, and sheets of material needed to build the 3D model in real life.

The information helps estimate the cost of the building because CATIA can print out a detailed list of material needed, with exact dimensions, and cut and label each piece.

Another example is a central wastewater treatment plant in Tacoma, Wash., where construction project-management software helped enable off-site precision fabrication of building components.

That allowed for quick and less costly installation of piping and pre-assembled mechanical elements in the field, according to the project Website. The savings included costs of downtime, overtime, and delays.

The subcontractors on the project submitted their models for review and clash detection before any material was ordered or transported to the site, enabling a coordinated effort to complete the building structure, operations, and mechanics.

The increasing communication among construction stakeholders looks set to get faster and more capable in the near future.

In the Trump Administration’s National Security Strategy report, released Dec. 18, 2017, one of the infrastructure improvement priorities calls for deploying a secure 5G wireless Internet capability nationwide. If deployed, the 5G set of technologies would improve upon the kind of support that connected devices rely on. Indeed, Verizon Communications,, Basking Ridge, N.J., announced on Nov. 29, 2017 it intends to launch residential 5G broadband services in three to five U.S. markets this year.

This will help spur the use of big data in the construction industry in the year ahead, helping keep projects on time and on budget.

BIM Takes Cues from Facebook

Three-dimensional design and build technology lets construction workers see not just a building’s inner workings, but also lets them share details with supply-chain partners on a common platform.

Today’s BIM (building information modeling) is intelligent enough to sift data for a building’s energy use, air quality, and design discrepancies such as whether a beam or metal stud will interfere with a door’s placement before it’s built.

“The software developed the ability to say, ‘Is my plumbing and ductwork clashing with my floors or the walls? Are those elements clashing into each other?” says Jerry Jackson, vice president for architecture, engineering, and construction at Dassault Systèmes,, Vélizy-Villacoublay, France, a software company that develops 3D design, 3D digital mockup, and product lifecycle management software.

“Am I trying to put a pipe through a structural element that cannot move or be drilled into?” continues Jackson.

Similarly, BIM lets construction firms see how an architect, an HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) company, a structural engineering firm, or any other partner is describing its model, Jackson says.

“If I’m going to install sheet metal duct work to supply heating and air, how do I know there won’t be concrete or metal studs in the way?” he says. “BIM offers these inner views.”

That’s a huge leap from what Jackson calls “the old days” of CAD (computer-aided design), when building designs had to be updated manually and, if someone forgot to move a particular section, the measurements could be off.

“BIM’s early promise was, ‘Hey, if I move the door in the plan view, it also moves in all the other views,’” he says.

To share this information, construction companies can use platforms that act much like Facebook to let workers, supply chain partners, and others see the same information in realtime—and that’s the secret to success, Jackson says.

“We know what collaboration is on Facebook; we can all look at the same data at the same time and comment at the same time,” Jackson says.

Yet in construction, the platform’s workings need to be perceived as free, instant, and perfect, Jackson says. The platform isn’t free itself, but must operate as ubiquitously and silently as electricity courses through the air.

“You think of building a skyscraper; there could be 2,000 collaborators over five to six years of construction,” he says. “As more and more people get access to the data, the more perfect that data is, the more free it feels.”

Yet employees are more motivated when they see BIM’s advantages for themselves and learn to conceptualize in 3D.

After all, “you can still develop crappy BIMs” if that’s not done, says Andrew Rider, an architectural designer and manager of the design group for vertical construction at Woolpert,, Dayton, Ohio, an architectural, engineering and geospatial firm. When BIM is used optimally, it can enable a better product going out for bid because the multi-dimensional insights lead to few if any change orders when construction starts, he says.

Woolpert has taken BIM a step farther by incorporating laser scanning. Such scanning immediately captures dimensional and spatial data of a particular space and takes a 3D picture of it. The company used laser scanning to replace a mechanical boiler at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio—and saved untold hours of work compared to the time required if it had been measured by hand.

“All of the 3D content is dimensionally accurate,” Rider says. “We took a computer model of the new equipment so we could see if it fit in the existing room. We were immediately able to tell that the plan was not going to work. That saved us a lot of time and effort and gave the client a quick way to change course. It saved thousands (of dollars).”

Other companies have started using drones to map out and generate a 3D model. It’s part of a trend in which companies now demand always-on, near-realtime insights.

Nearly six in 10 (57%) construction companies responded in a poll by software vendor Sage that they expect consistent, up-to-date project, and financial information.

Dassault Systèmes is focused on bringing such platforms to the construction industry and taking BIM up a notch by creating a virtual twin of a building rather than a proxy of it, Jackson says.

How will construction workers be trained and motivated to take on these fast-evolving technologies, especially when skilled employees are tough to find?

French company Bouygues Construction,, Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, France, runs its own in-house university, uses VR (virtual reality) headsets for safety training, accepts 800 young people for yearly work-study contracts, and helps advance the careers of managers, project directors, sales teams, and developers.

Jackson, of Dassault, says the construction workers in the field need to see that technology can make them productive “the next morning” out on a jobsite.

“With the right business partners, you engage them so they feel they are using this technology, initially with assistance, so they can be more productive tomorrow than they were today. You focus on the outcomes,” Jackson explains.