The enterprise dashboard challenge in the era of Industry 4.0
The frequent portrayal of contractors as technological laggards is in some respects unfair. While it’s true that construction has fallen behind other industries in using technology to manage the enterprise, it’s also more difficult to integrate data in construction than in other sectors.
“Construction has not landed on any standard format like manufacturing and other industries have,” says Jeremy Larsen, vice-president of Products at Portland, Oregon-based Viewpoint Construction Software.
In spite of efforts by industry associations, he notes, construction workflows such as request for information (RFI) processes, change orders and submittals have yet to be standardized from a data perspective. “What it comes down to is database schema, and how systems can standardize on that so that they can talk to each other,” he says.
One of the difficulties is that construction data is unusually diverse – while manufacturing environments are relatively static, the construction site is a perpetually moving target for software to codify. “Projects are all a little different,” says Larsen. “All have nuances, owner requirements, and municipal codes that are different, so it’s harder to standardize.”
This diversity results in a proverbial double-edged sword – a wide variety of task-specific apps that are tough to integrate into the company’s data network. “Integration is a big challenge because there are so many pieces of software out there that do a particular task really well, but not one that has everything,” says Paula Dobrowolska, vice-president of Enterprise Tech Solutions for Toronto-based EllisDon Corp.
The classic alternative, of course, are manual workarounds, where data is entered and re-entered in order to share data between, say, an estimating app and a finance app. People pick up an app that makes their job easier, but they often pay the price through repetitive data entry tasks.
Viewpoint and other construction software vendors offer cloud-based integrated software suites that circumvent this problem. “Our solutions are built with integration in mind and talk to each other through the workflows,” Larsen says. “A superintendent can capture T&M and progress in the field and have the data go to the back-office system, because it was built with integration in mind. Because the solutions are already integrated, standardization is not an issue for us.”
Integrated suites are not without trade-offs. As Larsen points out, software vendors need to strike a balance between flexibility, which allows the suite to accommodate a wide variety of business practices, and ease of use.
Viewpoint is using artificial intelligence tools from Microsoft Azure to help bridge this gap. “With machine learning, the software can learn the habits of users, and then help out,” Larsen says. “Auto completion of forms for field applications will help people who don’t have time to use the software, for example.”
However, ease of use is no guarantee of adoption. “People are used to building in a certain way,” Dobrowolska says, “and they say ‘I’ve been doing this for 35 years and I’m making you money. Why should I change?’”
While IT departments are struggling with integration challenges and users in the field are fuming about the forms they have to fill out, construction companies are amassing large stores of big data in diverse formats – much of it unstructured – from sources that include photos, video, sensor data, drawings, hand-written notes, field notes and client data.
Instead of trying to integrate their big data, larger firms are storing it in data lakes – repositories that include structured and unstructured data in their native formats. The companies then apply powerful analytics tools to extract actionable information from these diverse data sets.
The practice opens the door to a new era of data use. “I think one thing that’s really going to come to the forefront is computer vision along with machine learning,” Dobrowolska says. “So you’ll have cameras all over your site, and you’ll know who’s in and out, how fast your buildings are going up, and the productivity rate. That can really help you estimate your next building.”
“Data will be the next game changer,” Larsen says, “the next mobility in construction. It will change how folks do projects and look at their business beyond just a single project. These are exciting times for vendors like us and the construction companies that are out there doing work.”
Jacob Stoller is principal of StollerStrategies.
This column originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of On-Site. Click here to read through the whole issue.