IoT Applications in Construction

The construction industry is bringing real-time information into processes that are centuries old. Internet of Things (IoT) devices and sensors are collecting job site data in a more affordable, efficient and effective way than previously imaginable.

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Someone holding a construction hat with cranes in the background
Illustration: © IoT For All

The construction job site is now ripe for fundamental changes that enable productivity, safety, process improvement and new tools. The Internet of Things (IoT) is allowing for the deployment of simple low power sensors that are able to communicate cost-effectively. As IoT continues to become more ubiquitous, it’s having a greater impact on how the construction industry is turning around. IoT makes it possible for every stakeholder to understand what’s happening at every stage of the construction process in real-time from planning to actual construction, post-construction and how the building is operated during service.

While the construction industry is changing at a glacial pace, construction companies who are adopting technology to successfully address common workplace concerns and streamline processes are benefitting from increased efficiencies and improved responsiveness to the increasing demands of the industry. Flat productivity, decreased margins, more schedule overruns and increased competition are some of the obvious reasons construction companies should consider the adoption of IoT technology and digitization. Data has now become a critical asset for business, and informed decisions can only be data-driven.

Generally, productivity, maintenance, security and safety appear to be the leading drivers of IoT adoption in the construction industry.

Productivity

The construction sector is conditioned by deadlines and targets. It’s mandatory to avoid backlogs because they result in budget increases. IoT can enable more readiness and efficiency thus improving productivity. IoT leaves people with less menial work, and, instead, they’re allocated more time to interact with project owners and amongst themselves, generating new ideas to improve project delivery and customer satisfaction.
Construction requires an adequate supply of materials to ensure the smoothness of the project. However, the late supply of materials often occurs at the site due to poor scheduling caused by human error. Through IoT, the supply unit is fitted with a suitable sensor it’s possible to automatically determine the quantity and make automatic orders or raise alarms.

Maintenance

Power and fuel consumption will result in wastage if not actively managed, and that will impact the overall cost of the project. Through the availability of real-time information, it becomes possible to know the status of every asset, to schedule maintenance stops or refueling and turn-off idle equipment. Further, field sensors help to prevent problems from happening, which reduces warranty claims, helping the bottom line and keeping customers happy. Beyond notifications for decreasing stocks, sensors can be used to monitor materials condition like the suitability of the temperature or humidity of the item/environment, handling issues, damage and expiration. Equipment suppliers have had to evolve from just being suppliers to partners who continuously monitor and maintain equipment, leaving clients to focus on their core business.

Safety and Security

Some of the biggest challenges encountered on a construction job site are theft and safety. Human security agents are not adequate to monitor a huge site properly. Using IoT enabled tags, any material or theft of items is easily resolved as these sensors will notify the current location of the materials or item. It’s no longer necessary to send a human agent out to check out everything.

IoT allows for the creation of a digital real-time job site map together with the updated risks associated with the works and notifies every worker when getting closer to any risk or entering a dangerous environment. For example, monitoring the air quality in an enclosed space is critical for workplace safety. IoT technologies will not only prevent staff from being exposed to dangerous conditions but can also detect those conditions before or as they happen. With real-time IoT data, workers are empowered to be more predictive about job-site issues and prevent situations that could lead to a safety incident and lost time.

Handling equipment and machinery for too long may also cause workers to experience fatigue, which in turn disturbs their concentration and productivity. IoT makes it possible to monitor signs of distress like abnormal pulse rates, elevations and user location.

Below is a summary of some IoT technologies that are improving outcomes on the construction job site.

UAVs and Autonomous Vehicles

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and autonomous vehicles are gaining popularity. Monitoring and surveillance at huge construction projects which span huge spaces are being made easy through UAVs, especially drones. Further, autonomous dump trucks and excavators are being tested in various projects to limit exposure of human life to unsafe work situations. e.g. Autonomous TMA Truck, Volvo Trucks, Smart Construction by Komatsu. Manual tracking of the condition and location of critical equipment at a construction site is time-consuming and prone to human error. Fitting trackers on these critical assets brings huge convenience to the construction/project manager. IoT enabled equipment tracking allows construction companies to manage utilization, control costs and make smarter equipment decisions. Gleaning data from paperwork and spreadsheets don’t readily give managers actionable information.

Using drones to gather accurate survey maps and aerial images of a job site, as well as track progress remotely, saves on a project’s time and cost. Additionally, the aerial images can give project managers a different perspective of the project, and help spot potential issues that may not have been apparent from the ground.

Real-time tracking and cloud-based data sets help construction companies reduce theft, increase productivity and control usage costs. The beauty of IoT enabled solutions is that even the smallest companies and the shortest-term projects have found smart, wireless systems to be a cost-effective option.

