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The Internet of Construction

It’s hard to believe that only a few years ago we had never heard of Fitbit or Siri, and we wouldn’t have dreamt of asking a speaker to control our heating and lighting. Technology has certainly gathered pace in recent years and this is affecting a whole host of industries. One of the industries set to see a monumental change thanks to new technology is construction.

Introducing the Internet of Things

Enter the Internet of Things (IoT). Put simply, the IoT is a catch-all phrase used to describe objects that can be connected to the internet and made ‘smart’. These devices range from a smart fridge and kettle to smart clothing and wearable technology (e.g. Fitbit, Apple Watch), beacons and sensors. It is this latter group which is most exciting for construction professionals.

The IoT is set to be big business across many industries, with the global market predicted to grow to $457 billion by 2020. One of the major drivers of growth will be businesses taking advantage of the IoT, thanks to the rise of smart cities, smart homes and the Industrial IoT. In order to stay ahead of the game, construction professionals are going to have to get clued up on the IoT and the potential it holds.

Construction is all about building things as efficiently and safely as possible. The IoT can help with this. Equipping a site with smart devices can relay vital data on the site’s environment and overall performance that can be used by management to help with everyday decision making and strategic planning.

Iot and IBM

According to tech giant IBM, data from connected sensors can be imported into a Building Information Model (BIM) to give oversight on things like temperature fluctuations, motion, and humidity. The BIM model has been developed to understand how a building reacts over time to use and environmental factors. Therefore, data from sensors on building motion can give insights on how neighboring construction works affects a property, or how having a certain number of people living in a building affects its humidity. In this way, IoT data offers an unparalleled level of detail on how buildings respond to everyday wear and tear - especially if the data is collected and tracked over a long period of time.

Indeed, IBM Watson IoT is a service developed specifically to track all the disparate data that a building produces through the IoT over time. IBM Watson (a kind of artificial intelligence system developed by IBM) then analyzes the data to help managers make decisions regarding a building’s upkeep and how to improve the experience of living or working in the building.

The Manitoba Hydro skyscraper in Winnipeg gives some indication of how the IoT will impact the working environment in the future. It features a natural humidifier throughout the building that pumps moist air throughout the building and opens or closes the blinds automatically depending on conditions in the offices. Likewise, Cisco remotely operates the electricity use, security and other functions inside its buildings worldwide.

It may not be too long before someone leaving work for the night can remotely turn off the heating and lighting and double-check that all the windows and doors are locked. At regular intervals, senior management could check to see that energy efficiency targets are being met, what areas of the building might require maintenance and generally how well the building is withstanding daily use.

The IoT working on site

The IoT doesn’t just have a use monitoring conditions once a building has been constructed. When working on a sensitive site next to a neo-natal unit, Skansa used the IoT to measure noise pollution in the area. Sensors also measured dust and pressure, sending alerts to construction workers if specific thresholds were exceeded.

Sensors can also be placed on individual building materials to allow them to be tracked throughout the supply chain. Loss and theft of materials when transported through the supply chain can add some significant costs to a construction project. By using RFID, site managers will be able to see where materials are and determine when they are due to be delivered. This also helps with project management, as managers will be forewarned if a delivery is going to be late.

IoT for machinery use

Similarly, RFID sensors placed on machinery around a construction site could allow a site manager to see exactly where a machine is being used. It can also provide a warning to other people on site if they are in danger of straying into the path of moving machinery, for instance. Site managers will also be able to see, in near real-time, exactly where a piece of machinery is, how it is being used and whether it is a risk to nearby workers.

Knowing exactly when a machine is being used and when it is idle can also allow for better planning and resource allocation in the future. Instead of wasting resources by having a machine sit idle on site, equipment could be delivered exactly when needed in a project timeline and then sent to another site once its work is done.

As another bonus, data from IoT sensors can help you predict when a machine is likely to require maintenance. Sensors can measure how often a machine is used and whether performance has changed over time. Through collecting and sifting through the data from the sensors, managers can build up an accurate idea of normal machine performance over time, how often a machine requires upkeep and then preemptively service it before it breaks down. This reduces the risk of a critical piece of equipment failing at a crucial point in a building’s construction. Unexpected breakdowns are costly, both in terms of the sudden labor costs as well as the loss of equipment. Installing sensors that allow companies to be proactive about equipment maintenance, therefore, can positively impact your bottom line in the long run.

Current challenges faced by the IoT

That’s not to say that the IoT as it stands today doesn’t need to overcome some challenges. There is a great need for standardisation of the IoT. Currently, we have many different IoT devices which operate on seperate systems and therefore cannot speak to each other. This means that one device cannot currently control another and that the data from each device cannot be easily combined and analyzed. Furthermore, a standard needs to be developed quickly, to stop companies from investing in IoT technology now that may become redundant in the future.

Bringing the IoT onto construction sites will also require a change in skills of site managers and workers. Future decision making will be facilitated by the IoT and the data it produces. This means that construction workers are going to have to become data-literate in order to interpret the data that sensors on site will generate. Like any change, this might be harder for workers who do not already have computer literacy or similar skills and part of the workforce may be left behind.

There are also concerns about the security of some IoT devices. As the devices have become more widespread, there have been some high profile hacks of baby monitors, webcams, and even a Jeep. On a small scale, these hacks might just be inconvenient and creepy, but if a hacker was to gain access to an entire electricity grid or the HVAC system of a skyscraper, the consequences could be disastrous.

A who’s who of the IoT

Despite some of its drawbacks, several companies have already realized the multi-billion pound opportunity that the IoT brings to the construction industry. JCB has connected over 10,000 construction machines to measure performance and aid in resource planning. Meanwhile, Caterpillar has over 560,000 connected machines that help with predictive maintenance. As the technology is refined further, it’s likely that the industry will see many construction companies follow JCB and Caterpillar’s lead in experimenting with the IoT.

The IoT has given construction professionals the opportunity to stop reacting to things when they go wrong on a construction site, and to proactively prepare for them instead. Through the IoT, future site managers are going to be more informed than ever before. One day, the IoT may be as fundamental to building sites as bricks and cement. However, in order for it to get there, the IoT does have to overcome some hurdles. The IoT is certainly something that all construction professionals should keep track of. Indeed, it won’t be something that can be ignored.