Digitalisation makes construction more sustainable and effective

The building sector is one of the biggest climate killers of our time. Sounds harsh, but according to the UN's latest Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction, it is still the case. In Germany alone, it accounts for about 35 percent of final energy consumption and about 30 percent of CO2 emissions - and the trend is still rising. And as if this were not enough of a challenge for the construction industry, there are now added consequences such as supply chain bottlenecks due to the Corona pandemic and the war in Ukraine, as well as a growing shortage of skilled workers. The question remains: What opportunities does digitalisation offer to counteract all of this, at least in part? 

The German federal government's new BIM portal was launched just a few weeks ago. The stated goal: a uniform data situation is to support the public sector and companies in implementing joint construction projects faster and more effectively. Basically, the aim is to collect, evaluate and combine data consistently and in a well-structured manner, if possible in real time, and to use it for planning, construction and subsequent building management. In short, working with BIM should always be understood as a process in which qualified as well as standardised information is digitally collected, managed and included in the construction and subsequent management of buildings. An awareness of defining digitalisation in construction as a standard at the public administration level is thus given. Now it is a matter of constant further development and use in this area.

Compensating for the labour shortage, driving decarbonisation forward

In private residential and commercial construction, too, digitalisation is being used to make construction more efficient and thus create opportunities to compensate for the shortage of skilled workers on the one hand and to promote decarbonisation on the other. There, the modelling of building data with the help of digital methods and software is already taking place to a certain extent and thus enables the smart networking, data exchange and communication of all trades involved in a construction. In the first step of a building project, a 3D model is created. All essential details such as dimensions, materials or important environmental data of the construction site are collected and managed in it. This creates a digital twin of the planned building and the surrounding construction site. If there are changes during construction, these can be added digitally and necessary adjustments can be transferred more easily than before. 

The construction measures that go hand in hand with building planning include a vast number of digital solutions - as is so often the case when it comes to the shift to a digital future for entire sectors. Currently, the most widespread are sensors for data acquisition for modular systems. Applying these to existing buildings is currently still considered a major challenge. In the long term, however, this will be necessary to bring existing buildings into the digital age. Because not only the construction of a building itself, but also the subsequent maintenance and servicing can benefit significantly from this.

So much for the theory. But how should one imagine the whole thing on the building site in more concrete terms? Here are a few examples:

Drones flying above it all

The small flying robots have long been standard equipment for digitalisation in construction. They are used even before the actual construction begins. Remotely controlled or flying autonomously, they provide initial data about the terrain on which construction is to take place. These are transferred to the modelling platform and are used for further procedures, such as construction and measurement. During the actual construction phase, the respective construction progress is consistently and continuously documented with their help. Potential danger spots can also be identified using drone images. These provide the basis, for example, for simulation software from the start-up HeavyGoods, which can be used to automatically plan and carry out bulky and confusing transports to and on the construction site.

"Well equipped" through robot technology

This sentence is to be taken literally in the case of the digital material lift from the Munich-based company Kewazo. The company has developed an intelligent robot for construction sites and industrial plants. The "digital employee liftboy" is wireless, battery-powered and automatically delivers the next scaffolding parts to the few human colleagues still needed to erect the scaffolding. The whole thing is not only effective in terms of time and personnel. The technology also helps to make scaffolding work more ergonomic overall and, above all, safer.

Smartly organised and controlled 

In future, anyone planning a construction project digitally with BIM will no longer have to contact individual trades to order the necessary construction machinery and vehicles for the construction site. With the digital twin, the digital construction site opens up what is needed. The equipment can then be requested on demand at the click of a mouse via the connection to a corresponding platform. The entire machine logistics will be simplified in this way and thus more efficient in control.

But not only the organisation of the machines, but also the machines themselves are becoming increasingly smarter. The Boston Dynamics company's Robo-Dog Spot is already being tested. Equipped with a 360-degree camera and AI technology, it can follow predefined routes and in two ways "continuously" - for control or documentation - make scans of construction sections. Spot is thus a kind of mobile carrier platform. In the ancient city of Pompei, he monitors the historic city complex to alert to thieves and take survey data of the site. Perhaps in the future the robot dog will also help on German construction sites to prevent theft in construction or to "strike" at an early stage at possible danger spots.

More precise than any human hand  

BIM software already helps to plan and build with millimetre precision. But digital technology can also be used for more precision when it comes to quality. The start-up PreML, for example, offers virtual quality inspection of components. The whole thing works on the basis of camera images and an AI that evaluates them. Unwanted air inclusions, cracks or similar can thus be detected at an early stage before these weak points lead to serious problems later on.

Linking physical reality to digital technology creates another milestone for the construction industry by means of augmented reality applications. Data-driven glasses, for example, enable excavator operators to carry out excavations more accurately than ever before. The AR glasses he or she wears scan the construction site in real time and compare it with the data from the digital twin. The likelihood of unintentionally damaging materials that have already been installed, such as pipes, is thus reduced to zero. The next step could be automated excavators that are controlled entirely without human hands.

Thinking about "the new" and "the old" at the same time

A current trend in the construction industry that is also likely to benefit from digital possibilities is so-called modular construction. The start-up Aeditive from Hamburg has developed a process in this area in which entire parts of concrete are produced automatically without formwork. Concrete mixers on construction sites could thus disappear from construction sites in the long term. A real gain for more safety not only for the construction site itself, but also for traffic in the city, as the tragic accident of a female cyclist in Berlin recently showed once again.

Less spectacular, but no less helpful and necessary, is the digitalisation of the entire construction site processes. Equipment running lists, delivery notes, employee documentation on paper or in disjointed Excel lists can often already be realised today through intelligent data capture. Web-based, all those involved have direct access at any time and from any location in order to maintain the data stock verifiably.

After construction is before maintenance

Smart Building also means thinking about the building management that follows construction. Operating instructions, dates for maintenance intervals or the entire building technology from the heating system to fire alarms - all these things should be centrally stored on the platform with the digital twin or be able to be managed and initiated via it - and the whole thing should ideally be energy-efficient. There are already some providers for this as well. Among the big ones are German companies like Siemens and Bosch.

The future in construction must be digital

The German construction industry is a huge and therefore important economic factor. Digitising it as quickly and holistically as possible is of great importance. Only in this way can construction become more effective, more sustainable and thus more contemporary. Desirable in many respects.

For all those who would like to delve a little deeper into the topic and current developments, we recommend the playlists along this year's bauma, the leading international trade fair for the construction industry. There you can get another good insight into what the future holds in store for construction. 

Hier geht es zur deutschen Version dieses Textes: Digitalisierung macht Bauen nachhaltiger und effektiver 

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