Leveraging Big Data: Exploring the New Frontier in Construction

10 April 2017

Big Data in construction, is the industry’s newest frontier. Everybody in business, it seems, is talking about Big Data. That’s no surprise. It’s one of the fastest growing segments of the IT industry.  The Wikibon community sized the Big Data market at $18.3 billion in 2014. It expects this market to grow at an annual rate of 14.4 percent and to hit $92.2 billion by 2026. The Internet of Things, inexpensive storage methods, and better data capture processes are driving Big Data’s rapid growth. And since these drivers aren’t changing anytime soon, you can expect its pace of growth to continue.

Big data in construction

But while some construction companies are embracing Big Data, others are not. That’s a questionable strategy. Big Data is a game changer that can transform businesses. When employed properly, it can improve almost every phase of a construction company’s business, including risk forecasting, contractor management, predictive modeling, and safety training. It can also help them improve marketing, machine maintenance, scheduling, and return on construction assets. Companies that do not leverage Big Data put themselves at risk. Why? Because if they’re not exploring this new frontier, their competitors are.

Using Big Data to Generate Insights

Big data in construction

The term Big Data describes the storage and analysis of large amounts of data and/or complex data sets using a variety of techniques, like machine learning and artificial intelligence. The most common forms of data analyzed are business transactions, relational databases, documents, emails, sensors, blogs, and social media. Companies then combine this data with predictive analysis to make critical business decisions—decisions that can help cut costs, increase productivity, boost safety, and enhance efficiency. Or, as one writer put it, savvy organizations can use Big Data to generate insights that produce smarter business decisions and better corporate strategies.

Of course, not every Chief Technology Officer (CTO) would agree with this definition of Big Data. That’s because there’s no one definition of Big Data that satisfies everyone. In fact, you can get as many definitions of Big Data as CTOs you ask. But one thing every CTO would agree with is that Big Data provides unprecedented insights into business operations, decision making, and untapped sources of profit. In construction that means helping companies manage the massive amounts of project data they generate to do things like improve cost certainty, find opportunities to boost efficiency, conduct pre-construction analysis, predict risk, and solve problems that block project completion. In short, Big Data helps companies focus more on project issues than IT problems.

Leveraging Big Data in Construction

The construction industry uses Big Data differently than other industries do. That’s because the construction industry still has less available data than other marketplaces. A recent report by McKinsie Global Institute shows that only a few years ago, the construction industry had far less data than manufacturing and government, for example. That means that more advanced Big Data techniques are just finding their way into the construction industry. But what data construction companies do have, they’re leveraging it effectively and successfully.

Typically, construction companies use Big Data to track equipment and assets, reduce construction risk, build and design models, determine phasing of construction activities, and organize construction sites more efficiently. They also use Big Data to improve project and financial management, enhance predictive modeling, upgrade safety training, and manage huge workforces that include contract workers. These applications notwithstanding, the industry continues to find new ways of using Big Data every day.

“What I’m seeing,” writes Bernard Marr, a contributor to Forbes magazine, “is that construction firms are starting to move into arenas such as real-time, clo ud-powered analytics of large and unstructured datasets. Such methods have the potential to redefine the traditionally fraught relationships between the interested parties.” These parties include architects that want to unleash their creativity and owners desperate to keep costs down. Simply put, Big Data’s use is limited only by company’s imagination.

Real World Examples of Big Data in Action

It isn’t the amount of information that companies collect that makes Big Data so beneficial. It’s what they can do with it using predictive analytics programs. Predictive analytics uses techniques like data mining, statistics, modeling, machine learning, and artificial intelligence to analyze data and make future predictions. Below are some real-world examples of Big Data in action in the construction industry:

  • J.E. Dunn is using a Big Data-driven Building Information Model (BIM) system on a $60 million civic center construction project. BIM is a digital representation of building’s physical and functional characteristics. The builder expects the system to cut costs by $11 million and project completion time by 12 weeks, dramatically shortening the pre-construction phase.
  • Balfour Beatty is using a Big Data-driven predictive analytics approach to collect and analyze all the action-based data in its construction files including contracts, blueprints, RFPs, work orders, and safety training documents. The effort has streamlined administrative processes and accelerated contract negotiations, saving time and money.
  • Skanska USA tracks location and movement data at work sites against worker activity data to optimize the positioning of workers, tools, and resources. Doing so has helped Skanska reduce worker time in motion by one-third and boost productivity by roughly an hour per worker per day at job sites.
  • Nick Savko & Sons, an onsite development company, uses telematics to improve operational efficiency (telematics integrates telecommunications with information and communications technologies). The company then uses GPS devices to monitor a wide range of data points on its machines including idle time, cycle times, productivity, and more. This approach helps the company complete earthmoving operations faster and more efficiently than ever, as it did when constructing a $175 million transshipment railroad terminal in Ohio.

While these real-world applications are illustrative of Big Data’s reach and power, they’re just a sampling of how construction companies can employ Big Data effectively.

Big Data and Safety Management

One area of construction where Big Data hasn’t made much progress yet is workplace health and safety. But that’s changing. And it’s changing quickly. More and more construction companies are looking at safety through a Big Data lens to change best practices that make work sites safer and healthier. By analyzing the copious amounts of information available to them, construction companies can predict the future and make changes ahead of time to eliminate hazards, especially for contract workers and temporary employees—the weak links in many companies’ safety training programs.

For example, when Big Data is combined with an advanced analytics strategy, the predictive modeling provides a clear path from observation to analysis to change. Called “red flag prediction software,” these solutions identify workplace environments, equipment, materials, practices, and processes that put workers at risk of injury. Using this software enables construction companies of all sizes to predict risks and address hazards so they can improve safety. That can save construction companies hundreds of thousands (even millions) in direct and indirect compensation costs.

Big Data Frees Up Information

Construction companies can generate massive amounts of project data, especially if they’re working on more than one project. But this data has always been siloed—imprisoned by the departments or divisions that collect it and use it strictly for their own purposes. But Big Data frees up information so it can be used to provide a bird’s eye view of construction companies and their operations. The result: Big Data is beginning to have a dramatic impact on the construction industry, making it a powerful business tool for today’s construction companies.

Presently, Big Data is still in its infancy in terms of functionality and robustness. As it matures and evolves, it will become even more widely adopted by construction businesses looking to generate a competitive edge. Clearly, Big Data is a game changer that construction owners and managers can take advantage of to survive long term. Those companies that choose not to leverage Big Data might be putting their companies at risk. Those that explore this new frontier will differentiate themselves from the competition and carve out a niche for themselves as forces in their marketplaces.

What sort of technology can construction companies use for better safety data management? Take a look!

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Jenny Snook

Jenny Snook is content executive at GoContractor with the job of researching the latest health and safety trends in the heavy industry. Her past-experience includes the research of large museum collections such as the Louth County Museum, many from the industrial age.

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