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Constructive Connectivity

The construction industry is one that consistently strives to operate at the cutting-edge of technological advancement. Whilst innovations in automation, performance and mobility have remained at the forefront of the sector, new developments in Machine-to-Machine (M2M) functionality and the Internet of Things (IoT) are proposing entirely new possibilities for operational transparency, connectivity and on-site intelligence. Leonard Owen investigates the efficiencies that the modern day constructor can hope to realise as a result of these exciting new developments.

By 2019, prompted by a worldwide drive for urbanisation and the rising GDP in a host of developing nations, the global construction industry is expected reach an approximate value of US$10.39 trillion. Over the same period, the world’s construction equipment market is expected to grow to around US$137 billion. Whilst this rise may well be welcomed by many of the construction sector’s operators – and also those who supply such equipment – growth will inevitably prompt a heightened assurance that these assets can be effectively managed, monitored and operated. Alongside this, however, there also comes an increased requirement for efficiency, optimisation and operational transparency – and it is such demands that are driving a complete revolution in site and project management across the sector.

“Imagine a site where tools check themselves in and out; trucks send you notifications when a certain speed limit has been exceeded; safety harnesses accumulate detailed information for inspections; materials are tracked in a matter of seconds; cell phones become tools to manage driver safety; and employee badges track down which employees are clocked in,” proposes Bryan Price, Co-Founder of M2M Xperts. Contrary to the conceptual nature of these proposals, the integration of such technologies within the construction sector is fast becoming a reality thanks to new innovations in M2M systems and the IoT.

The value proposition

Thanks to innovations in wireless Internet, GPS and GSM connectivity, the world is host to a rapidly expanding network of progressively interconnected devices. Exceeding a total of 16 billion at the close of last year, it is the evolution of the Internet-connected ‘device’ rather than simply the ‘computer’ that is prompting the rise of the IoT to a stratospheric capacity. By 2020, it is anticipated that over 50 billion Internet-enabled devices – from machinery and vehicles, to household appliances and the smallest of sensor-embedded systems – will be connected in a self-sufficient data-harvesting network, needless of human intervention. But what is the IoT’s true potential and what is the value of its application in industry?

Taking manufacturing as an example, the IoT is prompting many industrialists to promote the concept of the ‘Industrial Internet’ – of smart factories that function as a thriving, artificially intelligent connected whole. A facility employing IoT functionality is more akin to a platform whereby machinery, products, systems and fleets communicate, interact and operate independently to maximise efficiency and streamline production. Such is the capacity of this ideal that many are already referring to IoT’s application in manufacturing as ‘Industry 4.0’, which General Electric anticipates to be applicable to around 82-trillion-dollars-worth of world production outputs by 2025, and it is equally accurate to anticipate such an evolution within the construction sector.

“The value proposition for the Internet of Things in the construction industry is in many ways similar to manufacturing,” notes Luciano Cunha, Vice President of Sales at To-Increase. “However, all of the valuable equipment used in construction projects is mobile at least at some point, resulting in more complex tracking and management.” It is to this extent that we see the primary application of the IoT within the construction sector. Whilst, in many cases, construction companies have struggled to monitor and uniformly manage their individual vehicles, tools and raw material supplies, the wireless capacities of the IoT – and more specifically, M2M functionality – ensure optimal performance within each of those competencies and more. “The Internet of Things really comes together with the connection of sensors and machines. That is to say, the real value that the Internet of Things creates is at the intersection of gathering data and leveraging it,” proposes Daniel Burrus, CEO of Burrus Research.

All-encompassing optimisation

By 2020, it is estimated that M2M will account for US$100 billion of annual savings across all industrial sectors, largely due to increased efficiencies in the operation of equipment and machinery. Indeed, this will provide a lifeline for construction firms, for whom equipment repairs typically account for the third largest expense. An example of one such company that has sought to deploy M2M functionality to overcome such an eventuality is Holcim Malaysia. As a multinational building materials supplier, specialised in cement, aggregates and ready-mix concrete, the company sought the expertise of Singapore-based M2M solutions provider, W-Locate, for its technology requirements.

W-Locate’s relationship with Holcim Malaysia commenced in 2012, when it sought to deploy a fleet management system that could not only monitor the movement of its ready-mix vehicles, but could also provide real-time workflow data and analytics. W-Locate’s CEO, Mr Stevie Ooi, provides further insight: “We installed sensors in the rotational drums of Holcim’s mixer trucks to determine if the drums were discharging or mixing and at what speed the drums were operating at any given time. Through the information received from our sensors, data analytics can be applied and day-to-day operations can be monitored in real-time to allow accurate and informed decisions to be made,” he advises.

