The term “artificial intelligence” means a lot of different things to people. Understandable, since it’s so difficult to confine its definition to a single example as AI can take many different forms. Even in construction, artificial intelligence applications range from a formless networked virtual computer-dwelling brain that crunches mountains of data, to an array of data-collecting sensors, to real-live physical robots autonomously laying bricks.
It’s still early to predict how AI will affect the industry long term. However, its impact on the industry is already undeniable. Many firms are already finding a range of uses for artificial intelligence. The ultimate aim for AI in construction is a more efficient, safer job site where human workers’ lives are made easier and companies can assess and meet the needs of its labor force more intelligently.
AI: The Next Frontier
A recent McKinsey study called artificial intelligence “construction technology’s next frontier.” It claimed that in spite of the relatively slow mainstream rollout so far, the potential future for the technology in the space was significant enough that construction and engineering firms ignore its emergence at their peril.
"We predict this effort will lead to AI playing a more significant role in construction in the coming years,” the report reads.
“These advances will be seen in the mid- to long-term, but to play a role in future ecosystems—and to compete with incoming market entrants—E&C will need to catch up in its adoption of AI applications and techniques. We predict this effort will lead to the allocation of more resources to build the necessary capabilities, and to AI playing a more significant role in construction in the coming years,” the report reads.
For now, the most common uses for AI in construction center around scheduling and risk mitigation, things like worker injury prevention and predictive equipment maintenance. For example, artificial intelligence can be combined with the internet of things sensors, which monitor all onboard systems on a fleet of construction vehicles. The sensors ensure everything works within the range of normal and healthy operation. They automatically alert supervisors of potential concerns before they become major problems that could sideline a piece of equipment, costing the company money and time.
Despite major improvements in worker safety over the last half-century, construction remains one of the most dangerous professions in the world. Physical injuries like falls or being struck by heavy objects or machinery are only part of the risk; physical ailments like heat exhaustion are equally real concerns. Artificial intelligence is being relied on to keep workers safe from training to fieldwork. From smart helmets and vests that measure biometric data, for instance body temperature and heart rate, to intelligent image recognition technology that monitors construction sites and trains itself to detect unsafe worker behavior. AI can also be found in construction training programs—realistically simulating real-world safety scenarios and guiding workers through them from the safety of a classroom.
Tackling Labor Shortage through AI
In order for AI to take root in construction, it has to address the industry's most fundamental problems. The shrinking workforce and ongoing talent crisis represent a real threat for construction, so retaining talent is more important than ever. Using gathered data and machine learning algorithms, AI can draw all kinds of inferences about an existing workforce or a pool of potential hires. According to McKinsey, it can identify potential leaders, predict attrition rates, or identify employees in danger of leaving. Companies being able to make data-driven hiring decisions will help ensure they’re attracting the best talent and ascertain their employees are happy and engaged.
In order for AI to take root in construction, it has to address the industry's most fundamental problems.
The longer an artificial intelligence system gathers data, the more effective it becomes. With a data-analyzing artificial intelligence system in place, each step of every completed project becomes countless points of data. The data is then devoured by machine-learning algorithms to learn from mistakes and devise potential outcomes after running millions of scenarios. That means companies who currently run their data through AI analytics solutions are already actively building out a more robust data set than companies who have yet to take the plunge.
Harvard Business Review reported that 60 percent of companies see their future success as dependent on successfully implementing the technology, and another 36 percent said their organizations were in some stage of deploying machine-learning technology, as reported by ForConstructionPros. As the fear of the unknown around AI subsides, more construction companies will reap the benefits of this transformative technology.