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How smart cities developers are getting smart about construction

Submitted by kevin ebi on September 5, 2014

Developers working on Saudi Arabia’s next smart cities are also getting smart about the construction of them. The same mobile technologies that help the smart cities operate are also helping to make development easier and at less cost.

They’re calling the effort smart construction, according to the Saudi Gazette, borrowing the adjective that describes the cities they are building. And for starters, they’re trying to cut down on all the paper they use.

And Saudi Arabia is not alone in its approach to smarter construction. Earlier this year, Council Lead Partner Bechtel won a CETI Award for the company’s innovative use of radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology on its liquefied natural gas projects on Curtis Island in Queensland, Australia. And developers in China are tapping supercomputers to help in the construction of smart cities.

Going paperless

While offices have been trying to go paperless for years, the construction industry hasn’t really tried until now. Job sites often have piles of paper describing the work that needs to be done and the supplies needed to do it. That documentation is expensive to transport and, since things constantly change, it’s even more expensive to update.

But mobile devices, especially tablets, are now able to replace paper in a lot of cases. They’re lightweight and the information contained on them is always up-to-date.

Further, workers at the jobsite, and in a growing number of cases the equipment itself, can update usage records so that maintenance staff can make sure that everything is operating correctly and repair machines before they cause serious delays.

Reducing losses

Image removed.Another common problem is theft, and is one of the top concerns for builders worldwide. In the United States, the National Insurance Crime Bureau estimates that more than $1 billion worth of construction equipment is stolen each year. In the United Kingdom, hundreds of construction trailers are hauled away by thieves each year. And then there is the theft of building materials.

RFID tags can be installed on equipment and supplies, triggering alarms when the items travel past a certain point, similar to the merchandise tags and security systems used by retailers. And the same data network that’s used by the mobile devices can also be used to feed real-time, high-resolution video footage back to a security monitoring center.

Bechtel, with three projects underway on Curtis Island, deployed the Jovix system from Atlas RFID Solutions to assist in the tracking and delivery of materials from multiple storage locations to the three construction sites. As Bechtel explained, the tracking and delivery for the projects presented unique challenges given the vast size of the construction sites and their island location, requiring the materials to be stored on the mainland and transported across a harbor.  The approach enabled automation of work processes typically performed manually and resulted in better than expected efficiencies, they found.

Mike Lewis, Bechtel’s global manager of construction, noted: “Our applying RFID technology to the Curtis Island projects is one of the most significant uses of the technology in the history of construction, and we are demonstrating that it can be a real game-changer in materials management.”

Improving collaboration

It turns out video feeds mentioned earlier also have uses beyond construction site security. Time lapse video, aside from being interesting to watch, provides valuable information to project managers and architects. They can see if the project is progressing on schedule and how they envisioned. By having access to that jobsite video immediately, they can take corrective action rapidly, if necessary.

The ability to access that video from anywhere has huge advantages for developers and their project managers, who are often trying to manage several sites from several different locations.

Digitizing development

A China Post report out of the northern Chinese province of Tianjin, meanwhile, explains how developers with one of the world's fastest supercomputers -- Tianhe-1A – see ways the system can "digitize the planning, designing, construction and property management of buildings in a city."

The Tianhe-1A virtual design software, for example, could  determine cost and material needs prior to a building's completion. One researcher told the Post that big data-based modeling using the supercomputer could reduce the cost of a subway construction project by 10% to 20%.

Why is the industry changing now?

While a lot of these changes may seem to be easy to make, technology has only recently advanced to the point where these tools are viable on a construction site. Having a network of tablets, video conferencing, and the ability to download high-resolution plans requires serious broadband, and paper has been cheaper than temporarily wiring the job site.

The development of Jetpacks has changed that. Jetpacks are essentially mobile hotspots that can be used to connect devices to high-speed internet, most commonly wireless 4G LTE. Each jetpack typically powers 10 devices, such as tablets or laptops, but more powerful systems can be set up to run more elaborate networks that offer more advanced services, such as PBX phone systems.

More on smart city development…