X and Y: Tackling construction project planning complexity from two directions
By Brad BarthSoftware
As the recent success of SaaS stocks has shown, there is still huge business potential in the cloud.
This is especially true for the construction industry, where despite a reputation as tech late-adopters, the sector is warming up to the transformative potential of cloud-based software. The uneven spread of digital technologies throughout the industry has allowed incremental improvements, but left the IT landscape fragmented, with teams juggling multiple software packages across the entire life cycle of a project.
Although today’s project teams have unprecedented access to data, and more means to capture it than ever before, the token digitalization of the industry has left challenges in its wake.
The construction industry’s journey to digitalization has largely been in the form of spot improvements to various aspects of their operations. It has also created siloed workflows with different teams working from different versions of the same information. This non-holistic approach leaves teams challenged to deal with unified project reporting, makes them slow to react to scope changes or other issues requiring efficient decisions, and creates little opportunity to leverage lessons learned from previous projects.
The resulting lack of meaningful benchmarks from past work precludes construction organizations from one of the key advantages of digitalization — institutionalized knowledge sharing. The creation of an ever-expanding, digital “knowledge library” positions mature companies to recognize new operational efficiencies and enables growing companies to scale without traditional bottlenecks.
Cloud-based solutions that help teams break down silos and unify data are gaining market traction due to the transformative power they can wield over the industry’s greatest problems. By creating a single platform through which to integrate a project’s documents, data and workflows, the process of capturing, reconciling and re-distributing project information is streamlined for all users, ultimately leading to greater project confidence.
Acting as a single source of truth, a unifying cloud solution allows users to better collaborate and communicate with their peers. And there is a reporting upside too. Metrics can easily be created and shared to all stakeholders and roles across the project, affording visibility to issues and KPIs in real-time.
The best solutions offer easily customized dashboards that allow contractors, owners and vendors to collaborate effectively while retaining their own project lens. When all project teams work from the cloud, the risks of communication failures and quality issues, as well as scheduling and cost overruns, can be significantly reduced.
Mimicking the mind of the planner
In construction, the human experience that influences each step is vital. It is also difficult to capture digitally and a source of significant potential project risk. As managers across departments will testify, assumptions made about highly complex projects are situational. Project planners are tasked with constantly testing the project’s assumptions based on their experience and adapting the plan accordingly.
This is a valuable task, but gathering up the information needed to accomplish that task is often redundant and inefficient. It is a process that gets repeated at every stage of the project, as the fine details are handed between stakeholders — owners to engineers, engineers to contractors, contractors to subcontractors and suppliers, and back again.
That is why augmented human intelligence, where human experience is digitized and used as an input into the project, will be crucial to fully digitalizing the construction industry. By integrating human intelligence into the cloud, AI algorithms can begin to address some of these industry challenges as it has already done in other industries. For example, AI can assess an endless number of alternative paths to construction, and continuously re-run the assumptions as new information is added. Similarly, cloud-based AI can mine for and extrapolate trends in the data to identify patterns, anomalies compared to past projects, and common project pitfalls, so that risks and contingencies can be properly applied.
Through cloud-based machine learning, the project model and its outputs — for example, the schedule and budget — become more accurate over time. By unifying and digitalizing experience using cloud-based AI, every aspect of the project can be embedded into the model to give ultimate project confidence.
A further benefit of holistic digitalization occurs at the end of the project, at hand-off, when the project team can simplify hand-off to the owner of all the information needed to maintain the asset over its operational lifetime. With a digital repository that brings together as-designed and as-built information, owners can navigate through the 3D model of the now-built bridge (or building, or power plant) to find critical information at any point in the future, with full context and history. Compared to boxes of paper, or thumb drives full of disconnected PDF files, this benefit to project owners is massive, providing a digital twin of the project that delivers value long after construction is complete.
Integration for synergy
To benefit the most from cloud-based AI, the solution must also address the issue of integration. Early on, contractors, owners and engineers invested heavily into the latest digital tools to keep ahead of the market, only to be confronted later with a lack of integration between these point solutions. This lack of integration results not only in a technical challenge, but also in a contextual one. Disparate systems lack a common context and syntax for the data. Subsequently, creating meaningful reports and dashboards across them often becomes an exercise in trying to put square pegs into round holes.
Having already made the investment in various solutions, many companies are hesitant to write them off in place of a more comprehensive solution. Instead, an attractive alternative is a modular, cloud-based platform that is functionally broad in its own right, but also supports third party integrations through open APIs. This way, a company can achieve many of the benefits of a holistic approach, perhaps replacing a dozen or more point systems, while still integrating to other legacy systems that must remain in the mix.
In a bid to provide the best fit-for-purpose and comprehensive solution to market, software vendors are beginning to actively encourage customer-focused platform collaborations, even with competitors. This transparent and open approach to construction cloud development has resulted in an ecosystem of solutions for the industry. Within a unified cloud, it is possible to create infinite bridges to other software products, add-ons and extensions you would never even have thought of — all designed by experts with project planners in mind. From design and estimating, to risk registers and equipment telematics, almost any site data can be integrated into the cloud to amplify the planner’s insight and achieve a level of efficiency and confidence not readily accessible before.
Like construction projects, digitization is becoming increasingly complex, with numerous solutions focused on solving different parts of the same problem. Into the future, construction projects will benefit most from deploying unifying cloud-based solutions that can connect a broad swath of the roles involved in the construction process, along the way creating an institutionalized knowledge library by absorbing insight from all aspects of every project. Such an information asset can prove to be a major competitive differentiator that helps in recruiting, in customer loyalty and in delivering project certainty.
Brad Barth is the Chief Product Officer at InEight.
He is a member of the company’s executive leadership team and a key architect of the company’s product vision and strategy. Prior to InEight, Barth spent twenty years in a similar role at Hard Dollar, where he helped define the project cost management (PCM) category of software that later became the foundation of InEight.