13 March 2020
Last week UK Connects Managing Director PJ Farr gave a seminar at Futurebuild 2020, on the topic of digitising the construction industry and how we need to respond rapidly to the changing digital landscape. Here is what he had to say..
With the recent Budget announcement of big investments in building, broadband and infrastructure, it seems now is the perfect time to summarise some of the key points and show how we can grasp the nettle, taking advantage of new digital technology to make construction more efficient, more cost-effective and safer.
Innovation is coming whether we like it or not, and we can either run scared or embrace it. Everywhere we look we can see the oft referenced Internet of Things (IoT) taking over everyday life at a rapid pace. To offer some context, by the end of this year the number of connected devices will pass the 50bn mark. It’s a staggering figure. In the next decade, this number is set to increase by 900% to half a billion devices, connected back to the global network.
Currently, particularly in the construction industry, confusion exists around IoT and its role. Let me take the opportunity to clarify. IoT is the ability for devices to talk to an overarching, all-embracing network, not to each other. It creates a joined up process, something which our sector desperately needs.
The good news is, we are starting to see IoT gradually take root, changing industry practices and procedure for the better. This can be found in things like autonomous plant, AI in vehicles and machinery, traffic management solutions, smart surveillance and cyber security, VR, BIM, waste management… the list goes on. Sounds great doesn’t it, however it’s only possible with a strong, scaleable and reliable network in place to support it.
Many of you will have different perceptions of what the network is so let me explain in simple terms. Fundamentally, we should think of a network in much the same way we think of the human brain.
It’s an interlinked structure which administrates and sends thousands of bits of information to a host of individual components, each with different roles but contributing to the whole system. Just like a brain a network needs to be secure, reliable and scalable. Much as we learn and absorb knowledge and skills, the network needs to be equipped to do this too.
Now we have a basic understanding of what the network is, we should take a brief look at the four key types which are currently used by the UK construction industry.
As you can see there are advantage and disadvantage and disadvantage and I’m not trying to discredit them, rather, I want to suggest an alternative.
The construction industry is notoriously resistant to change. Here I want to suggest a real game-changer. I believe, one of the best solutions to the drawbacks cited above is a wireless cellular network. There are currently two types in use: 4G (but really good 4G) and 5G.
We’ve seen a step change decade by decade since the 80s. In terms of 4G we’ve evolved to a point where we’re now at something called: LTE Advance Pro. This is a great bit of kit, it enables speed to up to 1.2 GB per second and very low latency. It’s a viable alternative to fibre optic and it’s far, far cheaper to install and run. Furthermore, it’s an important pathway to 5G.
5G networks are able to deal with x1000 more data than 4G, at least 10 times the speed. Currently, because of its ultra-low latency, it’s currently best suited for IoT devices such as sensors, security cameras, VR tools and more. At the moment it still runs of the 4G network but technology is evolving at a rapid pace. In the next few years we will see this fifth generation truly coming into its own, my reckoning is that by 2022 we’ll see a true 5G network coming into existence.
To make it work will require big infrastructure but as you can see from the Chancellor’s statement, investment is being made and work on the infrastructure is underway. It signals the future of efficient networks and how we can make IoT work as effectively as possible for the construction industry.
So what does this all mean for the contractor or developer? How is this robust network and IoT going to help your business?
Let me ask you to have a think about one of the more mundane pieces of equipment on site, the CCTV camera. What if I were to say that it could have the dual functionality of both external and internal security. Not only could it spot if there was an intruder but also if workers were breaking safety regulations.
Well, it exists and it’s available, harnessing the power of the Network and IoT to improve safety. It means less days lost to injury and subsequently improves your bottom line. A no brainer really. Just one of the ways in which digitisation is improving industry practice.
Waste management is another area which can be better managed through the IoT/Network combined. To give an example, we worked with a national house builder which was incurring waste costs of £650 per house. We looked at the skips and found that many of them were being taken away half full or empty every week. We used technology to apply sensors to the skips which monitored levels to ensure they were only removed when full. These skips are now intelligent enough to notify when full and order themselves to be picked up and replaced!
I’ve only just scratched the surface in terms of the potential that cellular networks and IoT can offer to the construction industry. I hope that anyone reading this will think long and hard about how their sites are currently operating and whether construction technology can help them be better and achieve greater things. We need to start building for the future and the only way we’ll be able to do that successfully is to harness the power of digitalisation.
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