While robots are not yet a common sight on the construction site, bricklaying robots are already being tested e.g. Fastbrick Robotics.

Concrete Curing

Another exciting trend shaking up the construction industry involves the application of IoT in concrete curing. Here, sensors are embedded in concrete during casting, and they follow curing of concrete in real time allowing the construction manager to monitor and plan their schedules with certainty. An accurate in-situ estimation of the compressive strength of concrete provides the opportunity to optimize critical construction operations, such as formwork removal time, opening a bridge/road to traffic, pre-stressed cable tensioning time and optimization of the concrete mix design. One of the major issues during construction is managing labor and formwork costs. Knowing the maturity of concrete can make the difference between profitability and loss as it allows scheduling and cycling of formwork and optimization of labor. Sensohive Maturix, Doka Concremote and Giatec SmartRock are some of the implementations of IoT in concrete curing.

ReadyMix suppliers, cement manufacturers, consulting engineers and concrete testing labs can also rely on this IoT technology to enhance service delivery.

Waste Management and Structural Health Monitoring

Waste management is a critical consideration on a modern construction site, especially nowadays given the increased attention on the carbon footprint of the construction process. It’s also crucial to immediately clean trash on a job site to create space and reduce hazards. Trash levels have to be monitored and removed within a certain time. Proper waste disposal approaches also have to be enforced. Monitoring waste disposal bins or vehicles in a cost-effective way is now possible through IoT trackers. Failure to handle waste properly may result in penalties for the contractor from authorities. IoT is also used in structural health monitoring to detect vibrations, cracks and conditions of critical building members and civil structures during and after construction.

Wearables

IoT makes wearables smart. The ability to install sensors on any machine or object to monitor performance levels, operating conditions, physical states or other data through connectivity is what drives IoT. When inanimate objects can be connected to the internet, they enable new capabilities. A wearable is any item that can be worn on the body to provide additional information to the user through connectivity. One such example of a wearable is the heads-up displays provided on smart-glasses connected to augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and mixed reality (MR) technology like Google Glass, Microsoft HoloLens. These technologies are currently being applied to planning and modeling. Smart-glasses can be used to mock up a complete suite floor with all the furnishings in it. That mockup can be peeled back layer by layer to study and plan the intricacies of the work behind the walls. Clients are also able to use the smart-glasses for sales so that residents get an immersive view of what their new facility feels and looks like. Employees are also empowered on and off the job site since through connected smart-glasses they can view work instructions while performing specific tasks, potentially improving their performance. Other wearable technologies include DAQRI Smart Helmet, SolePower Workboot and SiteWatch from Case.

BIM Optimization and Digital Twins

Requests for information and change orders are standard in the construction industry. Machine learning is like a smart assistant that can scrutinize mountains of data and alert project managers about the critical things that need their attention. Building Information Modeling (BIM) can be optimized through generative design, prediction of cost overruns using appropriate features, risk mitigation through the identification of the biggest risk factors on a job site, application of reinforcement learning to project planning, autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles, labor deployment optimization, off-site construction and post-construction.

The constant flow of real-time data from IoT sensors combined with historical data from other projects can be used not only in the monitoring of current job sites but to provide an ever-increasing dataset which can be used with machine learning to do predictive analytics that makes construction even smarter.

Optical character recognition (OCR) technology can be used to quickly search drawings and convert documents and images into editable and searchable data. Data can be used to work better, faster and potentially change processes through data analysis. Analytics can focus on understanding IoT data better and help gain new insights into how work is done and where and how to improve. These insights become new algorithms and methodologies within the organization that enable field workers to optimize performance in simple and practical ways. e.g. SmartVid, Egnyte, Dodge Data and Analytics and PCL Construction.

BIM plus sensors in the field equal a digital twin. For construction, using digital twins means always having access to as-built and as-designed models, which are constantly synced in real-time. This allows companies to continuously monitor progress against the schedule laid out in a 4D BIM model. A digital twin is essentially a link between a real-world object and its digital representation that’s continuously updated using data from sensors. All data comes from sensors located on a physical object; this data is used to establish the representation of a virtual object. The digital representation is later used for visualization, modeling, analysis, simulation and further planning. Applications of digital twins in construction include automated progress monitoring, resource planning, logistics, safety monitoring, quality assessment and equipment optimization.

Transitioning or adapting from the BIM model to a digital twin is where the real value comes from, ensuring that real-time data through sensors are incorporated into the model to create a real-world simulation.

Conclusion

Despite the predictions of massive job losses, IoT adoption is unlikely to replace the human element in construction. Instead, it will alter business models in the industry, reduce expensive errors, reduce worksite injuries and make building operations more efficient. The best approach for construction companies to introduce technology is to prioritize investment based on areas where IoT can have the most immediate impact as informed by their unique needs.