Abstract representation of data and buildings.

Top Trends for Common Data Environments Impacting the Construction Industry

Contact: Harold G. Dorbin

December 3, 2020

Co-authored by Grant Georgia and Jeffrey Job


Traditionally regarded as a tech-laggard, the construction industry is being inundated with data as a variety of software and data acquisition gadgets are deployed. Generally, in capital projects, 30 percent of initial data generated during the design and build phases is lost by the conclusion of the project while 96 percent of all data captured goes unused. To manage and make usable this influx of data, platforms known as Common Data Environments (CDE) enable the collection, deposit, and use of data from the jobsite, from various devices, and from different software platforms. The ability to unlock hidden, yet profound insights from project data residing in CDEs will drive better outcomes in the future.

Introduction

Technology-enabled devices are routine on the jobsite, and developments to enhance their connectivity on common platforms deliver potential methods to address cost, safety, and quality in new ways that were not possible even a decade ago. As the construction industry uses technology and technology-enabled devices more broadly, the accompanying flood of data prompts contractors, owners, lawyers, arbitrators, insurance providers, and others to ask pressing questions:

  • How will expectations across the industry change as “stand-alone technologies” collaborate on a common platform?
  • What benefit or burdens will be associated with the influx of data?
  • What trends will emerge?

While some participants are reluctant to embrace technology-enabled devices and platforms, as stakeholders act to address these questions and as use of emerging technologies become more ubiquitous, the potential savings will be difficult to ignore. Full-scale digitalization of the construction industry could result in global savings of $0.7 trillion to $1.2 trillion annually by 2026 by harnessing the information generated from disparate data sources during the design and construction process as well as throughout the project operations lifecycle. [1]

Common Data Environments

Traditionally regarded as a tech-laggard industry when compared to other sectors[2], the construction industry is being inundated with data as a variety of gadgets are developed and deployed. In many projects, 30 percent of initial data generated during the design and build phases is lost by closeout[3] while 96 percent of all data captured goes unused.[4] To aggregate, manage, and ingest the data from a variety of devices and digital sources, platforms known as Common Data Environments (CDE) enable the collection, deposit, and use of data from the jobsite, from various devices, and from different software platforms.

Fundamentally, CDEs serve as a single common source of project data for stakeholders during the design, build, and own/operate stages that provides valuable access to data by designers, contractors, fabricators, inspectors, and facility owners/operators.

This digital space provides the means to coordinate and collaborate across trades and stakeholders in an integrated and contemporaneous fashion.

Benefits of a Common Data Environment (CDE)

The benefits to utilizing a CDE are significant. The collaboration enabled by a CDE empowers project participants to identify errors earlier in the design process, which can reduce both the cost to remedy the errors and the impacts to the project.

More generally, another benefit of a CDE is a significant reduction of the time spent looking for, sharing, and communicating information compared to traditional approaches. Stakeholders can access data and information directly, as opposed to relying on a reporting process that requires tracking revisions to understand what is obsolete. A 2018 report by FMI and PlanGrid found that 13 percent of construction teams’ working hours were spent looking for project data and information. Globally, 52 percent of rework is caused by poor data and communication totaling $280 billion.[5] Collectively, these labor activities as well as conflict resolution are classified under an umbrella deemed “non-optimal” and were estimated to cost some $1.4 trillion in 2018 alone.[6]

In addition to the benefits of reducing errors and costs, CDEs enable teams to view a broad range of summary-level statistics related to the project in real-time on custom developed dashboards. In some cases, advanced analytics applied by the CDE can identify hazardous patterns and behaviors to prevent accidents. Several contractors documented a roughly 20 percent reduction in safety incidents as a result of using a dashboard generated by a CDE.[7]

Barriers to Entry and Other Considerations

CDEs would not be possible from a technical standpoint without accessibility and dissemination of data from software programs and recent improvements to the economics of cloud computing. For a CDE deployment to be successful, common challenges also must be considered, such as lack of high-bandwidth internet access on many jobsites and the increased risk of cybersecurity threats.

