Change Leaders Interview: Technology Is Changing Construction More Than Ever Before
Investing in the most advanced technologies for surveying and monitoring projects has become essential, marking a turning point for an industry that often has been considered slow to change. To better understand this new trend and its impact, V1 sought out experts in digital construction who use Pix4D’s drone mapping technology for site surveying: Virtual Design and Construction (VDC) Consultant Viet T.P. Pham of MT Højgaard in Denmark and Regional VDC Manager Blake Potts of Rogers-O’Brien Construction in the United States. Both shared their insights on current challenges faced by the construction industry and how the use of new technologies, both on and off site, is addressing those challenges.
V1: What are the challenges you’re facing in construction?
Pham: The greatest challenge in the construction industry is productivity—or, to be more specific, the lack of productivity. This is caused by several things: lack of common goals and incentives, fragmented value chain, sub-optimal contracts, late involvement and incorrect prerequisites for contractors, lack of project materials or broken communication.
Potts: Coordination of construction documents is a big challenge in the construction industry right now. Both design and construction schedules are getting shorter and shorter. Consequently, it’s easy for important details to be overlooked. From the construction side, it means we have to begin learning our projects earlier and to a deeper level than ever before. Questions or clarifications we might have asked the design team during construction now have to be asked before we break ground. This has led us to change the way we work; this is where virtual design and construction is important.
V1: Would you say the use of new technology has become inescapable?
Pham: If you go to construction sites today, not a lot has changed in the past 50 years. 2D drawings in paper format are still used, resulting in errors when we have wrong versions, slowing actions and thus delaying the schedule. Technology can change a lot of the issues we face today.
Simple tools like apps or tablets can ensure drawing updates, revisions and changes are shared. Virtual reality changes design reviews and provides immersive visualizations. Also, 360-degree cameras optimize documentation, and drones can capture, track and inspect. Integrated 5D models provide an overview of project sequence and track costs throughout the entire project lifecycle.
Potts: Contractors are under constant pressure to reduce construction costs and schedules. Basically, we have to do more with less. So we need to be as efficient as possible while minimizing errors. Technology can help us tremendously in this regard. Take something simple, like the hyperlinking of digital project drawings. This is such a simple concept, yet it yields tremendous value for contractors. It saves time by enabling us to quickly find information in the drawings: we can now easily add key information to them and go mobile by placing these drawings on a tablet.
V1: Can you explain what VDC is? Is it the new building information modeling (BIM)?
Pham: To be able to transform construction into a much better, attractive, and inspiring industry, we need to change the way we work. This is the cornerstone of VDC.
It’s important to stress that VDC isn’t the new BIM, but a way of working: VDC is engaging earlier and cooperating closely with the entire value chain.
It’s about testing new collaborative models, methods and technologies, without altering what works. VDC works with digital 3D models (BIM) integrated with the project time and cost planning process (5D simulation).
Potts: BIM has been a “catch-all” term for years in the [architecture/engineering/construction] industry and has come to mean any and all technology applied to design or construction. In that way, I think BIM has lost some of its initial meaning. Virtual design and construction, on the other hand, is a more specific application of virtually designing projects prior to the start of construction to ensure complete coordination.
V1: What is digital construction for you? How does it help solve the most lingering problems in construction?
Pham: Our vision for MT Højgaard is to execute projects virtually before we do it on site. We eradicate the problems before they are too expensive to fix.
Potts: The easiest way to describe it is that we now build our projects twice: once digitally and once in the field. By building our projects digitally, first we can identify and solve issues prior to the start of on-site construction—where these issues could impact schedule or potentially cost. We see the greatest amount of benefits when we are able to collaborate with the architects and engineers during design. That way, we can provide feedback on cost and constructability before the documents are completed. Not only does this provide our owners with extra value, but it minimizes requests for information to architects and engineers during construction, saving everybody’s time.
V1: What are the next trends in terms of site-surveying technologies?
Pham: The use of photogrammetry is something that will change the way we survey. It will rapidly cut down on the time and cost it takes to produce the same results with a total station.
Potts: Photogrammetry by drones and fixed cameras is enabling us to rapidly gather as-built data from our job sites that can be used for a number of different purposes, including survey data. The really exciting thing is that this data collection can be done quickly, in an automated fashion. Our teams no longer need to request this information; it’s already there. This is a huge time saver. Over the next couple of years, I believe we will see the accuracy of this data increase to the point where it can begin to compete with equipment like total stations.
V1: Technologies are rapidly evolving. How do you stay competitive?
Pham: We look at the industry. We perform our own research, test and attend conferences to stay updated. Not every technology will look feasible in the beginning. Sometimes it’s about taking a leap of faith.
Potts: You need to dedicate resources in your company to finding, refining and implementing new technologies and processes companywide. Our field teams find or come up with new ideas all the time, but the problem is that they are too busy building. Therefore, it’s difficult for them to focus on [research and development]. That’s where we come in. Our department has the ability to take these and other new ideas and further develop them. We then identify the ideas that have the best value for the company, develop an implementation plan and begin standardizing these across the company.