W-Locate’s M2M solutions also incorporate GPS transceiver functionality, which enables an accurate depiction of workflows – from initial product orders, to the vehicle’s departure from the plant, arrival at the worksite, time of product discharge, and percentage of product unloaded at the site. Such functionality not only enables enhanced vehicle monitoring, but also allows for greater management of Holcim Malaysia’s product and raw material supplies. “All of our technologies are cloud-based so that Holcim’s staff can have a bird’s-eye view of what is happening, even if they are not on site. Connectivity can be achieved through the use of a smartphone, by tablet, or by computer, allowing the complete operation to be viewable in real-time from any location,” Mr Ooi tells us. “Through the deployment of our technologies, a company such as Holcim can reduce costs by around 30 per cent. The resulting reduction in wastage and the provision of precise product quantities to the customer are the primary ways that this can be realised.”

Cost control through M2M functionality has also been aptly demonstrated by construction equipment manufacturer Caterpillar, thanks to its ‘Cat Product Link’ remote monitoring system. Product link allows the user to compare the use of all equipment on a job site and identify machines working under capacity. That data can then be used to make more informed equipment assignment decisions and maximise efficiency on site. US-based Saiia Construction is one such adopter of Caterpillar’s system, and has reaped considerable benefits in the operation of its Caterpillar 775F rock trucks. “In the past, we would guess what fuel a machine would use. Now, we can go in and look at an average over time and know exactly how many gallons per hour are burned,” details Mark Ray, Project Manager at Saiia Construction. “We have seen a two per cent reduction in unit cost, which is huge,” reveals Frank Montgomery, the company’s Executive Vice President.

Clearly demonstrating a capacity to provide an all-encompassing optimisation of operations, M2M connectivity also displays a remarkable ability for the self-regulation of on-site activities, as the US branch of construction service provider and developer Skanska Group recently showcased. During a recent high-profile hospital renovation project in Tampa, Florida, Skanska deployed IoT functionality as a means of controlling the noise, vibration and dust particles produced by its equipment. Such regulation was required as the site was situated beside an operational neonatal care unit. Precise control was achieved on-site through the use of Skanska’s in-house-developed inSite Monitor solution, which leveraged sensor technologies to measure its equipment’s vibrations and pressure, and also count dust particles and log data in real-time. By capturing this data and combining it with cloud technology, the company was able to remotely monitor the site through mobile applications and successfully realise an effective means of achieving its aims. “Anything that we can do to make projects leaner and more efficient through the use of technology is of benefit to our clients and the communities in which we operate. The use of inSite Monitor makes monitoring more efficient and accurate, and it improves our transparency with our clients,” notes Darren Jones, IT Manager of Architecture & Development at Skanska.

Security & safeguarding

Technology research and advisory firm Gartner anticipates that IoT products and their associated product suppliers will generate revenue exceeding US$300 billion by 2020, of which the construction industry is set to become an active contributor. Whilst the IoT and M2M’s implementation in the construction industry is still in its infancy, and despite its seemingly boundless capabilities, it is necessary to realise the challenges that such technologies will have to overcome in order to become a universally accepted part of the construction process.

Much has been documented about big data – the quantifying of exponential volumes of data to levels not previously achievable in the absence of today’s computer processing prowess. Whilst M2M proposes the collection of data to an unprecedented capacity, such data can only be of value if utilised correctly and by the most effective means possible. It is also perceivable that many constructors would regard the deployment of M2M technologies as a considerable stumbling block and detrimental to the success of their operations, despite its demonstrable functionality thus far. “Technology adoption, in spite of clear and quick return on investment, is too slow.” IT business management consultancy firm Wavefront perceives in a recent report. “In some cases, builders are reluctant to share their technology advantages with associated players in the value chain for fear of losing their advantage.”

No matter the industrial sector, any technological advance inevitably comes loaded with renewed concerns for security and a safeguarding of digital assets. A study conducted by Hewlett-Packard in July last year revealed that 70 per cent of the most commonly used IoT devices contained serious security vulnerabilities. On each device, an average of 25 security flaws were discovered, posing risks to privacy and authorisation. A lack of encryption, insecure web interfaces and inadequate software protection was also reported. Considering that construction equipment theft accounts for almost US$1 billion of annual losses in the US alone, the heightened security requirements for M2M and IoT-connected devices within the sector become abundantly clear.

A new industrial ecosystem

“The key is not to think small, affirms Daniel Burrus of Burrus Research. The IoT is not merely about creating savings within current industry models. It is about upending old models entirely, creating new services and new products.” By incorporating real-time fleet management, and the elimination of opportunities for corruption through controlled procurement costs, it is through the IoT and the application of M2M functionality that we see a realistic means of achieving productivity and transparency within the construction sector like never before. In summary, M2M functionality paves the way towards an entirely new form of industrial ecosystem, one in which clarity, communication and intelligence will elevate the sector to an entirely new plain. By enabling the tangible live analysis of assets and operations, substantial savings and efficiencies will indeed be assured through means never previously thought achievable.

Published by: Euroasia Industry

Publish Date: February 3, 2015