For a CDE to aggregate the available data, it is necessary to use an Application Programming Interface (API), which is a universal programming construct that allows external devices to communicate with a CDE. The interoperability and transfer of data is critical for a CDE to be successful, so it is fortunate that the creators of most software solutions for the design and construction industry are aware of the importance of APIs. While the majority of software programs in the design and construction industry already have APIs available for users to leverage, according to a 2019 survey, 26 percent of construction professionals report that none of their software solutions integrate,[8] and 53 percent of the same respondents report they transfer data manually when solutions don’t integrate.[9] Further development of APIs will help reduce these inefficiencies and will foster a more open and collaborative industry. In any case, data can always be exported from a CDE to generic standard formats such as a spreadsheet or PDF for further analysis when required. Additionally, the versatility of CDEs enable access from workstations, laptops, tablets, and smartphones either in the back-office or on the jobsite.

The economics of cloud computing have allowed use of CDEs for a wide range of firms who otherwise may find on-premise servers and related upkeep costs prohibitive. CDEs are scalable and flexible for the number of users and features employed. Comprehensive data redundancy inherent to cloud computing can also protect information so that it is not manipulated.

There are important considerations that come with the deployment of a CDE on a project. Possibly, the most significant is the necessity for a high-bandwidth internet connection, which can be impractical for remote projects. Cybersecurity is an issue that is carefully addressed by cloud providers, however, there are always vulnerabilities both outside the project and inside (e.g., contractor, subcontractor, vendor). As the number of users and devices increases, the added complexity may require specialized personnel or software developers to manage the CDE. In projects where many add-ons from the CDE provider are used, the cost can increase. 

Devices That Interface with a CDE

The growing array of tech gadgetry designed to simplify tedious and repetitive tasks can integrate with CDE ecosystems.[10] Exploring different examples of devices showcases the unique value that each brings and the potential impacts on the construction industry.

Drones

Aerial drones are one of the most frequently used forms of emerging technology on construction projects in the last decade. In 2018 alone, the construction industry saw a 239 percent increase in the adoption of drones.[11] By the end of 2019, 63 percent of contractors reported using drones on their projects.[12] Since their introduction, drones have expanded their capabilities to address sophisticated tasks associated with progress tracking.

Although primarily used for photo and video recording, drones have other applications that vary from project to project. Aside from photo and video use, some drones can be equipped with additional sensors that enable thermal imaging for inspection and photogrammetry for developing 3D models. Perimeter scans can be quickly conducted where access by traditional means would be difficult or even dangerous. Drones can even improve jobsite safety, and in one survey, 55 percent of construction management respondents reported an increase in safety using drones.[13] Thanks to drones, the efficiency of surveyors has been greatly affected, in that what once took days or even weeks to complete can take a few hours. Drones can conduct daily scans of the jobsite to measure productivity and progress via a time-lapse sequence or other video comparison techniques.

Data from drones is an example of the information that, while useful, is not utilized fully. Data acquired from a drone can be transmitted to cloud-based servers for processing and then accessed through a vendor-supplied portal via the internet. Imagery as well as other metadata can then be exported to common media formats as well as tabular formats (e.g., Excel) to enhance functionality of data. Data from the drone vendor portal can be set up to “flow” into the CDE seamlessly so that summary statistics and trends may be aggregated in alignment with the project team’s needs.

Several concerns associated with drone usage should be considered including compliance, safety, and weather. Legislation concerning drone operation is an ongoing development and can vary by location. Drone collisions—either with other conventional aircraft or falling to the ground—raise the question of liability and insurance coverage. Lastly, weather can hamper drone use in several ways—fog can obstruct line-of-sight and imagery collection, wind inhibits stable flight, and water intrusion from rain may damage sensitive electronics.

Robotics

An assortment of specialized robotics can automate repetitive tasks on construction projects. Work associated with brick-laying, painting, rebar tying, loading, bulldozing, and inspecting are just a few of the activities that are being revolutionized by robots. The global market for these types of robotics is anticipated to expand from a revenue of $22.7 million in 2018 to $226 million by 2025.[14]

Progress Tracking Robots

Already, the construction industry is seeing the emergence of four-legged progress-tracking robots equipped with various cameras and sensors to conduct daily or weekly jobsite walks that have been a routine practice on most large projects for decades.

These type of tracking robots walk jobsites autonomously, capturing 360-degree images that record the progress of a construction project over time and can be easily controlled by a laptop or smartphone. With each walk, images, video, and associated metadata are uploaded to a cloud platform provided by the manufacturer. These media files can also be exported into their raw native formats. Detailed reports in PDF format can be generated to summarize progress over a specified period.

