A perfect storm had been brewing in the construction industry for years. But advanced technologies, including augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), are emerging rays of sunshine.
On the one hand, the construction industry had struggled with the adoption of digital technologies. More than half the construction/engineering professionals surveyed for a 2018 study reported in an article titled CMAA: Construction's Still Lagging in Tech Adoption said their organization lacked a clear digital business vision. On the other hand, industries such as construction and manufacturing, are facing a shortage of skilled labor. Ninety-four percent of respondents in a survey for the 2019 USG + U.S. Chamber of Commerce Commercial Construction Index found that finding construction workers were either difficult (54 percent) or moderately difficult (40 percent).
Although such a combination of factors could spell trouble, the construction industry fortunately follows in manufacturing’s footsteps in accelerating its adoption of advanced technologies. The pandemic might have rebooted the narrative. Market Research Future Report predicts that the construction industry technology market’s size will exceed $2.7 billion (USD) by 2023.
AR and VR are two of the many advanced technologies that will work in concert with others, such as cloud-based building information modeling (BIM), artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning (ML), to revolutionize how construction projects are designed and executed.
Here’s how AR and VR can help the construction (and manufacturing) industries do more with less.
Whereas the construction industry used to work with 2D blueprints, BIM delivers blueprints in 3D. It’s not just the 3D delivery format that’s exciting, it’s that BIM preserves the relationship between different design elements so when one changes, the others recalculate automatically. Newer versions of BIM also facilitate cloud-sharing so all stakeholders, including those involved in the approval process, can access the models, add their updates, and understand interdependencies. Construction industry professionals use AR to superimpose imagined/designed models against the real ones. Because AR allows users to overlay the ideal scenario over what’s on the ground, it’s easy to compare and contrast and see the missing pieces.
Engineers, for example, can detect where clashes between various elements occur and avoid them before the design process moves much further along. BIM models can also be exported into devices such as the Microsoft HoloLens for VR walkthroughs of models. Construction companies no longer need to build physical models of potential structures. Simply fit the client with a VR headset, and they can tour the site before it’s done. AR and VR help professionals save time and money, which is especially vital when large infrastructure projects are increasingly compressed and frequently short on funding.
Each construction site or manufacturing plant floor varies—and it can even change day-to-day. Understanding hazards and knowing how to deal with them is a crucial aspect of employee training. Although manufacturing and construction industries once had employees sit through endless days of training to understand how to work with the tools of the trade, training and hazard detection are getting smarter because of AR.
Instead of modeling every hazard scenario, employees can use tutorials through AR apps on mobile devices to walk through construction sites and be trained on what is and what isn’t hazardous. Employees can even dig deeper and click on pictures on the tablet to get more in-depth information about proper safety protocols to follow.
On the manufacturing plant floor, rugged mobile devices situated by machines can hold AR tutorials that train employees on proper operating procedures. Such live on-the-ground training helps workers understand how the various parts function while on the floor instead of being trained away from the action. Employees can also check off training steps and access digital versions of manuals if they need further information.
Skilled labor in both construction and manufacturing is in short supply. It’s also expensive. AR helps companies use expensive experts judiciously. When machines malfunction, workers on the plant floor can collaborate with remote experts through video calls on tablets and use AR apps to highlight problem areas. The expert and the worker can both be on the same page and troubleshoot more effectively. Companies save time and labor that might otherwise have been wasted in both costly machine downtime and having the expert travel to the location.
AR apps also help field service technicians connect to experts while on the road helping these technicians deliver better customer service. The end goal through these technologies is a decrease in time and improved outcomes while keeping costs low.
In both construction and manufacturing, AR and VR drive collaboration and increase accuracy in fields that have notoriously labored under the weight of antiquated systems. The low-hanging fruit–the switch from 2D to 3D, from pen and paper to electronic systems–is already underway. Expect AR and VR to play an even greater role in these industries, especially as black swan events such as the pandemic have highlighted the necessity of staying nimble despite the profound change.
Poornima Apte is an engineer turned writer with B2B specialties in robotics, AI, cybersecurity, smart technologies and digital transformation. Find her on Twitter @booksnfreshair.
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