What Is Digital Construction? 7 Best Practices

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The good news for the construction industry is that the demand for construction projects remains high, but the challenges facing even the biggest construction leaders are rising as well. Materials and supplies costs remain high, skilled workers are increasingly scarce, and disruptions around every corner threaten to cause delays.

To be profitable today, construction companies must be resilient, agile, and more efficient. Adopting new technological advancements can help find those efficiencies but only if they’re employed in a thoughtful and planned manner. Every investment is a risk, but taking the right approach to digital transformation in the construction industry can ensure that your investments pay off.

What Is Digital Construction?

Digital construction is essentially the use and application of digital tools to improve the process of planning, delivering, and operating built environments. It is a highly data-driven approach that makes use of digital tools to make processes more efficient and ensure a high quality of work.

While digital tools such as building information modeling (BIM), computer-aided design (CAD), and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) have been used for years to create accurate models and designs of products, the construction industry has lagged behind others in achieving a full digital transformation. Deloitte notes that only 1.2 percent of construction revenue is allocated for IT, compared to a 3.5 percent average across all industries.

This delay is at least partly due to a lack of digital standards and experience within the construction industry. It can be difficult to move on from “what works” when there are uncertainties about how high the up-front costs will be and exactly how long it will take before such an investment pays off. While this delay makes sense, it’s ultimately self-defeating.

That same Deloitte study shows that, while labor productivity across industries has increased by 25 percent in the past 20 years, it has only grown by 5 percent in the construction industry. Digital construction is a powerful way for construction firms to increase productivity by eliminating inefficiencies, providing more accurate insights, and improving communication across various stakeholders — from architects to engineers to contractors.

Examples of Digital Construction

Digital tools are already in use throughout the fields of architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC), and while some are rather commonplace, others are still emerging. Here’s a rundown of digital construction tools, from everyday programs, you’re likely already using to more cutting-edge technology.

  • Cloud-based software applications and filing systems allow project teams to enter, coordinate, and access information in digital spaces known as a Common Data Environment (CDE). BIM programs are one such popular tool made possible by CDEs, where any updates to plans can be automatically sent out to all subscribers. This process is far faster and more efficient than sending and updating printed documents and blueprints.
  • Mobile technology is a common asset that makes communication easier and reduces the need for travel. Online mobile devices can send and receive instant updates about a project or important safety alerts. Mobile technology can be utilized offline as well for remote project sites that have bad or no network signal. Programs can be downloaded in the morning, record relevant data during while on-site, and then upload to cloud servers when there’s an available connection.
  • IoT, smart sensors, and wireless networks provide real-time data informed by remote sensors, often through the framework of BIM systems. IoT systems can track the movements of materials and assets, helping to optimize logistics, keep records of inventory, and prevent theft. Sensors worn by workers on-site can monitor for safety, providing alerts when entering dangerous areas or near hazardous materials.
  • Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — more commonly referred to as drones — are another powerful resource for information gathering. UAVs can quickly survey areas, collecting data to generate topographic maps in a fraction of the time and cost when compared to traditional surveying. They also can be utilized to create 3D maps of worksites or perform visual inspections of distant or hard-to-reach areas, helping to spot and identify problems and issues before they become serious.
  • Machine learning AI and Big Data analytics can be used to generate more accurate forecasts of cash, labor, equipment, materials, and other resources needed across an operation. Over time, machine learning can refine and build more accurate forecast curves based on project history and new data collected from on-site workers as well as IoT devices and UAVs. These programs can then apply those data analytics insights to new projects that have similar characteristics, making better estimates for time frames, equipment utilization, materials needed, and productivity.
  • Digital twins — which are a virtual representation of physical components, or current processes and operations — are key for monitoring progress and identifying potential problems. Because digital twins are continuously updated, issues can be caught early and quickly remedied. For example, for internal purposes, a firm can monitor the digital twins of their construction equipment to verify everything is working optimally. Digital twins can also be used in external services, such as to confirm the functionality of installed systems that can then be handed off to a facility manager for future monitoring.

There are other, more future-forward AEC digital innovations including 3D printing and mixed reality environments. To read more examples of digital construction tools in actual use cases, download our Use Cases in Construction eBook.

