Firms are using artificial intelligence to help manage, coordinate, and improve production
Every employee hopes to get along with their co-workers, but what happens when the person you’re exchanging water-cooler pleasantries with isn’t a person at all?
An increasing number of construction companies, along with professionals in the architecture and engineering fields, have begun to use artificial intelligence (AI) to help with business management, coordination, and production.
The gradual paradigm shift could be traced to construction firms’ desire for increased output, as human employees are often unable to maintain the level of efficiency of their robot co-workers.
One company on the forefront is ALICE Technologies, which develops programs that help with construction managing, scheduling, and planning.
In February, ALICE Technologies released ALICE Manage, which is designed to mitigate issues that may arise on a construction site and help smooth the transition from blueprint to finished product.
“With the introduction of Manage, ALICE now brings the power of AI to the full project life cycle, from pre-construction through project management,” said René Morkos, CEO and Founder of ALICE Technologies in a news release. “With ALICE, contractors can develop an ideal project plan and easily tune that plan during the build based on changing circumstances. Our vision is to reduce global construction costs by 25%, and the introduction of Manage gives contractors the stem-to-stern project planning and management capability that can make this vision possible.”
“Our work helps to address workforce shortages in the construction industry by automating key construction operations,” said Jiansong Zhang, an assistant professor of construction management technology at Purdue Polytechnic Institute, in a news release. “On a construction site, there are many unknown factors that a construction robot must be able to account for effectively. This requires much more advanced sensing and reasoning technologies than those commonly used in a manufacturing environment.”
Zhang is part of a team of PPI engineers who developed a robotics-based system that helps construction firms finish projects faster with the help of computer-vision technology.
“By basing the sensing for our robotic arm around computer vision technology, rather than more limited-scope and expensive sensing systems, we have the capability to complete many sensing tasks with a single affordable sensor,” Zhang said. “This allows us to implement a more robust and versatile system at a lower cost.”
Essentially, inclusion of AI technology such as that created by PPI gives construction firms the ability to get more done for less.
Another way companies in the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) fields have increased efficiency is by using Building Information Modeling (BIM), which transfers building and construction plans into the 3D and digital realm.
BIM software – first seen in the 1970s – gives construction workers and those in related fields the ability to manage infrastructure through the entirety of a project’s life cycle, including post-production.
While BIM does its best work in the 3D realm, the technology making headway more and more into the AEC industry, and that work best in conjunction with BIM, are real-world robots.
Construction companies have a variety of uses for robots, such as those created by Zhang and his team at PPI, which can complete tasks that may be too difficult, dangerous, or simply impractical for a human worker to accomplish.
Robots, in conjunction with BIM technology, can also be used to help with on-site monitoring and 3D printing.
“On a construction site, there are many unknown factors that a construction robot must be able to account for effectively,” Zhang said. “This requires much more advanced sensing and reasoning technologies than those commonly used in a manufacturing environment.”
While unpredictability on construction sites may come with the territory, it won’t take a psychic to foresee AI technology continuing to expand its reach.
AI in construction was valued at around $450 million in 2018 and is expected to expand to around $2.1 billion by 2023, a compound annual growth rate of about 36%.
“There is only going to be one way forward, and that is through BIM,” said Revuelta Architects’ Keith Kulynych, in a recent interview for Graphisoft’s By Design web series. “You’re going to have to adapt to BIM, or you’re going to be left behind.”
Despite the positives of adopting and utilizing more AI technology, its inclusion does not come without challenges.
One area where supervisors might need to proceed with caution is when dealing with hard-headed employees, who may have decades of experience and aren’t all that excited to be replaced or overruled by their new AI colleagues.
The potential for workplace disdain was highlighted by Michael MacBean, project director for key accounts at Pacific Structures, during a recent interview with Engineering News-Record.
“Selling the idea of putting all this trust in AI isn’t just a Pacific Structures issue, it’s a hurdle for the whole industry,” MacBean said. “It’s a hard thing to talk about. There are a lot of builders across the country with 30-plus years of expertise on how to build.”
While the idea of being robot-replaced could certainly lead to some uncomfortable jobsite discussions, research from a 2017 McKinsey report found that the construction industry achieved only a 1% growth over the previous 20 years.
This compares unfavorably to the growth of the world’s economy (2.8%) along with the overall growth of manufacturing (3.6%) and would seem to make clear that the construction industry could use the help.
“Some of these projects are so big, so complex, it can take years for just a couple of humans to consider every way to design and cost it out,” MacBean said.
Research from McKinsey found that if construction industry production caught up to the rate of growth of the economy, approximately $1.6 trillion in value would be added to the sector.
In other words, time to clock in, Optimus Prime.