Where architecture is ahead of the curve, the construction industry is a less forgiving environment and more resistant to change especially Remote Collaboration. However, catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic, certain shifts are inescapable if the industry is to avoid suffering more time and budget overruns.
Remote collaboration tools do not only keep existing workflows intact, but they also enable entirely different ways of working. Different disciplines are empowered to streamline their communication and fast-track information flows to ensure correct planning, follow design intent, and minimize disputes. In the era of digital transformation, even construction becomes a software business.
Uniting the triad
The process of designing a building is complex and requires continuous input from the three sectors of the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry.
Structural engineers are highly specialized and often hired as an external consultant to the architect’s office. They will validate and rework the design multiple times as needed. These are the people who calculate the skeleton of a building, bridge, vehicle, or other high-risk structure and select the construction materials.
Effective communication is key to keep the project running like a well-oiled machine. Architects, engineers, and construction workers do not always speak the same language and it can result in problems down the line as the industry heads toward further disruptive change.
In today’s world of flexibility and customization, the “funnel model” of linear construction scheduling, where a project goes through several distinct gated phases, will no longer suffice. The standard ways of meeting, designing, planning, and evaluating can be altered with digital collaboration tools. Not having to be physically present has definite benefits and can change the industry’s modus operandi in several ways.
Modern-day building information models (BIMs) are the perfect virtual platform for remote collaboration and data-driven design decision-making. Even if they are already the industry standard among structural engineers, today’s software excels in depth and interoperability between different environments.
A BIM in essence is a virtual representation, or digital twin, of the building to be constructed. It documents all the information about any aspect and throughout different phases of the project. It also stores a virtual model of the building based on architectural drafts, 3D models, or scans made with state-of-the-art technologies like drone mapping or LIDAR scanning.
BIM offers everyone involved an integrated platform for paper-free and remote collaboration, and having a single source-of-truth ensures that the architect’s original design intent is being met.
For the architects there are the plans, section views, and elevations. The structural engineers gain access to framing and bracing diagrams, and construction teams are supplied with isometric views.
Additional tools offer capabilities for planning, risk assessment, progress monitoring, costing, project management, energy analysis, and sustainability.
2. Remote inspection
Site inspections are highly necessary for the construction process, but in case of restrictive circumstances, off-site inspections using the latest technological breakthroughs are almost as good as it gets.
Remote inspections often turn out faster, are more informative, and can save cost. This is all the more important in a fast-growing construction industry that globally takes up 13% of GDP, while only delivering without overruns in 20% of cases.
Outfitted with stereoscopic cameras, a telepresence robot offers a realistic view on the site, but the disadvantage is that it requires a skilled operator. And by equipping the building, environment, people, and construction vehicles with sensors, they essentially become part of the Internet of Things (IoT).
A virtual control center provides a horde of useful data for rapid efficiency improvements, and opens up new jobs such as data science and analytics.
Augmented reality is another booming job opportunity. Here, engineers build a virtual environment based on visual and audio cues, and overlay it with information. The AR experience becomes even richer when putting a remote expert on the line to guide viewers through the site.
Virtual immersion through AR, VR, or mixed reality can also be used to train new staff members or simulate training scenarios such as emergency situations.
3. Cloud configurators
Parametric architecture is a hot topic. It describes shapes and structures not only by the actual geometry, but also by the dimensions and constraints generating that shape. This enables intricate designs, programmable by controls like number sliders, knobs, and toggle buttons.
A scripted solution to a design problem is called a “definition.” So when a structural engineer devises a definition, parametricity is what translates it to various instances based on different sets of requirements.
Where BIM software is a central storehouse and documentation for 3D design data, configurators are the automation interface for creating endless variations per use case. Once a basic design has been established, structural engineers can manipulate the input data for their specific girder, timber grid, spaceframe, roofing structure, trusses, domes, canopies, or interior layout, to name a few examples. This means no more designing from scratch – enter the numbers and the design is automatically generated.
There are some cloud applications for Grasshopper, a popular design scripting tool, that allow for remote design collaboration. And with the power of cloud processing, large definitions that allow customization to the smallest details such as fasteners drawn from object libraries, lattice structure patterns, and beam section profiles, cause minimal latency issues.
The possibilities stretch as far to include finite element analysis (FEA), efficient nesting of multiple parts for batch production, cost estimation data, and recursive structural optimization based on different load cases or for lightweighting.
When team members have easy access to the same 3D definition, it goes beyond screen sharing because everybody can work on their own version of the file. This invites different project stakeholders, even end customers, to co-design specifically tailored solutions for any local market and on any device.
It can also act as a digital storefront with direct payment gateways. And because with cloud processing there is no end to what can be achieved, entire building projects can be parameterized, and together with exporting production-ready files and technical drawings it greatly speeds up time-to-delivery.
In a dynamic post-COVID office landscape, a fixed desk with fixed working hours is not what works best. By combining the office with teleworking, the extra mobility of employees can increase while keeping them connected to colleagues.
There are times when group dynamics involving brainstorms and discussions are necessary, and at other times working remotely produces the best work, so a hybrid model that includes both is the optimal solution.
A flexible atmosphere also promotes more external hires in order to gain specific expertise or prevent supply chain outages.
Interdisciplinary collaboration using digital communication tools such as Teams, Slack, or Zoom breaks people out of ingrained workflows and promotes creative problem-solving. Departments cease to be black boxes, interface frictions are dissolved, feedback loops are shortened, and progress accelerated.
Other effects are that the process becomes more client-centric, and it is more straightforward to keep in touch with customers, for example when creating customized work.
5. Distributed manufacturing
A side effect of remote collaboration environments in construction is that production innovations have taken an accelerated turn. As projects expand in complexity, new ways of digital manufacturing are looked after as well as cutting-edge lightweight material technologies.
With 3D printing, CNC milling, and plasma or water jet cutting, digital files can be fed directly into the machine. And with the advent of collaborative robots, or cobots, even on-site robotic process automation (RPA) becomes possible.
The future of construction elements is not factory-ordered, but locally produced in line with the contextual requirements and preferences.
Transporting parts made at local plants or even in-house as prefabricated units to the site can be a safer and less wasteful approach to production. A reduced carbon footprint because of less warehousing and shipping resources is another benefit.
With these novel technologies, there will typically be an extensive testing phase before parts meet requirements and regulations. But in the end, using remote collaborations to work on avant-garde research is a sure-fire way to uplift the company’s brand awareness.