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A New Frontier: Construction OS

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In the space of a generation or two, construction has moved from almost 100% reliance on paper-based transactions to the cusp of a profound digital transformation. While it has lagged in some areas of technology adoption, it has capitalized on mobile computing and the use of Web-based applications and services. The ongoing adoption of Building Information Modeling (BIM) and the associated new thinking on whole-life costs are set to accelerate digital information exchange still further––facilitating the development of what we regard as a new “construction operating system.” By exploiting the flows of built asset data between people, companies, processes, software applications, and devices, the successful construction businesses of tomorrow will be the ones making most efficient use of their construction operating systems.

The Paper Age

Some leaders of today’s construction businesses learned about the industry and their specialisms before we routinely used computers or mobile technologies.

This evolution from a paper-driven construction industry is forcing many of us to rethink how we provide applications and associated information. 

In the 1980s, for example, whether we were sharing the written word, calculations, or design drawings, paper remained the predominant medium of information exchange––with project teams physically handing over reports or drawings or sending them in the mail or via a courier. To speed up long-distance communication, we might resort to telex or fax machines, but, especially with thermal fax paper prone to fading, we often demanded hard copies of the original documents for records purposes.

The Beginning of a Construction Technological Revolution

Many construction consultants and contractors started to adopt computer-aided design (CAD) to help increase the productivity of their architectural, engineering, and construction teams. And numerous computer-based analysis and modeling tools also began to be developed––many based on IBM’s PC Disk Operating System (DOS) or Microsoft DOS (Microsoft Windows first appeared in 1985, competing with the graphical user interface pioneered by Apple).

However, the primary outputs of this early digitization still tended to be delivered as paper. Responses to a client’s brief generally involved two-dimensional (2D) flat plans, elevations and sections, complemented by written reports, specifications, spreadsheets, programs, forms, correspondence, and other documentation. In a highly contractual and risk-averse industry, design and construction decision making was usually meticulously documented, with participants working in silos and retaining detailed records of their inputs to processes in case of disputes.

For the client or owner-operator, the completion of a built asset was, therefore, typically accompanied by the (eventual) handover of a large, uncoordinated paper-based archive of information––perhaps alongside some “floppy’’ disks holding electronic files. This handover often took place several months after completion, by which time parts of the information would already be out-of-date, and often too late for the owner to do anything useful with it.

Going Mobile

Mobile computing was also in its infancy in the 1980s and it would be some years before we began to use mobile devices extensively for more than voice communication. For example, the first person-to-person SMS was sent in 1993––the same year that the World Wide Web was made freely available as a platform, and the same year that the first “smartphone––the IBM Simon––was launched. 

Other personal digital assistants (PDAs) followed such as the pocket-sized computers from companies like Psion and Palm. Web connection usually involved connecting to a PC, but finally we had a more portable alternative to a laptop or desktop. Alternatives to Psion's Symbian operating system, such as Windows CE (later Windows Mobile), also improved users' experience, while RIM's Blackberry helped grow the smartphone market. 

But it would be 2007 before Apple revolutionized the smartphone market, launching its first iPhone (followed quickly by Google's launch of its open source Android operating system and HTC’s first smartphone), with the equally revolutionary Apple iPad and competing tablet products following three years later.

The Web Age

Although we perhaps didn’t realize it at the time, the launch of the Web in 1993 was perhaps the single biggest change to affect business computing.

To a conservative industry not known for its investment in cutting edge technologies, the notion of sharing information––let alone sharing information “in the cloud”––and relying on applications and data hosted outside the company was difficult. 

To a conservative industry not known for its investment in cutting edge technologies, the notion of sharing information––let alone sharing information “in the cloud”––and relying on applications and data hosted outside the company was difficult.  

However, as various online services proved to be both technologically reliable and financially robust, apprehension about this new breed of SaaS providers began to dissipate. The emergence of industry data exchange standards also opened the way for architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) and other businesses to start using online services to share information more quickly, widely, consistently, transparently, and with less reliance on particular hardware, software, or operating systems. Appealing factors included the lower cost and increased storage and processing power of computer hardware (mainframe, desktop, laptop, and mobile), the parallel development of resilient and affordable telecommunication networks, improvements in Web browsers, and the emergence of Web Services.

Data and The Need for a Construction Operating System

This evolution from a paper-driven construction industry to one in which many data transactions are now seamlessly expedited via the Web is forcing many of us to rethink how we provide applications and associated information, particularly as more and more deliverables and processes become digitized and mobile.

Mobile digital technologies mean the latest project documentation is now available 24/7, even out on site, with tablets and smartphones capable of creating, sending, and receiving workflow notifications that were once issued as paper notices or emails. With today’s sophisticated collaboration and ERP platforms, the issue and receipt of information is now automatically time- and date-stamped. Such metadata provides information about other data, and helps our applications find and share information more efficiently by describing the content and context of an object, file, or process notification so that it can be rapidly interpreted and correctly displayed to human end-users (and used for efficient machine-to-machine communication). 

Download the rest of the free ebook, "A New Frontier: Construction OS" to find out exactly what an OS is, how it’s different than what you’ve been using, and how your business can use an OS to get ahead (by leaps and bounds) of the competition.

If you liked this article, here are a few more you might enjoy…

Do We Need a Construction Operating System?

Technology Isn't a Trend. It's a Reality.

What Benefits Could a Construction OS Offer?  

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