At least 20 percent of the total construction volume is waste, 30 percent of construction is rework, 40 percent of job site work is unproductive, 40 percent of projects are over budget, and 90 percent of projects are late. These numbers inspired Aalto University, VTT, and seven companies to start The Digitalizing Construction Workflows R&D project. The partnering businesses were Bonava, Consolis Parma, Fira, Ruukki, Sweco, and Trimble.
The two-and-a-half-year DiCtion project released its final report and six others in March 2021, laying out the outcomes of eight work packages. The researchers represent opportunities, challenges, and solutions regarding the digital transformation of construction production.
A Shared Situational Picture
The complexity of a construction project is the root cause of many productivity issues. No one has a comprehensive and real-time picture of the construction site and its processes and resources. Lack of the correct information at the right time leads to unpredictable delays and necessitates buffers in the schedule.
In one of the DiCtion case studies, a mere 33.8 percent worker presence was sufficient to complete a task on schedule. The rest, 66.2 percent of the time, was buffer.
The military uses COP—a common operational picture—to give every command up-to-date information on what’s happening in the field. It helps them plan collaboratively and assists all echelons in achieving situational awareness. Similarly, a shared situation picture could help construction projects become more manageable and predictable. That would eradicate many of the productivity problems and eventually improve companies’ bottom lines.
Situational awareness allows every stakeholder of a project to understand the statuses and locations of processes, materials, equipment, and people. The perception covers past, current, and future events in relation to plans and expected results.
To achieve situational awareness, you need data from the site and throughout the supply chain workflows. The data flow should be open and as automatic as possible. Automation calls for machine-readability of information. Unfortunately, it is not practically attainable today because companies manage their data differently and use heterogeneous digital tools.
Data Flow Requires Standardization
A primary goal of DiCtion was an information management solution that could maintain a shared situation picture and support situational awareness in daily coordination and planning. Standard construction information models are an essential part of the solution. Hence, DiCtion researchers devised a suite of ontologies—models that standardize terminologies and workflow descriptions.
You can use the ontologies to describe any workflow: its actors, actions, materials, related information, and so on. When construction systems use the same ontology in communication, a reporting app, for example, can retrieve data from on-site sensors or cameras and link them to project management and ERP data.
The researchers were able to demonstrate how the ontologies made automated job status monitoring possible. In one test, data retrieved from various sources indicated whether a specific subcontractor had completed a job in the correct apartment, at the right time, and in the required temperature and humidity conditions. Another study looked at how a machine vision system could identify drywall installation stages from video inputs and 4D BIM models.
Decentralized Planning for Takt Production
Construction project planning is typically centralized and top-down. One DiCtion case study revealed that in practice, a lot of planning takes place at the worksite. Especially in Takt production, the popular Last Planner System helps trade contractor supervisors and workers to use their knowledge for scheduling.
Trade contractors generally want to be involved in planning. However, when there’s little or no connection between top-down and distributed planning, waste and unpredictability result. DiCtion suggests a standard and generic workflow model and digital tools to support decentralized planning.
For decentralized Takt production, DiCtion researchers have outlined a six-step production model. It starts with preliminary production planning and continues with initial Takt train planning and decentralized Takt train planning with teams based on wagons. Fine-tuning and integration with significant milestones follow. The fifth step is onboarding—a smooth start into production. Production control with visual management and daily huddles complete the process.
Linking Supply Chain Management with the Situation Picture
To become a game-changer, workflow digitalization must extend beyond the construction site. DiCtion looked at digital workflows for supply chain management and logistics.
In an ideal scenario, engineered-to-order products are made just-in-time in a factory and delivered precisely at the right time. This is possible when the manufacturer has up-to-date digital data on the installation schedule, installation order, and status. Likewise, contractors’ issues and claims regarding the prefabricated part should be digitally available. The ideal scenario becomes a reality when every prefabricated building part has a unique and traceable ID that persists from design to production and installation.
For better logistics information management, DiCtion analyzed the use of kitting. A kit is a batch of make-to-stock products and materials that a logistics center prepares and ships on time to the proper assembly location on a construction site. The information for kitting comes from BIMs, schedules, and location-specific bills of materials. A situation picture enables the timely delivery of each kit.
Learning both from errors and good practices is an additional benefit that digital workflows provide. The researchers envisioned a cloud-based inter-organizational issues management system that would make quality information shareable. For this purpose, they tested BIM Collaboration Format (BCF) in exchanging quality deviation data between two systems—Congrid and Trimble Connect. The results were encouraging, and the BCF proved to be useful for future applications
Linked Data Could Make the Industry Perform Better
Traditionally, construction businesses withhold information and benefit from not being transparent. However, studies suggest that organizations sharing data with their partners usually generate three times more measurable economic benefits than those that do not. Such a notion should interest contractors who are often at risk of negative returns on a project.
DiCtion researchers envision a “Linked Data Ecosystem” with actors, such as linked data providers, data consumers, data brokers, and regulatory entities. The system—based on trust—would improve companies’ internal processes and create new value for customers.
DiCtion’s results serve as encouragement and provide scientific evidence for the value of digital transformation within the construction industry. For example, the Building 2030 Consortium is making headway by applying DiCtion’s findings.
If you could scale up DiCtion’s digitalized workflows and data sharing to every process and supplier, construction would become well-managed, predictable, and smartly automated fabrication.