Beyond BIM, change is the new normal

May 16, 2016

Dominic Thasarathar on where the momentum of digitisation and automation will take the industry.

Today technology is framed by two irrefutable truisms: the pace of change is accelerating, and the breadth of developments is widening. Just look at the emerging trends vying for your attention: 3D printing, the Internet of Things, robotics, drones, cloud computing, augmented reality, gaming engines, crowdfunding, crowdsourcing, generative design, big data, artificial intelligence, and more.

It’s enough to give anyone a headache, particularly if you’ve just become used to the idea of retooling your organisation for BIM. But thinking about the future of technology is worthy of at least a few minutes of your time. Cast your mind back five years; what would you have done differently if you knew then what you know today about BIM?

In an era when “change is the new normal”, having a confident position on the technological future should be just as important to a construction contractor as a strong balance sheet. So what’s likely to lie beyond BIM? Here are four predictions:

How project teams undertake design – of everything from buildings to commercial strategies to business models – is going to be transformed by cloud computing. The cloud will place a theoretically unlimited amount of processing power (“infinite computing”) at the disposal of any company, on demand. Complex analytical challenges will become an in-line process, where the impact of changing an element of a building’s design, tweaking a commercial strategy or trying an alternative business model might be seen in near real-time.

That is going to fundamentally shift the act of design from today’s era of “best practical”, where you’re restricted by the time, resources and money you can throw at a problem, to an era tomorrow of “best possible” as the resources component of that equation is now vast.

Additive manufacturing technologies, like 3D printing, and automation, like robotics, minimise the distance between a design and a real-world component by reducing the “number of touches” to manufacture. You can make an object in a single machine, in a single touch, without having to retool. The complexity of that object is irrelevant. Will we have these technologies on future jobsites? Almost certainly. But, perhaps equally exciting will be the rise of micro-factories, neighbourhood facilities equipped with such machines, capable of creating components on demand, local to your site.

Technology will increasingly support capturing the real world and bringing it into a silicon environment, with a degree of fidelity that merges the two, supporting decision-making “in context”. Add in the rise of gaming engines, which will support simulating not just geometry, but physics, crowd behaviour etc, and the air-gap between planning and performing physical construction should become minimal.

Demand for construction services – and the nature of those services – will increasingly be driven by technology. Most is going to come from increasingly complex cities, and from emerging economies. Where and how should you respond? The answer will frequently be in the data, or rather the “big data”. Trends in population demographics, economic growth, disposable income and more will be crunched by cloud computing to help contractors answer that question.

Now consider the individual. The rise of social media is enabling everyone to have their say in shaping our built environment. Whether it’s the impact of a new road in a crowded urban neighbourhood or demand for more green spaces, the internet puts our built environment in everyone’s living room – and that brings opportunity.

Engaging with the community via this medium, a contractor might do anything from negotiating times for site deliveries to crowdsourcing design answers during consultation, or even raising finance for clients’ projects through alternative vehicles like crowdfunding.

Things are getting smarter; they’re also getting connected, via the Internet of Things. The prospect of masses of connected smart devices with intelligence distributed throughout that network, offers two exciting prospects.

First, we will be able to understand our built environment in ways we’ve never been able to previously. By learning how an asset is used, versus the assumptions made at project inception, the industry should be able to close the gap between what we think we need to build and what we actually need to build to meet demand, across multiple dimensions, such as energy capacity, office space, refinery throughput.

Second, when blended with other data, such as demographics, there is the potential for greater insight to project pipelines. If you monitor utilisation trends, you can monitor changes too. Spotting patterns in asset use allows future demand for construction output to become clearer.

The net result of all this? A new era, the “era of connection”, where any contractor, regardless of size, location or even experience, might connect to unlimited processing power to solve complex problems effortlessly, and to an unlimited number of people to get the best ideas. And one in which any contractor can collide the physical and digital worlds to deliver better outcomes, and foster a freer flow of capital for projects, through reduced project risk and alternative funding techniques. It’s time to start thinking beyond BIM.

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