Cloud Computing In The Construction Industry: A Snapshot
Do you own or manage a construction team but don’t use cloud computing tools? Chances are that your business is falling behind.
When I first started in construction, our company was only just starting to migrate to digital plans which were kept on one person's desktop computer. There was very little collaboration, and if there was, it would always be on plans that were printed out, which then had to reinput back into the computer.
Things have massively changed since then. Construction businesses have started to recognise the power that cloud software systems bring and they are now taking advantage of the cloud to handle complex workflows. It’s online, flexible, mobile, cost-effective, and you never have to worry about losing any of your data.
In this article I will briefly go through the main cases where cloud computing is currently being used in construction, and discuss some of the potential ways that the industry can better use cloud computing in the future.
Cloud computing, as opposed to local hosting, is the practice of using a network of different servers that host, store, manage, and process data online with minimal management effort or service provider interaction. Since the cloud allows software and services to run and be accessible via the Internet, it opens broad opportunities to collaborate and obtain real-time data for better project forecast and management.
Imagine, instead of having to spend the whole day working with paper-based documents, which is then entered into computers, likely to be printed out again (as in my earlier example), the cloud lets teams collaborate simultaneously. Think about tools like Google Docs, Autodesk, Microsoft Office online etc, all of which are only possible because of cloud computing.
Three main categories of cloud computing are easy to get confused between are Software as a Service (SaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS), and Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS). SaaS is the most popular and most common model in the cloud. HubSpot defines SaaS as cloud-based software that is hosted online by a company and is available for purchase on a subscription basis and is delivered via the internet. For example, Mastt is a SaaS platform tailored for the construction industry that could be accessed anywhere and on any device.
Within the construction industry, cloud computing offers businesses many benefits across multiple aspects. Here are some of them:
Construction sites, especially large projects, always carry a large amount of risk. One big problem is that the risks are always changing and access to information on these risks can be difficult.
Most cloud solutions for safety and risk are focused on job site risk. Not many (if any) are helping higher-level project managers report risks at a project or program level.
There is a big opportunity for cloud software to vertically integrate and provide tools to manage risk across the planning and design, construction, and post construction phase. Automating the transfer of information through the system is the key here. For example, any changes to that happen to on-site risks are automatically reflected in real time dashboards/reports accessible to the construction foreman, project managers, developers, and owners. Better information helps all of them make better decisions that will make the whole construction process less risky and more efficient.
Cloud-based platforms such as Mastt help you detect your project risks in real time and learn from your past project data to prevent issues, increase organisational preparedness and recovery.
Supply chain management
The main risk to construction industry within the supply chain is that materials will not get delivered on time, causing delays to the projects. This can be seen in two ways: materials being moved within a site or materials being delivered to site.
There has been significant cloud computing uptake in supply chain management already. Few years ago, Qantas Airlines, in their effort to cut operational costs by at least $2 billion, rolled out their real-time supply chain inventory and parts forecasting system. A few benefits of this initiative are forecasting parts requirements, create product configurations, model probabilistic maintenance bills of materials, collaborating more deeply with customers and suppliers to help improve the airline’s ability to predict changes and risks in its network.
For the construction industry, there are still big opportunities for automation around knowing when materials are running low and optimising the flow of materials around the job site.
Waste management aims to reduce wastage of time or materials in construction projects. Quite often the largest contributor to this is the lack of coordination. Some examples being: workers waiting for materials to do their job, being provided with bad/damaged materials from suppliers that need to be replaced, maintaining large stockpiles which inevitably get damaged.
The results from poor coordination are work having to be redone, wastage in time having to wait for new materials, or even having to replace/rebuild parts of the project once the building is built.
While cloud computing is unlikely to change people’s self-discipline, it can help construction project managers by using principles similar to Just in Time manufacturing and automating the ordering of materials and when/where they will be needed. Cloud computing can also help with the automation of worker scheduling and making sure the right type and number of workers are on site. Other ways that cloud can help could be better estimations to reduce waste by automating what materials will be needed based on plans and integrating that data with the project management ordering schedule.
Buildings consume a huge amount of energy during both construction and once they are built. Cloud computing can be used during the construction phase to help reduce energy consumption and emissions as a byproduct.
From the operations side, there is already a push to make building more “green” by automating energy use inside the building, e.g., light and aircon room sensors. Architects and designers can also do advanced modeling powered by the cloud to creating designs that make the building more energy efficient by reducing the need for air-conditioning.
There are still big opportunities for cloud computing to further improve energy efficiency throughout the life of a project. The goal is linking all the different data sources that are inputs into building and operating a building. For example: Integrating the energy consumption data from the whole supply chain along with the energy used during construction and operation will help get the full picture of a project's energy impact.
Having a single view of all this data and being able to optimise the energy usage across the whole lifecycle is a great opportunity.
Project management is the glue that brings all the pieces of a construction project together. Strangely enough, this is one of the areas where the industry is still using blunt tools like spreadsheets to manage multi billion-dollar projects. Program and portfolio managers of large capital works programs particularly suffer from a lack of specialised software options. They regularly face an unenviable maze of multiple Excel files - think dozens, hundreds or thousands of interlinked files - just to access information about their capital works programs. Unfortunately this lack of collaboration tools, and access to reliable, timely information about a project are a major contributor of poor outcomes such as time delays and cost over-runs.
Cloud computing can help at all stages of the project. Some of which I have mentioned above, but further uses are helping designers collaborate better on designs, helping PM’s manage cost, managing contracts for all the contractors, governance, and compliance.
What isn’t done well currently is having a fully vertically integrated view of how a project is going, for example having a single system that automatically updates the relevant people on how the project is progressing based on cost and contracts but also on how the project is physically progressing, using IOT (Internet of Thing) to auto update using images and comparing to plans and schedules.
Cloud computing, not “if” but “when”
Using cloud-based systems helps businesses lower cost and increase overall efficiency. Access to systems like I have mentioned above used to only be available to large corporations with huge budgets as most of them were custom-built solutions. Now as many of them are available on the cloud, the barriers to use these systems are reduced. For large companies, this will save a lot of time and risk as they no longer need to build custom solutions for each complex problem they face.
Although I have mentioned a lot of amazing uses for cloud computing above, the adoption in the construction industry is still low, and uptake is slow especially when compared to other industries. There is a reason we are notorious for being among the least digitised sectors worldwide. Lots of companies still rely on archaic tools such as Excel to manage large and complex projects. Construction is one of the oldest industries in the world and change is slow. There is still a long way to go before the industry catches up with the current pace of other industries.
Part of the problem is educating the industry about what is possible and further reducing the barriers of entry to make it easier for all companies to leverage cloud computing. Until recently there hasn’t been many good solutions that were built purely for the construction/project management/asset owner industry.
This, however, has more to do with people (mostly owners) being stuck in their ways. They are generally risk-averse and tend to have a bias for developing unique specifications against more standardised products at lower price points. A significant leap in productivity is unlikely to happen if there is not a mindset shift in the industry.