Benefits of Digital Construction Technology

Whether used individually or in coordination with each other, these digital construction tools and programs are meant to make the development, operation, and maintenance of the built environment safer, more efficient, and more collaborative. Proper use of digital construction tools can:

  • Increase efficiencies. Errors, changes to the design, or unforeseen complications can set back projects and can blow up budgets. Digital construction projects offer greater flexibility to make adjustments and can lower the number of drawing revisions and version errors.
  • Foster collaboration and communication. Digital technology is proven to keep all stakeholders informed in real-time through remote communication and mobile devices. Cloud technology provides a single source of truth by giving all stakeholders access to the same data anytime, anywhere.
  • Automate manual tasks. Manual tasks are repetitive and time-consuming. Project services automation solutions help to streamline everything from customer data management to project planning and vendor onboarding. Mobile timekeeping solutions free up supervisors from having to monitor clock-ins and clock-outs to focus on more important tasks.
  • Improve project tracking and forecasting. 3D site scans using drones and hand-held scanners linked to BIM models can automatically detect deviations and forecast potential problems. AI models and predictive algorithms, combined with real-time insights, can generate more accurate forecasts of the availability, delivery, and shortages of cash, labor, equipment, materials, and more. This allows for better workforce planning and more accurate tracking of a project’s progress in comparison to key performance indicators.
  • Better safety and material workflows. Sensor-based safety technology can create a safer on-site work environment, reminding workers of important safety protocols and providing updates about their surroundings. Low-code applications can be deployed on mobile devices to inform and guide safety walks, quality checks, punch lists, and daily reports.
  • Meet environmental and sustainability requirements. As firms start to see increased pressure and legal obligations to protect the environment and meet sustainable or “green building” standards, digital technology will provide much-needed data and insights. For example, digital technology can aid in tracking the carbon output of equipment to better comply with regulations around carbon capture. Similarly, for sites that must comply with the stormwater pollution prevention plan (SWPPP) under the U.S. Clean Water Act, digital technology can monitor and measure wastewater to prove that sites are meeting water safety requirements.

Best Practices for Adopting Digital Innovations

Achieving an effective digital transformation isn’t a “one-and-done” act of installing a specific program or purchasing a new technology. It is a systemic process that coordinates all stakeholders with the information they need and ensures they have the tools and knowledge to succeed. If you’re interested in digital construction, here are some recommended best practices to get there:

  1. Identify the critical data elements you need to collect and analyze. Start with a self-evaluation to identify and select the areas, processes, and data that promise to have the highest amount of impact. You’ll also want to prioritize them based on the lowest cost and fastest time to value. Such an undertaking can be overwhelming, especially on top of normal operations, so if you’re unsure how to proceed, consider partnering with an advisory service that can gather, store, and analyze that information.
  2. Think about how you can be a digital-first organization. There’s a temptation to extend the life of your existing systems to extract more value out of them — but understand that a digital transformation is less about how to graft new digital tech onto legacy systems, and more about determining how digital systems can replace what’s old and outdated. Some legacy systems are simply incapable of integrating new tech, so you’ll need to be strategic about which areas need a fresh start.
  3. Focus on a few areas to digitize at a time and try not to do everything at once. Part of being strategic means knowing how to pick your battles. It’s very easy to be enthusiastic about undertaking a larger scope for a full digital transformation — but you must set expectations about what can be realistically achieved within a set time frame and budget. Stay small and prioritize an agile, iterative approach to a digital construction transformation. Adopting a “fail fast” approach of focusing on specific areas can help you achieve rapid results while avoiding sinking costs into missteps and dead ends.
  4. Prioritize platforms built for integrations. No single digital platform can offer everything you need, so it’s important to choose a platform solution that offers easy integrations for all your programs and resources. Find something that connects all aspects of your project management — from estimates to sales to forecasts to execution — and you’ll greatly improve the data flow, project visibility, and communications.
  5. Account for data security. One downside to greater connectivity is the increased risk of outside attacks from hackers and cybercriminals. Even simple IoT devices aren’t immune to hacks and data breaches. Every digital transformation needs to account for how your organization will protect itself from vulnerabilities. This should not only include plans for regular software updates and monitoring, but establishing good data governance to assure its security, safety, and accuracy.
  6. Ensure your team has proper training and instruction. Digital tools are only effective if they’re used properly. Every stakeholder, especially project leaders such as superintendents, project managers, and foremen, must be well-versed in how to use every software program as well as how to work closely with other members of a construction team through these tools.
  7. Find a partner with experience to help with your digital transformation. Undertaking a digital transformation is challenging, even with the right approach. To avoid making obvious mistakes or false starts, find a well-rounded partner with experience in your industry, mastery of the application to be installed, and a proven approach to successfully integrating your disparate systems.

At Hitachi Solutions, we specialize in providing clients with the most innovative and intelligent software solutions. We’ve worked with multiple AEC clients to select the right areas for digital transformation and provide the right training for stakeholders.

With our Engage for Construction IP, we handle the development to integrate your new digital platform into all of your other systems — from job execution and site management to reporting and compliance. Contact us today to learn more about our process and to get started on your digital construction transformation.