The benefits of using robotic progress tracking can be meaningful. Progress-tracking robots free up field staff primarily by eliminating the time spent performing jobsite walkthroughs including the ensuing, time-consuming photo management, and enhancing the consistency of each walkthrough. From a safety perspective, robotic progress tracking minimizes risk to personnel who would otherwise have to enter areas that may be dangerous. Robotic progress tracking can also enable the payment cycle to be sped up considerably. Typically, on large projects, subcontractors may wait up to 90 days to be paid while clerical work is conducted to track work put-in-place. However, robotics specialized for progress-tracking can pare the timeframe for quantifying progress down to just a few days.[15]

Progress tracking robots may not be right for all construction jobs due to costs that exceed $100,000 on a typical project. Also, a 90-minute battery life is a typical limitation that should be considered.[16]

Brick Laying Robots

For masonry work, brick-laying robots have recently been deployed to work in tandem with a mason to maximize productivity and lower cost particularly on long brick spans. Use of these robots results in improved ergonomics and reduced repetitive motion.[17] In some instances, robots can lay an amount of bricks in an hour that would otherwise take a skilled mason a day. Realistically, jobs with seven masonry personnel can be reduced to three masonry personnel—in other words, a 50 percent savings in labor costs.[18] For brick work that is situated in confined areas or with many turns, brick-laying robots may not be well suited.

With a CDE, data from the brick-laying robot can be uploaded to a portal where a dashboard can be accessed by the project management team for further analysis. The data can even be exported to other tabular formats like Excel which simplifies the job for forensic personnel, should a claim or dispute arise.

Data collected from robots allows project management personnel to identify areas for increased efficiency and provide an improved ability to plan and quote future jobs.

Ground-penetrating Radar (GPR)

Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) maps underground media such as utilities. Although it has existed for about 40 years, GPR visualization methods were only recently advanced dramatically—from traditional radar diagrams to something akin to thermal imaging—to provide exceptional detail and fidelity.[19] Utility detection technology uses a portable GPR cart, similar in appearance to a lawnmower, to send and receive radar pulses. A user scans a designated area in a grid pattern, and, in turn, the software interface processes the radar data into a precise 2D/3D utility map.

When the GPR data is collected via a CDE, the utility map can be exported in a computer-aided design (CAD) format or building information management (BIM) format for the project team to access or use in customized reports.[20] This process adds an extra layer of information to a project design that can reduce costly errors and project delays. GPR data can also be valuable to the owner or operator of the facility years after completion of the construction itself.

To further assist the user, a smart algorithm may be used to verify detected utilities as well as imported utility records. This application provides an integrated solution that offers a complete workflow from acquisition to excavation. If used in place of traditional utility detection methods by contractors and utility companies, GPR technology could mitigate the more than $600 million in related damages in the U.S. that occur on an annual basis.[21]

Due to the inherent characteristics of wide radar beams, GPR technology can be hindered in such a way that the desired granularity for discerning closely spaced objects is not possible. A maximum depth reading of 12 feet to 15 feet can usually be acquired with high-end GPR equipment.[22] GPR performance is also site-specific; radar attenuation rates are higher in wet environments and especially in soil containing high clay or electrical conductivity. Conducting GPR surveys during dry seasons can maximize the resolution and penetration depth of GPR surveys.[23] In certain instances, an expert may be needed to process complicated or cluttered radar data.

Site Sensors

Site sensors assist in monitoring the construction site by collecting and sharing the data with a user and/or other devices. According Zion Market Research, sensor usage will grow from $7.5 billion in 2016 to $27 billion in 2022 (across all industries).[24] These sensors measure a myriad of data and may be placed in areas difficult to access, thereby reducing time and increasing worker safety and productivity.

When data is readily available and shared amongst stakeholders through a CDE, the observed site data can be utilized to predict patterns and foresee potential problems. This process provides information for the project team to be proactive, rather than reactive, in taking corrective action.

Concrete maturity sensors are an example of a site sensor. These sensors monitor the strength and temperature of freshly poured concrete. The sensor allows a user to track the cured strength of concrete in real-time. This real-time data, which can be collected in a CDE, is transmitted wirelessly and notifies the user when the target concrete strength has been achieved. The benefits of having access to this information provided by the sensor are significant:[25]

  • Concrete mixes can be optimized
  • Waiting times between pours are dramatically shortened
  • Reliance on test cylinder samples are reduced or eliminated
  • Labor scheduling workflows can be optimized
  • Safety is improved by preventing early removal of formwork

