Construction in 2021 and beyond
Like many industries, construction has had to adapt to a new reality in the wake of COVID-19: one in which essential projects are prioritized, social distancing and masks are mandatory, and remote work will continue for many months and possibly even for years to come. For an industry primarily based in close quarters, with large teams conducting physical work, and also producing enormous paper trails, these new obstacles have been challenging to navigate.
However, as the hottest fires forge the strongest steel, construction too will triumph through this adversity.
A new technology, artificial intelligence (AI), is increasingly being used to meet client needs and achieve milestones despite COVID-19 related obstacles. One can think of AI as a super-powered computer “smart assistant”—an assistant that can process millions of data points simultaneously and “learn” from mistakes and historical data.
This ability makes AI particularly well-suited to the construction industry, where time is of the essence, and precision is paramount.
What is Artificial Intelligence?
In popular culture, AI often appears as a sci-fi villain, as seen in The Terminator or The Matrix. However, real-world AI isn’t like the movies; computers cannot mimic human empathy, creativity, or judgment. Instead, AI can help workers across industries perform their jobs more accurately, efficiently, and safely, including in construction.
It’s also worth noting that “AI” is an umbrella term. Just as “phone” encompasses Androids, iPhones, mobiles, and more, “AI” includes various sub-disciplines, all with a unique function. Below, we will describe how each of these sub-disciplines—machine vision, object tracking, and others, play a key and distinct role in shaping the construction industry’s future.
Ensuring PPE Compliance with Machine Vision
“Machine vision” is an AI sub-discipline comprising hardware and software. The hardware element of a machine vision system (often a set of cameras) senses its surroundings, providing 24/7 surveillance. The software element processes what the hardware “sees” and makes informed observations, such as whether nearby workers are wearing the proper PPE or if any equipment is being mishandled. Based on these observations, the software element may alert workers or supervisors—for instance, to remind them to put on PPE or use equipment safely.
Several construction companies are using machine vision to ensure their workers’ health during this pandemic. Machine vision can reduce infection risk by up to 65 percent by surveilling a construction site and warning workers or supervisors when an individual is not wearing a mask or following six-feet-or-more social distancing guidelines.
It is important to note that machine vision applications are not limited to the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather, they have been and will continue to be useful well into the future. From hard hats to hazmat suits, PPE has and will always be necessary for work with hazardous materials or dangerous environments. Machine vision helps construction companies keep workers safe and insurance premiums low.
AI-Assisted Surveillance Systems
Remote, 24/7 security has also become increasingly important during the pandemic. Many worksites have been reduced to skeleton crews, facilitating social distancing guidelines, but unfortunately also weakening security. Here, AI-assisted surveillance systems can help fill the personnel gap by using “object tracking” technology.
“Object tracking” is an AI sub-discipline that uses cameras and computer programs to recognize objects and track their movement over time. An object tracking system can prevent theft by observing materials and equipment, immediately alerting supervisors when an item leaves the worksite. Such a system can also recognize and remember faces, alerting supervisors when an unknown individual enters a worksite and even recording intruders’ and their specific actions to aid law enforcement.
AI-assisted surveillance systems prevent and deter theft—which accounts for the “mysterious disappearance” of 10-25 percent of supplies on large-scale construction sites every year. With facial recognition, they also obstruct corporate espionage, which can otherwise lead companies to hemorrhage millions in proprietary technology leaks.
Optimizing for Productivity with Predictive Analytics
Additionally, AI technology can help construction companies maintain productivity across a workforce fragmented by COVID-19. AI can improve schedule management by employing “predictive analytics”, which uses data, statistical algorithms, and machine learning to identify the likelihood of future outcomes based on historical data.
Simply put, a predictive analytics system can analyze how long a specific crew typically takes to finish a particular task and recommend the exact time supervisors should schedule the next crew to arrive. With more than 42 percent of the U.S. labor force now working from home, predictive analytics help to eliminate unnecessary downtime, ensuring maximum-efficiency staff distribution and ROI. They can also ensure minimal overlap between crew shifts, preventing COVID-19 transmission between crews.
I run a construction company. Where do I start?
Construction companies looking to implement AI generally have three options: (1) build an in-house AI and data science team, (2) buy off-the-shelf software, or (3) outsource to a consulting firm, like Synaptiq.
Often, outsourcing will be the most resource-efficient choice for the following reasons. First, AI and data science experts are highly sought-after, expensive, and challenging to attract and retain. According to a 2020 Burtch Works study, the median base salary for even a junior data scientist (with less than three years’ experience) approaches six figures. Second, buying off-the-shelf software often amounts to over-spending for an ineffective solution. In comparison, consulting firms are typically less expensive, field-tested, and more experienced.
Synaptiq’s recent work in construction includes helping a large client build a predictive model to indicate which elements of a given construction project will have the most significant impact on profitability. Our AI solution now empowers this client to see and proactively address any issues well before they impact cost and schedule.
At Synaptiq, we help our clients leverage AI to stay ahead of the competition. We typically start our engagements with low-cost, proof-of-concept projects, and our case study catalog demonstrates a proven track record of success.