Tech, Tools & Trends

Data Solutions for Smarter Construction

Good data is as central to construction work as bricks, mortar, and scaffolding. Gathering and analyzing statistics about worker hours, schedules, payroll, weather conditions, vendor costs, equipment location, fuel use and consumption, materials, safety, and other factors can mean the difference between failure and success.

“Number crunching has always been a big part of construction – a commonly heard phrase is that construction companies are accounting companies which happen to erect buildings,” notes the April 16, 2016 edition of Forbes.com.

Data can provide insights that boost productivity, enhance worker safety, and keep projects on time and under budget. ConstructConnect.com, which helps construction companies network and obtain information, noted the importance of data in an April 11, 2018 blog post. “As construction projects become more complex, big data may soon become the most important tool at a construction company’s disposal.”

Construction data solutions are available for offices, equipment, and labourers alike. Solutions include global positioning system (GPS) products, telematics, smartphones, Cloud-computing, business information modelling (BIM) software, construction management software, and ‘wearables’ such as sensors and other devices worn by workers.

Business information modelling is one way that firms can put the reams of data they collect to good use. BIM “is a process that begins with the creation of an intelligent 3D model and enables document management, coordination and simulation during the entire lifecycle of a project (plan, design, build, operation and maintenance). BIM is used to design and document building and infrastructure designs. Every detail of a building is modelled in BIM,” explains Autodesk of San Rafael, California, a leader in the BIM field.

“BIM not only allows design and construction teams to work more efficiently, it allows them to capture the data they create during the process to benefit operations and maintenance activities,” says Autodesk. The company offers a suite of products that allow builders to coordinate work, collaborate, and access data.

Construction management software can also be a good option for firms. California-based Procore Technologies, Inc., for example, develops programs specifically geared towards the construction industry. Construction “is one of the toughest industries to work in, defined by massive complexity, constant uncertainty, and high risk,” notes Procore.

Given this, the firm’s construction management software is designed to increase project efficiency and accountability. Specific products are tailored for the needs of real estate owners and developers while others offer insights regarding data found in “contracts, change orders, budgets, invoicing, RFIs, submittals, inspections, observations, and more,” states Procore Technologies. Some of its software lets companies and individuals collaborate on a common online platform, while others organize bid packages, send bid invites, and communicate with bidders.

“Over a million registered Procore users across the globe manage all types of construction projects including industrial plants, office buildings, apartment complexes, university facilities, retail centers, and more,” boasts Procore.

Construction data gathered through such solutions can be stored in the Cloud, the online storage system that gathers data from a collection of remote servers. Using the Cloud is a way to securely back up valuable construction data.

Other construction data solutions are designed to monitor equipment and track assets, and these are important considerations given the extent of theft in the industry. “The National Insurance Crime Bureau and National Equipment Register reported that $300 million to $1 billion in construction and heavy equipment is stolen in the United States each year. In the province of Ontario, $15 million to $20 million of construction equipment is lost each year, according to the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP),” states Oakville, Ontario-based technology firm, Geotab.

To prevent thefts and monitor engine performance, Geotab offers a GPS-equipped telematics solution. Telematics refers to the transmission of digital data from a vehicle, machine or piece of equipment to a computer.

Once installed, Geotab’s product provides “real-time insight into equipment location, state of operation, and engine diagnostics.” It contains a GPS component that tracks the location of equipment. It also monitors engine hours, performance, temperature, and fuel use and then transmits this data to an office computer for diagnostic and maintenance purposes.

Spark Tech Labs of Waterloo, Ontario offers a GPS-based asset-tracking and monitoring solution described as an “innovative Cloud-based web solution providing construction and heavy-equipment-based businesses access to location data, operational status, reports and analytics for their fleet,” states the company.

It also provides “full historical data and detailed reports on usage, movement, and locations for all tracked equipment,” and it is, “designed for installation on excavators, bulldozers, backhoes, front-end loaders, road rollers, portable generators, forklifts, graders, cranes and more.” Construction crews can monitor the equipment on a Cloud-based tracking portal that can be accessed via a web browser or mobile phone.

If machines can be equipped with data-gathering devices, so too can individual workers. ‘Wearables’ or smart personal protective equipment (PPE) consist of “devices, generally including a computer or advanced electronic device, worn on a construction worker’s body, clothing or personal protective equipment, designed to collect and deliver data about the worker’s environment, activities and biometric conditions,” explains a July 26, 2019 story in Construction Dive magazine.

Sensors and other data-collection devices can be fitted to hardhats, belts, work boots, safety glasses, and more.

The website of CONEXPO-CON/AGG, the international construction industry conference, examines various companies with wearable products. “Construction sites can be dangerous. According to OSHA, twenty-one percent of workplace fatalities take place in the construction field. To combat death, injury, and unplanned labour downtime, the construction industry has been employing wearable devices (hard hats, glasses, safety vests, and boots) for decades,” states the article.

Smart wearables provide data that might be used to save lives and prevent injuries. “Wearables passively collect, store, transmit, and/or receive information about worker location, biometric signs, nearby hazards, and other job site data,” states CONEXPO-CON/AGG.

Scan-Link offers a product featuring radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, worn in a hardhat or vest. A piece of mobile equipment fitted with an antenna and a reader would be able to pick up these RFID signals, warning machine operators if someone was working or walking behind them.

A company called Triax Technologies has developed a belt-clip system called Spot-r that lets supervisors track workers in a building via a Cloud-based dashboard. Push buttons on the belt-clip allow workers to signal if they are in trouble and require assistance.

The CONEXPO-CON/AGG feature also cited another firm called Sole Power, which was testing a product called SmartBoots. This footwear is equipped with GPS, ultra-wideband, WiFi, altimeter, and RFID.

As technology progresses, the use of such tools is becoming more commonplace in construction circles. This was born out in the report ‘Improving Performance with Project Data,’ released last year by the firm Dodge Data & Analytics of Bedford, Massachusetts. The report is based on a survey in which contractors, designers, and construction managers were queried about their experiences with construction data. Sixty-four percent of respondents said their ‘data gathering and analysis capabilities’ had improved over the three years prior to the survey.

“This is largely due to the advance of mobile and Cloud technology solutions available to contractors that make it easier to pull data from the field and share with the back office in real- or near-real time,” explained a November 1, 2019 article in Engineering News-Record (ENR) about the survey.

Contractors who said their data gathering and analysis had improved in recent years were questioned about the resulting benefits. Over half of respondents said construction data had helped them finish projects at or under budget. Forty-seven percent of those surveyed said good data helped them achieve greater productivity while forty-six percent said the same for increased profitability. A third said better data gathering had improved workplace safety, while twenty-six percent said data helped them win new work.

Asked what they viewed as the most important project data to gather, ninety-three percent of contractors cited data related to project performance including scheduling and costs. Respondents also placed a high value on collecting data concerning worker hours, productivity, safety, and equipment location.

Regardless of how data is gathered, construction data solutions help with current projects and can guide the construction of buildings that have not even been designed yet.

“More than half of contractors are looking at data to predict future events,” notes the ENR article. “Though the bulk of contractors today are still looking at historical data to gauge what happened on a project, why it happened and help determine actions to take, more than half of contractors (fifty-five percent) noted are looking at data in predictive models, leveraging information to help them better understand when and where future events or triggers will occur and how to better plan for them.”

July 8, 2020, 11:53 PM EDT