The third in the series of blogs for the MPA big data series.
Big data is an almost inescapable buzzword across the industry at the moment. The question is; is the hype warranted and what should we be doing about it? This article looks at where we can already see big data emerging on major projects, the benefits and challenges associated with this and the impact it might have on project controls.
Monitoring operational assets
The first area where big data is emerging is the monitoring and tracking of the operational assets produced by the construction industry. Everything from individual rubbish bins through to bridges and entire cities are being designed to be more connected and smarter using monitoring infrastructure and the Internet of Things (IoT). With this wave of connectedness will come a wave of data that will need to be collected, analysed and used to optimise operations and future new works.
The construction industry will be affected by this area through the designs they are asked to produce, and over time, the data-driven decisions they will utilise in order to determine what to build next. But this set of information does not specifically help us answer the challenge “How do I deliver my projects and programmes more cost-effectively?” The benefits will mostly affect the clients and owners of the operational assets.
Monitoring site conditions, safety and environmental impact of work
The second area where big data is indeed already emerging is in the monitoring of hardware/equipment on construction sites and the multitude of engineering sensors deployed to monitor site conditions, safety and environmental impacts. Solutions already on the market and producing large amounts of data include:
- Temperature, wind, vibration and other environmental monitoring applications;
- GPS monitoring for vehicles, staff and shipping/transport;
- Specialised machinery monitoring such as tunnel boring machine monitoring and predictive modelling for disc cutter wear and maintenance;
- Specialised engineering testing and monitoring applications such as concrete strength and density monitoring, visual inspection and machine vision monitoring.
The application of each of these operational technologies is specific to the type of work being done and the engineering challenges being faced, but all have a significant role to play in ensuring the more consistent and safe delivery of construction works, minimising downtime and waste. Arguably this is where the construction industry has seen the most benefit so far, and rightly so, but the applications, strategies and data collection methodologies are often inconsistent and fragmented. The applications themselves are not repeatable over a wider range of projects. Moreover, we see a significant loss across the industry where data collected from these applications is lost or ignored, reducing the ability to leverage and apply learnings in the future.
How will this affect the project controls function
Project controls functions are normally present on all construction programmes and are responsible for the collection and management of information before handover to operations.
Ignoring our role in capturing and utilising data generated from equipment and monitoring tooling (roles that are often overlooked when planning for the project controls function), project controls and performance data is neither high volume nor high velocity – i.e. we are not processing gigabytes of data by the hour, day or week, and the reporting we do is more often than not consolidated on a once-per-month cycle.
Technically project controls does not fit neatly in the “big data” box. Building Information Modelling (BIM) is the closest the project delivery and controls functions come to “big data” in their present roles, but this information is still geared more to assisting the client/operator when construction is completed.
Big data is clearly an emerging area within major projects. We can already see several positive applications of this including monitoring assets, site safety and environmental impact monitoring. But what is the tipping point for our traditional project delivery dataset becoming “big data”? Perhaps large current and historical sets of project delivery data – estimations, durations, work rates etc.? Across the world, engineering and construction programmes continue to operate out of spreadsheets, word documents and PowerPoint slides, often with an army of staff at hand, ready to copy and paste from file to file in order to produce the next round of reports and analysis. To change this will require a conscious effort by industry players to standardise the processing and archiving of such data and the adoption of tools and systems that are best suited to handling and managing these large datasets. With the generation of large project datasets on the rise, we predict that the ways in which big data is handled and analysed, particularly in respect to automation, will become increasingly important in the delivery of major projects in an effort to increase efficiencies and make time and cost savings.
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