Wearables/RFID/RTLS

Keeping track of personnel time and equipment inventory has been a long-term problem of the construction industry. The introduction of wearable technology, such as radio-frequency identification (RFID) or real-time locating system (RTLS), aim to resolve this problem with belt-clip devices designated for people and tag devices designated for equipment. The wearables industry was worth $23 billion in 2018 and is forecasted to grow to $54 billion by 2023.[26] Based on 2017 data, 57 percent of companies are considering jobsite employee tracking.[27] In a survey of contractors, 33 percent expect to use wearables within the next 3 years and 37 percent expect to adopt equipment tagging by 2022.[28]

These devices, which often clip onto an employee’s waistband or hard hat, feature the automation of time and attendance, real-time workforce location—by floor and/or zone, detection of a fall at the jobsite with associated details, and a push-button to report hazards or signal distress.

For equipment, tags provide real-time location (i.e., where the equipment is on the job-site), operator identity (i.e., whether there is a trained worker using the equipment), and utilization statistics (i.e., how often is the equipment used). Compliance with site use/safety rules can also be monitored.

Data is uploaded from both the clip and the tag to a portal that can be accessed by on-site supervisors and off-site management to watch and analyze construction operations in real-time. Safety and productivity data can be filtered by individual subcontractor, trade, or geographic location. These details can be downloaded into a tabular spreadsheet or PDF format for evaluation. Clip and tag data can also be exchanged between a portal and a CDE.

Concerns associated with wearables technology include accuracy, cost, limitations of passive equipment, and compatibility between various manufacturers.[29]

Better Outcomes Will Result From More Data

Several key advantages emerge from the evolving landscape of technology in the construction industry. Better collaboration between the field and office to provide a single source of truth between subcontractors, general contractors, and other key stakeholders will take shape as acceptance grows. At present, a 2019 study found that 36 percent of construction employees are hesitant to try new technology; similarly, 38 percent of companies cite the lack of information technology staff as the most limiting factor in adopting new technology.[30] Workflows that involve automation among third-party devices for seamless operation between project phases will continue to ramp up in available offerings. Finally, the ability to unlock hidden, yet profound insights from project data will help project teams drive better outcomes in the future.

Legal Considerations

Benefits

The massive amounts of data that construction firms will be able to accumulate has several implications. An extensive record of detail will reveal patterns and lessons learned that were not previously discernable.[31] Process improvements can be obtained by leveraging data to its fullest extent possible and discovering inherent problems with workflows. Bid expectations will likely change in that qualifications will depend greatly on familiarity with a CDE and/or peripheral technology. Moreover, contractors may be requested to provide project data from previous projects to validate realistic milestones.

Burdens

Cybersecurity concerns are well warranted, and the risk of a breach can occur despite the best prevention efforts.[32] Ensuring that users have only the appropriate rights needed to conduct their job is essential to ensuring that too much information is not disseminated. From the commencement of a project, explicit agreements/contract clauses must be established regarding data retention, use, ownership, and rights.

The availability of data may result in the expectation that review and approval can be performed much more quickly, increasing contractual expectations.

Contractors may be compelled to demonstrate their experience and familiarity with the technology of interest as a means of qualification for the project at hand. Retaining and having proficient staff will become increasingly difficult as the number of distinct technologies grows. Management of the data and establishing proficiency with its use, even as a predictive tool, may be a requirement on some projects. With adoption of predictive tools from the project data, contractors, owners, and fabricators will need to employ staff capable of managing this sophisticated area of analysis. Having the appropriate staff, likely consisting of data scientists and statisticians, to analyze the data will be vital.[33]

Change Order and claim submittals may require greater detail and supporting analyses. The availability of data may require detailed techniques to show entitlement and quantum. Professional associations in the industry may have to recognize the wide availability of project details when assessing best practices.

Because a few of these technologies—namely, RFID and wearables—diminish privacy to an extent, their use must be reviewed to ensure compliance with[34] The American with Disability Act (ADA)[35],[36] and labor union agreements. These guidelines and regulations may pose a challenge when deciding to implement a holistic technology solution.

Adoption & Adaptation

The significant benefits from adopting these technologies will almost certainly continue to drive their application in the construction industry. As adoption gains momentum, it will require owners and contractors of differing scale to address their project processes to ensure that information is protected from manipulation and misuse. Greater adoption will also mean that contractors and fabricators of every scale will need to train staff and embrace project bids with mega data management, both for reasons of cost efficiency, safety, and owner expectations in an increasingly technology-oriented construction industry.


