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Industry 4.0 and The Future of Construction

When looking retrospectively at the course of history it is easy to see how technology has helped build products, and ultimately the places and structures that shape the modern world.

The first industrial revolution brought us mechanisation, steam power and the rise of factories. Later in the second revolution mass production, assembly lines and electricity shepherded in a new way of doing things. More recently, in the third revolution computers and automation have become the norm in almost every aspect of our lives.

What Can Construction Expect from Industry 4.0?

Just what the fourth revolution will shape up to be is a question that has captured the imagination of many, and one which has slowly begun to answer itself, since the term Industry 4.0 was first coined by the German government in 2011. A quick search on the world wide web (third revolution tech) tells us Industry 4.0 will bring us cyber-physical systems. Including the internet of things (IoT), cloud computing and cognitive computing.

How the AEC industry will interpret the term and digest the technologies associated with creating cyber-physical systems, is still very much open to interpretation. The truth is construction has always lagged behind more digitally advanced industries. Epitomised by inefficiencies resulting in delays, unforeseen costs and in many cases poor quality work, the industry has for a long time now criticised itself for failing to address these issues head-on.

There is the potential to create systems that allow computer-based algorithms to control or monitor buildings at a level largely unrealised to date.

Continued Adoption of BIM and Collecting Digital Data

Growing appreciation of a need for change in terms of how buildings are designed and delivered has led to BIM workflows being increasingly adopted. In doing so central repositories of information, an output of BIM, are now more than ever being produced about buildings and assets. Thanks to this not only is construction looking like it could move away from its poorly coordinated past but in doing so the industry is also collecting a wealth of digital data.

Going forward, this new-found appreciation of digital data could see forward-thinking companies in the construction industry enter Industry 4.0 hot on the heels of more digitally developed industries, such as manufacturing. With increased access to accurate as-built data opening the door to cost efficiencies and error reduction in not only the delivery stage of a project but also in building maintenance, demolition, and material reuse.

The Creation of Cyber-Physical Systems

Using central repositories of information such as those generated by BIM workflows in combination with wireless technology there is the potential to create systems that allow computer-based algorithms to control or monitor buildings at a level largely unrealised to date.

Rather than mono-directional coordination of information confined within spreadsheets or PDFs (which are often ignored when physical construction commences), cyber-physical systems present us with bi-directional information that can be used to monitor the performance of assets in real-time and alert us to problems before they arise in the physical environment.

Progressing towards Industry 4.0, it is likely that the industry’s understanding of cyber-physical systems will grow. As with an ever-increasing acceptance of how accurate digital data and technology can be used to improve how we design, build and maintain assets. Don’t be surprised to see the conversation develop from information modelling to information management and analysis, with technologies such as wireless sensors, real-time tracking software and data fusion likely to bring in new ways of doing things when construction catches on to Industry 4.0.