The Future Site: Tomorrow's Construction Job Site and why Google Cares

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What will the construction site of tomorrow look like (and why does Google care)?

The future has not been written.
—John Connor in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

This is one of my favorite movie lines. It is true the future has not yet been written, but we can get a good idea about the future direction of construction by evaluating current and emerging technologies in the industry. While it may be sexier to envision autonomous machines and robots populating the future construction site, most of the horsepower may not be as visible. Rather, advancements are likely to happen under the hood, enhancing design and project management collaboration and data flow.

I personally remember the first mentions of a virtual job site back in 1995, from my days at Geotronics and Spectra Precision (both now a part of Trimble). Particularly in one meeting, discussions were focused on the use of holograms to virtually illustrate where buildings and utilities would be built. A developer, machine operator, and site supervisor would be able to view and work around these holograms to evaluate the site for conflicts. Although work to develop holograms for use in construction and other industries continues, delivery is some years away according to Intel. Today's augmented reality (AR) could provide similar benefits at a fraction of the cost.

But what drives the digital reality of the design build process? The simple answer is, data--data with a multitude of meta-sub data that is accurately location based. This geo-reference creates the spatial relationship that opens up infinite possibilities. But data is growing much more complex. It is information, not just 3D models. It's time, cost, quantities, part numbers, manufacturer details, GIS, motion, change orders, and history of change orders, among other things.

Let's back up a bit and consider traditional workflow and the challenges that exist. The design build process involves multiple disciplines, each with varying degrees of methodology. The methodology varies in its use of technology as it relates to productivity. Mostly, these processes lag in technological advancement and, therefore, in adoption of leaner processes. This fragmentation among the various elements of the construction manufacturing process renders efficient communication and consistent data flow nearly impossible. There is an incredible amount of redundancy and rework.

For example, we have been designing digitally for years with CAD, but it traditionally has been in 2D. We took field measurements from handwritten field books and manually entered them into design software. Not only was this a slow process, but it created an opportunity for error with each keystroke. We now have faster, more complete measurement data acquisition methods with technologies such as LiDAR, which can digitally be loaded into the design software. But only a minority of engineers are providing the data in a full 3D format that is compatible with earthmoving machines and other downstream processes that build the project, whether it be a building, a road, or a site.

Once a process is digitally streamlined, from data acquisition to 3D design, other challenges remain. As mentioned above, there are many fragmented disciplines. For example, an earthmoving contractor may not have machine guidance or control systems, so the digital workflow stops cold. Conversely, the earthmoving contractor may have invested in positioning, but the file types may not be compatible because of a lack of standards. Designs and surfaces must be manipulated and reworked to flow downstream. Feeding job changes/edited and asbuilt data back into the system to update, another potential nightmare. Much efficiency is lost. On and on it goes, further fragmenting the workflow, with adoption and productivity stymied.

No single company or person is responsible for the lack of standards. This is a big, big undertaking. As industry players, we all support any advancement that will reduce the inefficiencies and thus the costs associated with bloated construction processes. Let's face it--all of us are passionate (another way to say stubbornly argumentative) about the lack of progress and frustrated when the solutions don't come fast enough.

But while software design companies and positioning hardware manufacturers push and pull to make things happen, an opportunity is being squandered. I say squandered because the frustration is feeding a bigger-picture revolution.

Collectively, the system components to automate the industry are known. But not happening fast enough is not good enough to a market starving for productive solutions. This opens the door for other companies to become change agents--disruptive change agents.

Back in October 2013, news articles appeared across the Internet regarding a secretive Google initiative code-named Genie. Sources claim that Google technology could halve construction costs and reduce delivery time from design to completion by 30% to 60%. My first reaction was "Wow." My next reaction was "Why would Google be interested?" This seems outside its core technology and ad revenue streams. The more I read, the more I thought and the more I projected that it makes a lot of sense.

Details are limited but according to Globes, an Israeli newswire:
Genie is a platform with online-based planning applications to help architects and engineers in the design process, especially for skyscrapers and large buildings. The platform includes planning tools of expert architects and engineers and advance analytics and simulation tools. Genie standardizes and automates the design and construction processes with unlimited design options, enabling an architect to preserve the building's uniqueness in the urban environment.

