Comment: David Philp – Industry 4.0 is a new era for construction

Aecom’s David Philp makes the case for the industry to embrace “disruptive innovation” – and enter the era of virtualisation and the sensor-rich Internet of Things.

Since the invention of the power loom nearly 250 years ago, our industry has witnessed, contributed to and been shaped by a series of industrial revolutions. The first, in the 18th century, brought the mechanical loom – the first piece of disruptive engineering; the second heralded automation in the world’s first assembly lines; and the third ushered in electronics, information technology and further automation.

Each era sought to automate, improve efficiency and harness the latest production methods – goals that are probably still present in your organisational strategy or innovation roadmap.

We can learn much from these shifts – most notably that disruptive change is not easy. Despite the use of new, effective tools and processes, it is heuristic bias – our tendency to think in pre-set ways – that is the most difficult nut to crack.

Indeed, the words of Robert Calvert’s 1985 song, Ned Ludd, “He turned to his workmates and said: ‘Death to machines. They tread on our future and they stamp on our dreams’,” will resonate with those trying to implement BIM or any transformational change.

Today our construction sector is at a turning point. Following the economic downturn, we are generally leaner, more innovative and, at last, in the midst of a new industrial revolutionary cycle, moving from analogue transactions to digital, and experiencing the benefits of the information age. BIM has become a metaphor for this industry change, and is helping to set a compelling vision of how a digitised sector looks when enabled by web-friendly computer readable data. 

Paradigm shift

We build – or more likely assemble – right the first time and efficiently, to create assets that give customers and society added value, more sustainability and better value for money. Of course, not all these objectives are obtained by BIM in isolation. But when combined with other paradigms, such as Design for Manufacture and Assembly or lean construction practices, we can envisage a new wave in our built environment.

Laing O’Rourke, for example, is already developing innovative digitised Design for Manufacture and Assembly approaches to drive efficiencies in the design and manufacture of advanced mechanical and electrical products.

As level 2 BIM emerges from adolescence this summer with the completion of all the constituent parts (PAS1192:5 on cyber security, Digital Plan of Works and the core classification system), it is easy to begin to understand how we can continue on from this staging post and head towards the concept of “Industry 4.0” that is seen by many commentators as the next disruptor.

The concept has been promoted in Germany to highlight the work of uber-efficient, intelligent and sensor-rich manufacturing facilities, such as those created by Siemens and Bosch.

Industry 4.0 imagines a much more rapid digital transformational cycle with exponential levels of disruption, as opposed to the current linear trajectory. This shift will be driven by a blurring of and interactions between currently disparate technology fields, leading to total digitisation and automation of certain workflows, ultimately with improved levels of disruptive innovation.

‘Third industrial revolution’

The key components of an Industry 4.0 – such as self-directed decision-making, embedded sensor-rich networks and industrial-additive manufacturing – are at early stages in the construction sector but we are nearer to virtualisation than we think. Author Jeremy Rifkin refers to this as a “third industrial revolution” – one that is green and harnesses the “three internets”: communications, energy, and transport and logistics. This will create a new technology platform, the Internet of Things, which connects everything and everyone.

Working groups such as the Manufacturers Strategic BIM Forum (MSBF), whose members include Tata and Lafarge, are already looking at how the Internet of Things will help to enable intelligent materials and infrastructure that can provide real-time feedback and create a truly circular economy with predictable recycle flows.

An always-on construction environment that continuously feeds enormous amounts of data into deep analytics programmes and crunching predictive algorithms, could help us automate much of today’s analogue processes – such as procurement – and at the same time radically improve the low productivity levels that have blighted our industry.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) has identified autonomous systems as one of the “eight great technologies” the government believes necessitates support. BIM could be an area in which UK industries are at the vanguard.

Whatever your view, digital does matter and, as we head towards Industry 4.0, or whatever you wish to call it, you need to get ready. The best place to start is with a solid foundation of level 2 BIM. It is time to prepare for the technological and cultural changes generated by the industrial revolution of the 21st century.

David Philp FCIOB is BIM director, EMEA+I, of Aecom

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