As the costs of using artificial intelligence (AI) steadily reduce, it’s clear that eventually we are all likely to be using AI in our day-to-day work – if we’re not already. I would, of course, argue that you still need the skills and knowledge of experienced humans to work alongside AI in construction, but there is a transformation coming.
Whether it’s in project scheduling, budget control, or elsewhere there are a myriad of ways to apply AI, big data, machine learning (ML) and analytics to the smooth running of a project. We need to step away from that groove of “this is how it’s always been done” and look at what technology we can embrace and use in conjunction with our human teams!
Machine learning in project planning
Many people misunderstand the terms ‘machine learning’ and ‘artificial intelligence’ and use them interchangeably. But there are some key differences. AI can evaluate data and predict outcomes, therefore making decisions in a similar way to you or me. Whereas machine learning will take in millions of data points and spot trends – making predictions based on those trends. If you fed in the data from multiple projects, including where and why delays occurred, you could then use the insights from that data to predict the likelihood of, for example, weather-related delays in your upcoming project.
But there’s more to the benefits of this technology than just scheduling. Key areas include accuracy and rework, reducing risk, safety on site and productivity.
Greater accuracy reduces rework and cuts costs
While I’m sure you’ll agree that perfectionist structural engineers rarely make mistakes, the reality of the construction industry is that human error does happen and can lead to costly rework. Using AI and ML means we can automate labour intensive admin tasks and cut the risk of error. With rework costing billions each year in the UK alone, this is a priority.
Cutting risks and increasing safety on site
There are multiple risks on site, but arguably the most important one is the physical risk to those working on site. Everyone wants to feel safe at work and to be able to go home to their family at night. But accidents happen and in 2020/21, 39 construction workers died on site in the UK. Many of these accidents will have been avoidable.
Now AI can highlight the risks before anyone sets foot on site. There are tools that monitor and prioritise risk, so that resources can be focused on the biggest risk factors. Subcontractors are given a risk score so that managers can keep a closer watch on high-risk teams to mitigate risk.
This is work that is already done by humans – for example we will always play devil’s advocate with our designs. This is especially true with the temporary works designs, which tend to be higher risk. We’ll ask, “What happens if some idiot drives into this column?”. We’ll ask, “What load does this need to take generally?” plus also, “What happens if someone puts a pallet of bricks on this?
Using AI means that on a large site with multiple risks and a limited budget, it’s much easier to set priorities and be clear on where the biggest risks are.
From self-driving construction machinery like autonomous bulldozers to other equipment that performs repetitive tasks more efficiently than humans, there’s a real need for greater productivity on and off site. Especially when you consider the shortage of skilled workers. We’ll always need people to smooth out the edges of the work and to use uniquely human intelligence, but AI will make sites much more productive.
Big data in construction
Data is being created every single day, giving us an opportunity to learn and improve based on the information captured by mobile devices, drones and security sensors. It would be crazy not to learn from and act on all this data and the insights generated.
As I’ve said before, I don’t see AI and ML as a threat. It will take time for this technology to become accessible and affordable for some segments of the industry, but it will enhance and improve the work we do – as long as we also make use of our very human intelligence and experience.
Meanwhile, if you need assistance with the structural elements of an upcoming project, please do get in touch.