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Only a few years ago Fitbit or Siri didn’t exist, and it was hard to imagine asking a speaker to control heating and lighting. Technology has gathered pace in recent years and this is affecting a whole host of industries.

One of the industries set to see a monumental change thanks to new technology is construction.

Introducing the Internet of Things
Enter the internet of things (IoT). IoT is a catch-all phrase used to describe objects that can be connected to the internet and made “smart.” These devices range from a smart fridge to smart clothing to wearable technology, such as the Fitbit and Apple Watch, to beacons and sensors. It is the latter group which is most exciting for construction professionals.

IoT is set to be big business across many industries, with the IoT global market predicted to grow to $457 billion by 2020. One of the major drivers of growth will be businesses taking advantage of the IoT, thanks to the rise of smart cities, smart homes and the industrial IoT. In order to stay ahead of the game, construction professionals must understand IoT and the potential it holds.

Construction is all about building things as efficiently and safely as possible. The IoT can help. Equipping a site with smart devices can relay vital data on the site’s environment and overall performance that can be used by management to help with everyday decision making and strategic planning.

Iot and BIM
According to tech giant IBM, data from connected sensors can be imported into a Building Information Model (BIM) to give oversight on things like temperature fluctuations, motion and humidity. The BIM model has been developed to understand how a building reacts over time to use and environmental factors. Therefore, data from sensors on building motion can give insights on how neighbouring construction works affects a property, or how having a certain number of people living in a building affects its humidity. In this way, IoT data offers an unparalleled level of detail on how buildings respond to everyday wear and tear - especially if the data is collected and tracked over a long period of time.

Indeed, IBM Watson IoT is a service developed specifically to track all the disparate data that a building produces through the IoT over time. IBM Watson (a type of artificial intelligence system developed by IBM) then analyzes the data to help managers make decisions regarding a building’s upkeep and how to improve the experience of living or working in the building.

The Manitoba Hydro skyscraper in Winnipeg gives some indication of how the IoT will impact the working environment in the future. It features a natural humidifier throughout the building that pumps moist air throughout the building and opens or closes the blinds automatically depending on conditions in the offices. Likewise, Cisco remotely operates the electricity use, security and other functions inside its buildings worldwide.

It may not be too long before someone leaving work for the night can remotely turn off the heating and lighting and double-check that all the windows and doors are locked. At regular intervals, senior management could check to see that energy efficiency targets are being met, what areas of the building might require maintenance and generally how well the building is withstanding daily use.

The IoT working onsite
The IoT doesn’t just monitor conditions once a building has been constructed. When working on a sensitive site next to a neo-natal unit, Skanska used the IoT to measure noise pollution in the area. Sensors also measured dust and pressure, sending alerts to construction workers if specific thresholds were exceeded.

Sensors can also be placed on individual building materials to allow them to be tracked throughout the supply chain. Loss and theft of materials when transported through the supply chain can add significant costs to a construction project. By using RFID, site managers can see where materials are and determine when they will be delivered. This also helps with project management, as managers will be forewarned if a delivery is late.

IoT for machinery use
Similarly, RFID sensors for construction machinery allow a site manager to see exactly where a machine is being used. They also provide a warning to other people on site if they are in danger of straying into the path of moving machinery, for instance. Site managers can see, in near real time, exactly where a piece of machinery is, how it is being used and whether it is a risk to nearby workers.

Knowing exactly when a machine is being used and when it is idle can also allow for better planning and resource allocation. Instead of wasting resources with idle machinery, equipment could be delivered exactly when needed in a project timeline and then sent to another site once its work is done.

Data from IoT sensors can help predict when a machine is likely to require maintenance. Sensors measure how often a machine is used and whether performance has changed over time, enabling managers to analyze data on normal machine performance over time, how often a machine requires upkeep and then schedule service it before it breaks down. Unexpected breakdowns at a crucial point in a building’s construction are costly, both in terms of the labor costs and loss of equipment.

Current challenges faced by the IoT
There are challenges facing the IoT, such as the need for standardization. Currently, many different IoT devices operate on separate systems and therefore cannot “speak” to each other. This means that one device cannot currently control another and that the data from each device cannot be easily combined and analyzed. Furthermore, a standard needs to be developed quickly to stop companies from investing in IoT technology now that may become redundant.

Bringing the IoT onto construction sites will also require a change in skills of site managers and workers. Future decision making will be facilitated by the IoT and the data it produces. Construction workers will need to be data-literate in order to interpret the data that onsite sensors will generate.

There are also concerns about the security of some IoT devices. As the devices have become more widespread, there have been some high profile hacks of baby monitors, webcams and even a Jeep. On a small scale, these hacks might be inconvenient, but if a hacker gains access to an entire electricity grid or the HVAC system of a skyscraper, the consequences could be disastrous.

A who’s who of the IoT
Despite some of its drawbacks, several companies have already realized the multi-billion dollar opportunity that the IoT brings to the construction industry. JCB has connected more than 10,000 construction machines to measure performance and aid in resource planning. Meanwhile, Caterpillar has more than 560,000 connected machines that help with predictive maintenance. As the technology is refined further, it’s likely that the industry will see many construction companies follow JCB and Caterpillar’s lead in experimenting with the IoT.

The IoT will give construction professionals the opportunity to stop reacting to things when they go wrong and to proactively prepare for them instead. Through the IoT, future site managers are going to be more informed than ever before. One day, the IoT may be as fundamental to building sites as bricks and cement. However, in order for it to get there, the IoT does have to overcome the challenges of standardization, skillsets and security. The IoT is certainly something that all construction professionals should keep track of. Indeed, it won’t be something that can be ignored.
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