[1] Shaping the Future of Construction: A Breakthrough in Mindset and Technology. Page 24. May 2016. World Economic Forum.

[2] 2019 Construction Technology Report. Page 17. 2019. JBKnowledge.

[3] Operational Readiness: Bridging the Gap Between Construction and Operations for New Capital Assets. Page 3. November 2018. Emerson Reliability Consulting.

[4] Hill, Brian L. “Digging for the Big Data Gold in Today’s Construction Projects.” Xpera Group. 2017.

[5] 2018 Industry Report: Construction Disconnected. Page 19. 2018. FMI & PlanGrid.

[6] 2018 Industry Report: Construction Disconnected. Page 13. 2018. FMI & PlanGrid.

[7] https://bim360resources.autodesk.com/machine-learning-in-construction-data-analytics/layton-case-study-safety-focus-2, https://bim360resources.autodesk.com/machine-learning-in-construction-data-analytics/bam-machine-learning-story

[8] 2019 Construction Technology Report. Page 26. 2019. JBKnowledge.

[9] 2019 Construction Technology Report. Page 26. 2019. JBKnowledge.

[10] https://bim360resources.autodesk.com/connect-construct/the-bim-360-integration-ecosystem-and-the-power-of-connected-construction-data

[11] 2018 Commercial Drone Industry Trends. Page 7. 2018. DroneDeploy.

[12] Commercial Construction Index. Quarter 4, 2019. Page 8. USG & U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

[13] 2018 Commercial Drone Industry Trends. Page 17. 2018. DroneDeploy.

[14] https://tractica.omdia.com/newsroom/press-releases/construction-robotics-market-to-reach-226-million-worldwide-by-2025/

[15] https://www.enr.com/articles/49710-d-scheduling-and-reality-capture-may-speed-payments

[16] https://new.engineering.com/story/see-spot-scan-dog-like-robot-with-a-scanner-for-a-head

[17] https://www.robotics.org/content-detail.cfm/Industrial-Robotics-Industry-Insights/Trades-Embrace-Robotics-on-Construction-Sites/content_id/7861

[18] https://www.constructionexec.com/article/exploring-digital-transformation-for-construction

[19] Pedley, Simon. “Leica Detection Solutions: Technology to Identify Underground Assets.” Page 35. April 23, 2020. Leica Geosystems.

[20] https://leica-geosystems.com/en-us/products/detection-systems/utility-detection-solutions/leica-dsx-utility-detection-solution

[21] Pedley, Simon. “Leica Detection Solutions: Technology to Identify Underground Assets.” Page 10. April 23, 2020. Leica Geosystems.

[22] Pedley, Simon. “Leica Detection Solutions: Technology to Identify Underground Assets.” Page 31. April 23, 2020. Leica Geosystems.

[23] https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/soils/survey/geo/?cid=nrcs142p2_053623

[24] https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2018/04/20/1483291/0/en/Trends-in-Global-IoT-Sensors-Market-Size-to-Reach-USD-27-38-billion-by-2022.html

[25] https://www.giatecscientific.com/strength-maturity/#:~:text=Using%20a%20concrete%20maturity%20sensor,the%20need%20for%20break%20tests

[26] https://store.globaldata.com/report/gdcon-tr-s007–wearable-tech-in-construction-thematic-research

[27] 2017 Construction Technology Report. Page 67. 2017. JBKnowledge.

[28] Commercial Construction Index. Quarter 4, 2019. Page 7. USG & U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

[29] Khakurel, Jayden et al. “Tapping into the wearable device revolution in the work environment: a systematic review”. Wearable Device Revolution. Page 798. Emerald Insight. 2018.

[30] 2019 Construction Technology Report. Page 49. 2019. JBKnowledge.

[31] https://towardsdatascience.com/construction-machine-learning-2cfb45f75ead

[32] https://integratedprojectdesign.com/cde-solution-and-workflow/

[33] https://constructible.trimble.com/an-owner/preparing-for-digital-transformation-in-the-aec-industry

[34] https://www.constructiondive.com/news/how-can-and-should-data-from-construction-wearables-be-collected/558135/

[35] Ajunwa, Ifeoma. “Algorithms at Work: Productivity Monitoring Applications and Wearable Technology as the New Data-Centric Research Agenda for Employment and Labor Law”. St. Louis University Law Journal. 2018.

[36] Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a), § 12112(d)(4)(A), § 12112(b)(5)(A). 2012.