Construction goes digital
By Jacob StollerConstruction Skills Development Software
Until recently, virtual design and construction (VDC) was primarily about replacing paper drawings with 3-D digital images. That’s changing.
Blueprints, the blue-coloured project drawings, disappeared decades ago, but the term blueprint has survived as a general descriptor for detailed plans of action. That updated definition aptly applies to current VDC models which can now accommodate an unlimited variety of images, specifications, descriptions, verifications, and other elements.
“There’s only so much you can put on a construction drawing,” says Ben Ferrer, national director of virtual design and construction at Turner Construction. “But now that you’re in a digital environment, the sky is the limit on the amount of detail and data that you can put into a model.”
These capabilities are only beginning to find use cases in construction, but compared with what’s possible, contractors are only scratching the surface. Looking at details about materials, for example, a company can measure and track the environmental footprint of a project, fine-tune allocation of resources, or factor supply chain constraints into a project schedule.
“The data we’re using fits into two different buckets,” says Daniel Doherty, manager of integrated construction technology at PCL Construction. “One is data formatted for specific applications such as drone flight data, 3-D scan data, or virtual coordination. The other bucket is data that we’ve always had but never fully utilized, for example, asset data, labour distribution, weather information, and trade-specific productivity. These might have been tracked in some way in the past, but never correlated with each other fully. This is why we’re eagerly awaiting the realm of AI.”
Focusing on areas where contractors specialize is one way of getting a solid return on investment for expanding the model.
“The way we’re approaching this is to start with something that’s predictable, repeatable, and well understood,” says Matt Lawrence, director of engineering technology services at Kiewit. “We do a lot of solar projects, and we know what all the components look like. So, we’re able to take drone images, process that using AI, and automatically feed real-time progress information into our project control software.”
One of the toughest challenges is ensuring that the model remains easily accessible by people who depend on it for real-time updates.
“All of a sudden, we’ve gone from a couple of software touch points for the project manager or site superintendent to easily a dozen or more,” says Hammad Chaudhry, national director of digital project delivery, digital and data engineering for EllisDon. “We have so many more ancillary tools coming up that you end up with a conundrum of hundreds of different applications, each with its own data. So, as we’ve seen with other industries, the evolution is towards integration of these data sources in a way that reduces duplication and inefficiency, and the number of touch points for people that rely on the data.”
The model has to not only be accessible, but also be clearly valuable.
“Our first point of view is that we have to make sure that field teams can easily access and navigate those models,” says Julian Clayton, vice-president, product – general contractors at Procore Technologies, “because a lot of the times just visualizing that model can drastically improve productivity and reduce rework.”
THE ROAD AHEAD
One of the most powerful accelerators of technology is the universal adoption of standards that support interoperability and collaboration, and greatly improve the economies of scale for digitizing business processes. Canada lags behind many countries in mandating such standards for government projects.
“When it comes to digital construction and BIM and VDC processes, Canada is pretty much a free-for-all in the sense that there’s no driving force right now,” says Steve Rollo, national BIM and VDC manager at Graham Construction and Engineering LP. As Rollo points out, there’s an international group of companies and associations promoting the Open BIM standard.
“This is a global data discussion in the sense that data is consistent no matter where you are in the world,” says Rollo. “The leader in this is the U.K., where you can’t bid on projects anymore without a certain level of VDC. They’ve been very successful with that, and I think that in Canada, we’re missing an opportunity.”
“We’ve seen a major shift in the U.K. because of government policy,” says Chaudhry. “Canada has made a lot of progress too, in terms of competing on the global stage, and even without government policy we are able to lead, but if government policy were at the same level as the U.K., it would help bring forth a digital- and data-first approach to procurement.”
Jacob Stoller is principal of Stoller Strategies. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.