Augmented Reality (AR) is the ability to overlay digital objects in the real world. Sounds like a fairly simple tool; but this concept has the ability to change the way the entire construction industry operates.
According to McKinsey, the construction industry is one of the least digitised industries in the world. Every large industry that was stable, not innovating and complacent, has been disrupted. We have seen it with video rentals, Kodak, the taxi industry, we will see it with construction. A person saw inefficiency, solved it, and the industry was never the same again.
One thing I learnt at University that has stuck with me ever since, is this; the incumbent never notices the disrupter until it’s too late. The disrupter already has a strong foothold in the industry and is growing at a rate that is impossible to complete with.
For construction firms, the time to act is now, before these disruptors become clear competitors. Because by then, it’s too late.
AR to disrupt construction industry
Augmented Reality is one tool that will undoubtedly be used to disrupt the industry. It won’t be used in the way many people are experience AR now, with the incredible popularity of Pokemon Go putting it in the hands of consumers. One of the key aspects of AR, that will make it invaluable in the construction industry, is spatial awareness.
For anyone that’s been on a construction site (where I spend probably a quarter of my working week as a temporary works engineer), you will know that it can be an absolute mess: piles of disorganised materials, plant and equipment constantly moving, people everywhere, rough ground, barriers and fences everywhere to keep the workers safe and keep the public out. It’s hot, dusty and a hard place to work.
The point is that a construction site is a constantly evolving location. It is not suited to current AR technology, including ARCore by Google or ARKit by Apple that relies on a ground or wall place in order to place objects. Very often it’s hard to find a flat surface on a construction site.
These technologies can also use image targets to assist with the location of digital objects, but what if the image target gets moved out of position or gets dirty. Then your digital objects aren’t aligned in the right location and is basically worthless.
Some more advanced AR technology such as the Hololens or Magic Leap is still quite unproven in outdoor locations with many reports of the content not being bright enough to see outdoors in sunlight.
One technology which I believe will greatly assist the rollout of AR in construction is Azure Spatial Anchors. This is a technology that allows you to scan the area around you, place a digital object, and that object will remain there as long as the area doesn’t change. This is an issue in construction because the site is in a constant state of change. But it is a good starting point.
The need for further development of AR technology
We need to get augmented reality to the point where it has as good (or better) awareness of its exact location on a site than a person. For example, a person on a building project may know they are on level 12 at gridline X-2, and they are looking at column C78. But to do this they have to look around at their surroundings and consult the design drawings in order to come to this conclusion.
We need a way for digital devices to reach this level of localisation too. Perhaps it can be done with survey markers plastered over the site. As far as I’m aware, nobody is doing this yet. In order for AR to truly change the way construction is performed these problems have to be solved. Once they are solved, the whole process will change, and it will open up a plethora of opportunities.
Once a device knows exactly where it is on a construction site and what is around it, you have some very powerful information. Using this information, you can build robots that construct exactly as per the drawings. Without this spatial awareness though, the robot is useless.
AR will be one of the keys in transitioning the industry from people powered to machine powered.
AR enabled transition
People often like to compare manufacturing to construction especially when looking at the levels of efficiency in each industry. However, this isn’t a fair comparison as with construction you have the added complexity of having to build everything at a certain location, where each location has its own difficulties.
There is a big push to prefabrication in construction and I think this will have a major impact on the way we construct, but all of these prefabricated items still need to be put together on site. By having spatially aware robots on site, we can remove so many of the inefficiencies of construction. Mistakes will be eliminated; robots can work 24/7 and they don’t get tired on hot days.
But for me the biggest benefit is safety. Safety is the number one priority on every single construction site. The best way to make sites safer is to stop making people do dangerous jobs. Leave them to the robots. We don’t excavate with a bunch of guys with shovels anymore, we have excavators for that. Why don’t we also have tools for the rest of the job?
Food for thought
I want this article to be a thought provoker for people in the construction industry. Whether you’re an engineer like me, a site supervisor, a carpenter, a steel fabricator or a demolition company. These technological changes will affect you and affect the way you work. My advice is the following:
- Educate yourself on what is changing
- Educate yourself on how you will deal with the changes
- Make changes within your company so that you aren’t left behind
Most importantly, start a conversation with your workmates. Find solutions to your problems and don’t be satisfied with doing things one way ‘because that’s the way things have always been done’. Technology is close to being ingrained in every construction project from start to finish, be ready for it and have the skills to handle it.