BIM as Digital Plumbing
What might be the new technologies that would be as transformative in the twenty-first century as glass, steel and reinforced concrete were at the end of the nineteenth century? This is the fundamental question if the analogy (argued in this previous post) between the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries as periods of disruptive change is valid. There is one obvious candidate for this transformative technology. Building information modelling has been promoted as the solution to the problems of poor documentation, fragmentation and lack of collaboration in building and construction for many years. It has not, however, been disruptive as we understand the idea, at least not so far.
BIM has its origins in 1960s drawing programs, and Autodesk (by far the largest of the companies in the market) was founded in 1982, so this is not exactly new technology. Therefore, BIM does not qualify as new or transformative, rather it is the required enabler of further developments, a necessary foundation for the transition to the construction technological system in the digital age. One could argue that linking BIM to manufacturing or the importance of a single record of a project are transformational, on the other hand these are not in themselves new either. In other industries techniques like design for manufacture, lean production and digital documentation are well-established, with the adoption lag (the diffusion rate) for building and construction largely due to its fragmentation, project-based structure and conservative clients.
What is new is the level of integration between different BIM systems (like Autodesk and Bentley) and the specialist systems for design and engineering. These are intelligent systems, though still in an early stage of development of their potential. They will interact with users and actively support their work through databases and access to information, for example with calculations for engineers (who already no longer have to do these themselves) and building components for designers.
These are being combined with virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) systems so we now have a holographic 3D virtual project that contains every detail of a building, and that information can be shared through a project management platform with all project participants. The data a virtual project produces and the information flow it supports could well be transformational, and will certainly challenge existing business models. At this point the expectation is that VR will be used more on the design side by architects, planners and engineers, while AR will have a larger footprint on construction sites, although some construction firms have started looking at using VR in areas like safety and training. BIM is obviously central to these technologies.
As is so often the case with technological transitions, it more likely to be such new combinations of technologies and innovations that transform the construction industry, not some breakthrough technology that leads to some different, new industry we don’t already have. Although already well-advanced the combination of BIM and 3D printing could be transformational, or just a new way to make stuff - at this stage it is hard to tell where this will end up in terms of capabilities, but the potential is there and concrete printing is getting a lot of attention. Adding new materials to the 3D palette through molecular design and engineering may be transformational, or other new materials or upgraded versions of existing structural materials may be. In this context, it is worth noting the software used for molecular engineering made by Autodesk is based on their BIM system, and their 2017 Project Escher is a method for simultaneously 3D printing different parts of an object with multiple printheads, allowing larger, quicker or more production.
Combining robotic and automated machinery with 3D printing of standardized parts opens up many possibilities. Standardization and modular construction have progressed in fits and starts since the first standardized steel frames were used to rebuild Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871, and until now 3D printing has not been economic for mass production. Designing an automated on-site production process that included the machines and equipment need to move and install the parts produced by printers does not seem unrealistic, moving beyond design for manufacture to an integrated production and assembly system. The Flying Factories being launched in the UK by Skanska are a step in this direction. Also, 3D printing does open the door to mass customization.
Combining BIM with robotic and automated machinery and equipment for on-site work may be transformative. Komatsu and Vinci already have automated earth moving equipment using sensors and drones linking real-time data about site works to remote operators, using BIM to monitor progress. Volvo and Otto have automated trucks and Rio Tinto’s mines have driverless trucks and trains linked to a control centre. The SAP Connected Construction system uses the IoT to link equipment to a remote controller. Honda’s Asimo robot has been pictured driving a bulldozer.
Google is planning a new headquarters in California that will be a large, open structure with movable floor plates bolted to columns, to allow reconfiguring for changing work requirements. The floor plates will be shifted by ‘crabots’, pictured here in the planning application submitted in 2015. The ‘crabots’ are described in the documents as a combination of flexible crane and robotic machines that will roam under four canopies and lift and shift pre-fabricated components, furniture and services.
The construction technological system is extraordinarily wide and diverse, and the various parts of the digital construction technological system are in various stages of development. There are very many possible futures that could unfold over the next few decades. However, it is clear that the key technology that underpins these further developments, and upon which new combinations will be based on, is intelligent machines operating in a connected but parallel digital world with varying degrees of autonomy. These are machines that can use data and information to both interact with each other and work with humans, and this digital world will be one designed and built by humans. We are at the point where intelligent machines are moving from operating comfortably in controlled environments, like car manufacturing or mainstream media, to unpredictable environments, like driving a car or truck, or social media.
In the various forms that AI takes on its way to the construction site it will become central, in one way or another, to all the tasks and activities involved. In this, building and construction is no different from all other industries and activities, but the path of AI in construction will be distinct and different from the path taken in other industries. This path dependence varies not just from industry to industry, but from firm to firm as well.