The article is reposted from Glodon Magazine: g insight (Jan 2023)
The construction industry is considered one of the least digitalised industries plagued by unstable supply chains, low productivity, project delay, cost overrun and environmental challenges.
In a recent interview with Glodon, Dr Fangyu Guo, assistant professor at Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU)'s Department of Civil Engineering, said digital transformation is necessary for the construction industry. The adoption of digital technologies especially digital twins can significantly benefit the sector.
Dr Fangyu Guo
Digital Transformation with Benefits and Barriers
"By integrating digital technology with our traditional methods and experience. We can better manage construction projects. And effective adoption of digital technology and management of digital data can potentially help improve project quality and safety, reduce time and cost, and improve productivity and cooperation." she said.
For her, one of the important aspects of those tech trends and initiatives, like Industry 4.0, is that they lead us to think about what digital technologies can be beneficial to our construction industry.
The benefits of digitalisation are well understood by many market participants. However, digital transformation in the construction industry has been slow compared to other sectors.
At present, many companies and researchers are still at the stage of exploring various digital options. And there are many barriers to the complete digital transformation in the sector.
"The major barriers include a lack of mature standards and regulations, a lack of continuous support from the senior management and policies, and a lack of professionals and resources required for digitalisation."
In a paper recently published in the journal Engineering, Construction, and Architectural Management by Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University and the University of Lincoln, Dr Guo concluded the lack of laws and regulations is the most significant among the barriers identified.
"The lack of laws and regulations has a negative effect on digital transformation because construction companies need governmental regulations as guidelines to determine their strategies and adapt their organisational structure.
"Well-established standards and regulations are critical for directing an effective digital transformation and motivating stakeholders to invest more in various digital technologies and tools," the corresponding author of the research said.
She told Glodon, the industry should summarise and document some successful experiences, effective workflows, and areas for improvement while enhancing communication with other industry practitioners and researchers from academia, so that we can share and document the lessons learnt to facilitate the high-quality development of digitalisation of the construction industry.
"Data is very important. With accurate data collected in the process, I think we can better monitor the project's progress, cost, safety and quality so we can take necessary preventive measures before serious problems occur. And this data can be stored and used throughout the entire project life cycle and even used for other projects as well, which will support us to make further analyses, predictions, and important decisions."
In this perspective, Dr Guo believes digital enablers like Glodon can help with more investment in the methods to effectively collect, use and manage the digital data resulted from using digital technologies.
"This can be possibly achieved through the development and implementation of a comprehensive digital management platform. This platform can be established based on the key users' needs, like the operators, project managers, senior managers and so on, and developed to support the adoption of various digital technologies and integration of digital data throughout the entire life cycle.
"It will be better for the platform to support not only the project-level process, control, and management but also support organisation-level analysis and management," she said.
The Role of Digital Twins
Digital Twin Consortium defines a digital twin as "a virtual representation of real-world entities and processes, synchronised at a specified frequency and fidelity". As a way to deal with historical and real-time data, it holds large potential for upgrading the construction sector.
According to Dr Guo, digital twins can potentially benefit various prospects throughout the entire life cycle.
"It can improve the visualisation, communication, design quality and efficiency, evaluate the environmental impact of design and simulate the construction plan methods in the design phase. It can help stimulate and optimise the construction site layout, monitor the construction progress, check labour, materials, and equipment in real-time and improve worker safety, health and well-being in the construction phase. And in the operation and maintenance phase, it can help monitor and analyse the building operation and predict the maintenance demands."
But with all these benefits, a digital twin journey is not always easy. Dr Guo suggested the priority of developing a digital twin would be defining the expectation and needs and then determining proper technologies and tools based on currently available resources and capabilities.
She praised Glodon's Xi'an R&D building project as an excellent example of implementing digital twin technology.
"Digital twin was effectively applied with positive outcomes. BIM, IoT, and AI technologies were applied together with data-driven lean construction methods, which enable process- level in-depth design, scheduling, resource procurement and supply, and also ensure the dynamic optimisation of progress, timely payment, cost, quality and accident prevention."
"With the assistance of big data, stakeholders were better connected to provide data services like material selection and pricing. Furthermore, the completed intelligent building analyses the indoor environment such as temperature, humidity, wind speed, and monitors health status and provides people-centered services. "
Prepare Workforce for Digital Future
Digitisation means the construction industry is rethinking how it works. Besides technology, human also play a critical part. The need to upskill and reskill the workforce has never been more urgent.
The assistant professor believes the digital era requires the workforce to present more knowledge than ever.
"The workforce should be not only professional with their traditional construction methods and workflows but also be able to use new digital technologies and tools, so they can select and use more appropriate methods and tools to effectively solve different problems in different occasions. Meanwhile, they should also hold the long-term perspective and intelligence to facilitate a healthy, sustainable, and high-quality development in the construction industry."
Speaking from her own experience, Dr Guo agreed companies and universities could better cooperate in this regard.
XJTLU signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Glodon earlier this year. The two sides agreed to enhance collaboration between industry and academia, increase digital awareness in the sector, and contribute together to a better built environment.
"The training program will be necessary for upskilling of the workforce. On the one hand, I think the university can integrate both traditional and new digital construction techniques and methods in their teaching and learning. On the other hand, companies need to provide more specific skill training that fits their demands. In addition, it is worthwhile to enhance the communication and collaboration between industry professionals and researchers in the university through different forms, such as guest lectures, seminars, research projects, and student internships."