Rage against the machine: AI and the construction industry

This is the first in our series of insight articles exploring issues and topics the Ashfold construction project management team are often asked about…

It is almost impossible to think about the future of any industry without considering the implications of Artificial Intelligence (AI). First coined in 1955 by computer scientist John McCarthy, ‘AI’, as it is now known today, seems all encompassing. Pick up a copy of The Economist or read an article on Bloomberg and rest assured, there will be a business analyst waxing lyrical about a new start-up and how their proposed tech will drastically alter the world as we know it.

So why then, is there relatively little buzz about the construction industry and a supposed blossoming relationship with AI? In a recent article published by consultancy firm McKinsey on global digitisation, industries such as financial services, media, and manufacturing unsurprisingly came out on top. Construction narrowly beat agriculture and hunting.

Despite this, new software and technology designed to enhance productivity and efficiency in the construction industry are constantly released. It seems though, their fanfare of arrival falls on deaf ears with less than 1% of revenue being spent on Information Technology in the construction sector. And, in the near future this is not set to change with investment levels predicted to remain relatively stagnant.

Currently, firms simply do not have the personnel, processes and tools to introduce new technologies with any meaningful results. McKinsey think this is all about to change. Perhaps they are right, Mace have recently appointed a Chief Technology Officer to ensure they “remain at the cutting edge of technical delivery”.

This is certainly representative of steps in the right direction. After all, the construction industry has been traditionally slow to change due to the subcontractor and self-employed corporate models making procedural change a difficult process to undertake. Any whiff of technological advancement should be noted.

But, it remains that other industries are way ahead in terms of implementing AI into their core practise. The transportation industry uses AI to optimize routes and traffic navigation through reinforcement learning (trial and error for computers); whilst the pharmaceutical sector has invested huge amounts in software which predicts constructability issues. Both examples can be applied to the construction industry. Transportation’s trial and error AI system could use data on previous construction projects to better plan and schedule work timelines and pharmaceutical’s constructability software could predict risks and the structural integrity of various technical solutions.

The possibilities are frankly endless. It may well be that in the future AI is used at all stages of a construction project. During the planning stage artificially intelligent machines could survey sites independent from human interaction. Once a project is underway AI scheduling programs could manage each tradespersons workload. For example, if someone phones in sick, the system makes automatic changes, affecting the whole site. Autonomous site machinery could work in areas too dangerous for humans. Additionally, during post-construction AI systems could regulate the building’s temperature and energy usage.

But none of this looks to be nascent or forthcoming. Funds are simply not being directed towards technology and AI. This is despite numerous start-ups offering innovative solutions to the industry’s two biggest bugbears: running overtime and overbudget. Techemergence lists AI programs currently available which range from 3D modelling for MEP systems to a photo and video engine which flags potential safety risks on site.

The construction industry therefore needs a first mover. If a large company fully invests time and resources into AI and completely changes the way they work for the better, more would surely follow. Technological innovation works best when its industry-wide, allowing spring-boarding and collaborative ventures. The AI machine is ready, it’s down to someone to start it.


Thanks to: McKinsey, Techemergence, Information Age, Construction Global, Bechtel, Autodesk, Artificial Intelligence News

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