This sure sounds like a new level of BIM+, with open and easy access. If such cloud-based design and collaborative tools existed, it would be easy to see how this could flow into all aspects for design build. This includes utilities, grading, hydrology, and so on.

Could Google do it? They have an impressive track record. I was skeptical when I heard a few years back that Google was going to develop an OS. There was no way, I thought, to shake Microsoft's grip on the mobile and desktop OS. Today, Google activates about 1.7 million Android devices per day. Could Google revolutionize construction? Even its brief history supports the possibility.

From a business perspective, global construction is worth a staggering 6+ trillion dollars. It is one of the world's most profitable industries, accounting for 10% of global GDP. It is the largest consumer of global resources, raw materials, and global energy supplies. With all of this economic might, it isn't surprising that it's one of the most wasteful. Global construction creates the largest amount of global solid waste--40%--and it is responsible for 50% of greenhouse gas emissions. It is the world's largest manufacturer and the least automated. There is room for massive improvement.

Developing technology that could reduce costs by up to half would be an epic achievement and an all around good thing to do for the planet. Such an accomplishment would reduce the world's pollution, offer vital modern infrastructures to developing countries, reduce energy needs, and on and on. Did I mention this was BIG? Global population in urban areas is projected to double over the next four decades. This will strain the world's infrastructures and resources, especially in urban areas. Add to this population explosion the fact that energy demands are expected to double over the next 20 years. Our challenge simply will be to meet these needs. The construction industry is falling behind in the growth of production capacity and productivity when compared to other industries. If we continue with the status quo, we will not have the money, resources, or capacity to meet these needs.

Industry players are aware that there is an urgency and a need for the uniting of many players who are currently hungry for standards and access to those standards. Such disruptive technology will shake the very foundation of the AEC IT establishment.

In a sense, Google, with its vast capital and technology diversity and dominance, is playing a role similar to that played by NASA, now left vacant by its defunding. So many technologies we now take for granted were developed during space travel and the moon landing pursuit. Big thinking about big data will spark ideas. Affordable and open access to technology has been Google's modus operandi. Android and Google Maps are fantastic examples that also play a role in revolutionizing construction processes. Mass participation is what furthers development, adoption, and another business case for Google to pursue ad revenue. Genie creates even larger numbers of people living ubiquitously connected among much more global commerce. One stands in awe of the reach of this strategy.

Not only is there money to be saved by streamlining the construction process, but Google and others will also have access to a tremendous amount of commerce, buying habits, etc. Imagine how easy it would be to bid a home's building materials if everything contained metadata. The reach of "professional membership" to a "Google Construction Pro" would give hundreds if not thousands of builders and depot stores the ability to bid the goods--a global superstore, such as (and perhaps) Amazon or eBay, working through the vast data management tools from Google.

Privacy Legacy
There is a cost. It is true our privacy erodes with technology conveniences. The erosion will continue at an everaccelerating pace with developments such as Google Genie. The reality is that the toothpaste was out of the tube a couple of years ago and it happened while we were looking down at our screens. Citizens will need to unite for laws that protect in ways very different from our current understanding of privacy. For more information on the impact to privacy from digital progression, I would recommend the book The New Digital Age, co-written by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen (link below in references).

While all of this sounds great (to me), serious adoption of technology usually comes years after the innovators initially get excited about it. Unforeseen challenges will throw cold water on adoption. But just as sensor frenzy is coming to homes and construction sites alike, it will take open and collaborative data management to glue it all together and ensure we are working toward a common goal. That has been challenging to date. The need, the ROI, the global impact that will result from such an initiative are what is attracting the likes of Google, with initiatives such as Genie. I for one am rooting for the solution.

Randy Noland is the Managing Editor and Cofounder of Machine Control Magazine.


Intel Tomorrow Project: Holograms: A Conversation with Jeff Demain.

The New Digital Age:

Trade Earthmovers:

Wilkinson, Paul. Could Google disrupt the construction IT market?:

A 1.852Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

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