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Can construction build an AI revolution?

by Tim Clark
Can AI and other technology transform construction?

There’s plenty of technological innovation out there promising to transform construction, but is artificial intelligence anything more than just a genie offering wishful thinking? Tim Clark finds out

Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, the “metaverse”. The latest generation of digital terminology and snazzy new innovations all promise a similar future to the previous line-up of next-gen technology: To end the seemingly unbudgeable cycle of low productivity in the construction sector.

However when it comes to AI, the question remains over how the construction sector can truly take advantage of the possibilities the new technology could unleash.

A panel session hosted at Build In Digital’s innovation hub last week delved into what AI can offer, and what issues remain, and whether the answers could lie in the other industries where AI is making an impact.

AI can’t do your job for you, but it could replace you

The spinning jenny was invented in 1765 by James Hargreaves in Lancashire, England. It is credited as one of the defining inventions of the Industrial Revolution, and significantly reduced the amount of time it took to make cloth.

In 1768, three years after his invention was first used, Hargreaves’s house was broken into and the machines smashed.

The act didn’t hold back the tide of innovation; industrial progress marched on, however the pattern of progress, impact on an employment market, and knee-jerk retrenchment is a fear which has echoes in the modern workplace revolution.

The rise of AI has been accompanied by concerns that it will replace people’s jobs, and make swathes of the workforce redundant.

Speaking to Build In Digital earlier this year, Andrew Knight, global tech lead at the RICS, said that – in his mind – AI won’t lead to a “Terminator 2-style” apocalypse for the jobs market, and any potential obsolescence of existing roles will be more nuanced.

“I’m not being overly optimistic that it isn’t going to do that, but I think that AI will be more prosaic,” he said. “It will take meeting notes for us, or do those under-the-bonnet things in a non-flashy way, but actually a very clever way.”

Working smarter not harder?

Making existing processes smarter is a key objective for the government and industry. In this respect AI could also be used to enhance BIM by improving the data analysis and visualisation of a scheme.

The UK has been an early adopter of BIM globally, with major projects such as HS2 able to bring major contractors onboard by mandating BIM use early in the supplier engagement process.

With AI, clients and contractors may find that the technology is able to create more accurate and detailed 3D models, making it easier to detect and address design issues before construction begins.

Andrew Johnson, learning and development lead for BIM Academy, says that AI should be looked at in a similar way to any tool used in manufacturing or construction, just possibly a little more advanced.

He says: “You’ve just got to remember that AI is a tool, the same as a hammer is a tool. If you’re doing DIY, and your hammer and nail, what is a task, an outcome, and a process? It is the same with AI.”

When it comes to design, one area where AI is expected to have an impact is known as generative design. In this instance AI algorithms can generate design options based on specified parameters.

This can help architects and engineers explore a wide range of possibilities for optimal designs in terms of cost, material usage, and energy efficiency.

“AI relies on data. And there’s a big question at the moment as to where is that data coming from?”

Robert Claridge, Laing O’Rourke

According to Fiona MacDonald, impact manager within BE-ST – which stands for Built Environment – Smarter Transformation, and formerly the Construction Scotland Innovation Centre – there is a balance that needs to be struck in terms of what role AI should take in the design process, and also a level of honesty among the design and construction process of what work is being done by humans, and what is being generated from an AI program.

“We have seen AI taken to the next level in terms of how best to construct a particular building, but that’s there for you to consider as an architect or as an engineer, and so forth,” she says.

“It’s not for you [as an architect] to sign your name against it and say ‘look what I did’, so it’s a complimentary tool for architects [not a replacement].”

As the former group BIM implementation manager at WYG, Henry Fenby-Taylor has been responsible for a number of key projects at the firm, as well as developing and implementing the company’s BIM policy. He has also worked for the Centre for Digital Built Britain, and the government’s arms-length body the Knowledge Transfer Partnership.

“There’s lots of opportunities around language models, contracts, safety, you know, even design documentation and potentially planning,” he says.

“So there is a big opportunity definitely to come up with lots of options [in terms of innovation], because AI is able to simply try more things than we could possibly ever come up with as humans.

“But we do need to be mindful that someone is going to have to take ownership control over the AI process.”

The debate over what AI is more capable at processing than humans is still in its formative stages; as AI itself matures as a digital tool it will become clearer where human ownership of a design or construction process is paramount.

Data drives intelligence

“In some things humans are just much better [than AI],” says Robert Claridge, Laing O’Rourke’s European learning solutions owner.

Claridge has overseen Laing O’Rourke’s learning and development strategy and the tier one contractor has made strides in recent years to integrate data-driven models into its core business. Claridge’s remit includes not only looking at AI, but also augmented reality, and immersive learning. Topics which cross over into the AI field.

“So when there’s a sudden new scenario, we’re just much better placed to deal with the situation than AI,” he adds. “AI relies on data. And there’s a big question at the moment as to where is that data coming from?”

Increasing trust in data is the focus of a forthcoming piece from Build In Digital and is an area where collaboration between the major contractors, developers and consultants in the industry is sorely needed to press ahead.

When it comes to AI specifically, the next steps in terms of productivity increases could be found in a new government-led initiative. Innovate UK is currently targeting specific sectors, with an announcement on 27 September stating that it is seeking UK registered organisations to apply for a share of up to £32m for projects that can improve productivity in key sectors – including construction – through the use of AI.

The funding is provided via the Technologies Mission Fund and covers core areas such as data driven decision making, automation of administrative tasks, as well as project management optimisation, supply chain optimisation and forecast models, waste management, intellectual property (IP) and management design.

“There is a lot of investment happening,” says Fenby Taylor, who adds that in some ways the investment can be very academic.

“Innovate UK is targeting specific sectors that it feels could really benefit. And construction is one of those. So there are lots of opportunities.”

Robot revolution

HP shows off its Siteprint construction layour robot at UK Construction Week, October 2023
HP shows off its Siteprint construction layout robot at UK Construction Week. Image credit: Build in Digital

How AI can be dovetailed with other innovations such as robotics is still also in its early phases of being explored.

Cars and other manufacturing areas have been assisted, even revolutionised, by robotics for decades and the comparisons with construction are well known.

“A robotic system is hyper-efficient and it exists within a factory, which is a controlled environment,” Fenby-Taylor adds. “But if you can’t bring the materials in, and/or they don’t fit properly, then robotics aren’t very good at kind of sensing issues.”

Though full integration of robotics within the construction sector looks to be at least a decade away some firms – such as HP — have decided to push some robotic solutions to the UK market with their site print robotic layout tool.

The aim of the product is to produce accurate site layouts. How well or how widely the solution is adopted is yet to be seen, however it can be considered as a precursor to a new wave of robotics and AI solutions which will compete for contractor and clients’ attention in the coming years.

“Construction sites are chaotic in multiple senses,” Fenby-Taylor adds. “People aren’t just going to say “oh, we bought a robot, let’s see if we can make it work”.

“You can simulate these things and plan for eventualities.”

The combination of AI and robotics, as well as other innovations, may make that planning process easier, and bring about the productivity gains the sector – and wider economy – have been crying out for.

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