Mar/Apr 2014

Unlocking innovation and performance with smart devices and information in construction.

Understanding the world around us has been mankind’s longest-lasting endeavor. Our efforts to record information about the world in an attempt to better understand and more aptly control can be seen simply by man trying to record his/her own thoughts in a trail of books leading back to the beginning of the modern age.

Recording information was first done on cave walls, then on stone tablets, and finally on paper. The objective was always the same: To collect, analyze, and apply information in useful ways because it was and is a competitive advantage. However, information is more than an advantage, it is power!

The advent of the Internet with powerful tools like Google, www.google.com, Mountain View, Calif., has shown the power of information and how that information can empower the world to accomplish any endeavor. Information is recorded and shared faster than any time before in history.

In the new age of information, data is captured with machines, sent to other machines, where yet more machines analyze the data and make critical decisions (without human interaction).

Today, companies like GE, www.ge.com, Fairfield, Conn., are capturing the world around us through smart sensors, then communicating the information at the speed of light back to central repositories, analyzing the information for patterns, monitoring key performance indicators, and automating human decisions. This is all done to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of business operations.

How is this possible? Capturing information has been made possible by several technological advances throughout the past five years.

First is the shrinking size of computational components like the processor. As processors become smaller, power requirements shrink, as do battery sizes, and the devices becomes portable.

The second major technological advancement is the development of a ubiquitous wireless data coverage network. Carriers are currently marketing an “industrial Internet,” which is more commonly known as M2M or the Internet of Things.

The amount of information being generated by the influx of smart devices is truly awe inspiring—and the numbers continue to grow. Cisco, www.cisco.com, San Jose, Calif., estimates in its Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update 2012-2017 that: By the end of 2013, the number of mobile-connected devices will exceed the number of people on Earth, and by 2017 there will be nearly 1.4 mobile devices per capita.

There will be more than 10 billion mobile-connected devices in 2017, exceeding the world’s population at that time (7.6 billion). The M2M, or what is called machineto-machine, traffic is expected to grow by 258%. M2M networks are going to outpace the human Internet within the next five years.

There is significant economic value for construction firms in capturing enormous amounts of information, otherwise known as Big Data, from the field and applying advanced analytics to search for patterns or BI (business intelligence). The opportunity for Big Data and M2M exists in the construction industry because “the money is made in the field” not in the office.

Technology companies recognize this economic value for construction and are creating strategies for how M2M can be used in the construction industry. For example, GE announced its ambitious plans at “GE Minds and Machines” to begin placing smart sensors in every piece of industrial equipment.

The company wants to do this because there is a possibility to save billions by analyzing the realtime sensor data to automate maintenance, identify peak performance times, or define the best routes. The sensors will be installed in everything from trucks, to locomotives, to gas turbine engines.

Other examples of smart devices in use today in the construction industry:

  • Bridges
    • Millau Viaduct in France: The bridge is state of the art and has more than 200,000 sensors designed to record and monitor the bridge throughout time with anemometers, accelerometers, inclinometers, piezoelectric (traffic sensors), and temperature sensors. These sensors automatically alert if a potential dangerous situation is about to occur and can automatically send a maintenance ticket.
  • Heavy Machinery
    • Condition-monitoring sensors and software from equipment maker Caterpillar, www.cat.com, Peoria, Ill., allow owners to turn information into action by knowing the proper time for maintenance, identifying when equipment is being underutilized, and much more.
  • Cranes
    • Trimble, www.trimble.com, Sunnyvale, Calif., provides a crane-collision avoidance system, which is a total autonomous system that uses a combination of sensors to command and control a crane in the event of a dangerous situation. This means construction is not far off from a completely automated crane system.
  • Integrated Accounting and Management Software
    • We continues to see accounting and construction management software that leverages connected devices mounted at construction field offices in order to wirelessly capture employee time with GPS information, images, and other meta data.

To exploit the opportunity, construction companies will have to develop objectives or challenges that need to be solved, strategies to define what information is critical to the business, and tactics to execute how to capture the information. Significant investments in construction technology and expertise are required to leverage the information effectively.

The aforementioned examples are great illustrations for how different companies are leveraging smart-device technology and using the information generated by such devices to their advantage. Construction companies can use these as examples and translate them into ways that they can leverage this fast-paced information into models for their industry.

The Idea in Action
In construction, the trailer is one of the most important assets to the construction firm. Until smart devices can become available on wireless data networks, firms will need to rely on smart devices communicating on a short-band wireless solution that directly connects to the Internet in the trailer.

Therefore, solutions like SmartTrailers are at the point at which all information is captured in the field. Smart- Trailer is a solution that integrates the necessary technologies and support services to capture any and all data from the field.

The wireless Internet connectivity empowers construction firms to allow project managers access to the ERP (enterprise-resource planning) software and input realtime management information.

Heavy machinery like backhoes and other pieces of equipment can communicate crucial operating information and gas levels back to the main office. Employee time can be captured wirelessly and automatically transmitted back to the accounting department. Field and safety reports can be filled out and submitted in minutes for directors to review.

Remote video tools allow superintendents to view all the field offices at once without the added expense of traveling to each location. All of these capabilities can be implemented today to make the construction firm more efficient and effective. Efficiency and effectiveness matter because the construction firms of today are working with lower profit margins, more risk, higher safety standards, and less time.

Many construction firms are leveraging the aforementioned smart devices and connected technologies to deliver on the promise of efficiency today.

More importantly, these same construction firms are understanding how machines are driving Big Data, and how to analyze the information with business intelligence systems all in an effort to help automate human-based decisions to create more dynamic and flexible company and structures.

The potential value of using these machines to capture information around the world to improve efficiency and effectiveness doesn’t stop with capture, but continues right on down the street to control, provide decision support, and into the front yard of automated command and control.

I have identified several ways construction firms can create economic value through the use of smart devices and drive growth, innovation, and possibly competitive advantage in the age of information:

  • Potential economic ramifications by leveraging smart devices to solve critical problems such as capturing employee time cards in the field or tracking usage of heavy machinery. Visibility into the operation of the business can deliver huge cost savings for companies.
  • Enhanced business intelligence efforts will be achieved because more of the right information can now be captured.
  • Managing more opportunities will be possible because every asset from humans, to machines, to tools will be integrated into the information management system of the construction firm, making it possible to manage more with less.
  • Benefit customers and be more attractive because firms that operate more efficiently and effectively can perform jobs for less. The result will be lower bids, more jobs won, and greater profit.
  • Realtime business information will be available 24/7 to construction firms.
  • Overcome barriers and entering new markets will be easier because construction firms will have total remote control over the field office and know what is happening in realtime.

The benefits of smart devices are obvious, but difficult for construction firms to deal with because many are averse to technology. It is my firm conviction those that do not change will ultimately die in this new age. As British Economist John Maynard Keynes once said, “the difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones.” Smart devices, Big Data, and automated processes will increase as construction companies around the globe see the advantages and compete for business. For the companies looking to or already putting the technologies in place to collect and analyze the data, they will realize how the ‘rise of machines’ will change the world.

Next issue I will explore specific examples of how construction firms are leveraging smart devices and information.


Michael Zucchi is the CEO of ZBRELLA Technology Consulting, www.zbrella.com, Astoria, N.Y. He can be reached at michael@zbrella.com or followed on Twitter at @zucchi.

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