By Anne Hunt
It’s no secret that construction software and technologies — and smart use of data — deliver a healthy ROI, leading companies to more productive, profitable and informed decisions. I recently re-read,“10 Innovations that Revolutionized Construction,” and pondered how the article compares to today’s high-tech environment.
While we use terms such as “predictive data technology,” “predictive analytics”, and “machine learning” to describe game-changing technology both in our work and personal lives, these technological concepts were only beginning to emerge when that article was written four years ago. And although they’ve progressed by leaps and bounds in just a few short years, this is a good time to take a deeper dive into how these technological advances can help contractors capture, share, manage and analyze data for safer work practices, better business decisions, higher profitability, and more.
A Closer Look at Machine Learning
Machine learning is already integrated into our everyday lives. It’s how Google Maps knows to warn drivers of an unexpected traffic jam. Machine learning is also how Apple enables face recognition for login, and Facebook chooses the “people you may know.” It’s also how an email service provider filters junk mail and banks recognize suspicious account activity.
Most people are aware of how machine learning is used but what is it, really? In short, machine learning absorbs large quantities of complex data, identifies patterns in the data and provides reliable, effective and repeatable results. It finds the nuggets of gold in a river of data.
Computer algorithms then use grouped data to detect patterns and predict outcomes, an act also known as Artificial Intelligence (AI). More than half of today’s mobile apps utilize AI to classify and group data.
Businesses increasingly rely on technology that can help them go from data (i.e. a set of values) to information (i.e. data that’s given context and put into categories) to intelligence (information analyzed to uncover patterns and better understand what’s actually going on).
As I noted in a recent blog article on the topic, machine learning is commonly mistaken as simply using averages or statistics. Instead, it entails a complex process of understanding and preparing the data that is analyzed, developing algorithms that produce valuable predictions and outcomes, and testing and refining the algorithms to ensure accuracy.
AI’s Role in Construction
So, how can machine learning and AI support the construction industry as companies seek to grow their businesses and profits? First, contractors can plan more effectively by analyzing data — also known as predictive analytics. Below are just some of the many ways contractors are using technology and predictive analytics to filter through terabytes of job data, assess patterns, and make informed decisions:
- Closely tracking job costs, change orders, material and equipment usage, and worker productivity from previous projects for smarter bidding on future projects.
- Identifying best practices and lessons learned, such as delivery timeline delays, weather patterns and staffing levels from previous projects that have similar criteria as current projects.
- Utilizing factual data to deliver accurate bids and timely projects, which leads to strong customer and vendor relationships and positive project references.
- Optimizing transportation routes and load sizes for a fleet of vehicles traveling to and from multiple job sites.
- Providing real-time project updates, including up-to-the minute reports and dashboards, to quickly make smart decisions.
- Improving emergency response mapping to enable faster response times.
- Digitally tracking data on injuries and safety inspections to reduce risk by identifying high-risk tasks and dangerous conditions.
- Analyzing data on employee movements (collected from wearables or smartphones) to understand how much extra movement takes place in the course of a day, and improve efficiency by relocating materials.
- Pinpointing key employees, based on past jobsite performance, for general career or project-specific opportunities.
- Identifying current customers for potential cross-selling opportunities.
Contractors Increasingly Relying on Predictive Data Technologies
Contractors are using predictive data technologies to cut through the clutter and gain the intelligence needed to reduce profit fade and boost productivity across every aspect of their business. In fact, Accenture estimates AI has the potential to increase the construction industry’s profits by 71 percent by 2035.
Contractors are making smart use of the vast amount of data that’s collected on today’s projects. Consider these examples:
Georgia-based Precision Concrete Construction, a full-service concrete contractor for industrial and manufacturing, as well as multi-family residential, sports, commercial and institutional projects, embraced cloud-based technologies to improve workflows. What was once a time-consuming combination of email communication, spreadsheets and double-handling of data through manual processes has been replaced with connected data and workflows, powered by a cloud-based construction management suite of solutions from Trimble Viewpoint. By digitizing and modernizing, the company has streamlined its processes and become a much more efficient, data-driven contractor.
As an example, payroll is entered into its back office Viewpoint Vista ERP through digitized timecards that are easily entered from a mobile application directly from the field. The data automatically populates into Vista regular payroll processes in real time, where it can be quickly reviewed for accuracy and approved.
“We were drawn to a single source of truth for all data and information, without the need for APIs, connectors or imports, as well as quite a bit of cost savings too,” said Precision accounting specialist, Juliana Ferrara.
Hatzel & Buehler also moved to a connected cloud environment with Trimble Viewpoint. Hatzel & Buehler is an electrical contractor with projects located throughout the Northeast United States. Lorraine Stevens, the company’s financial systems manager, cited the need for greater efficiency as the reason for adopting a predictive analytical approach to operations. She notes, “We were using Excel for an awful lot of things, which meant that management didn’t have access to that information. Our billing was completely done in Excel.”
The company moved to the cloud, to achieve a single source of data truth, allowing the company to self-serve its data needs, including deep-dives into projects and predictive data analysis.
“The ability to drill into information and get a 30,000-foot view all the way down to details as specific as an image of the invoice that was entered is invaluable to us,” said Colleen Ward, business analyst for Hatzel & Buehler.
The powerful combination of data, technology and process automation has revolutionized the construction industry, and it continues to evolve. The ability of today’s construction connected software suites to consume, analyze and make smart use of data to share with project stakeholders is giving contractors the tools they need to properly scale their operations and better plan for future work.
Anne Hunt is Director of Data and Analytics for Viewpoint. She leads the incubation and innovation of new data first services to revolutionize Viewpoint’s customers and the construction industry at large. Previously, Anne worked in the Trimble Transportation vertical where she led analytics initiatives and applied statistical theories of collecting, analyzing and interpreting quantitative data using tools such as python and Tableau. Anne has a master’s degree in Analytics from Villanova University.