Is Artificial Intelligence data mining the future of construction technology?

South Station stands out as model of productivity gains

What’s the Point?

In recent years, new technologies have begun to transform the construction industry for the better. The applications transcend mere efficiency enhancements and represent the opportunity to overhaul standard practices and enable data-driven decision-making to help improve safety, predict project delays, optimize workflows, and reduce both risks and costs. For an industry that shapes the future of urban landscapes, these new technologies are changing the game.

Case in point: South Station in Boston

In construction, technology solutions are not a dream of the future – they are working on project sites today, helping to make construction faster and safer. At South Station Tower in Boston, a 51-story mixed-use Hines development currently being built by Suffolk, the team has tested a wide range of innovative technologies. For example, cameras mounted on safety hard hats – and a robotic dog systematically document and label the steel components used in the building's frame, creating a comprehensive materials dataset for the development and operation of the building. The site also employs advanced programs for tracking project progress and predicting the likelihood of potential accidents, elevating safety precautions to new levels.

Suffolk is developing and utilizing technology solutions to significantly improve design and construction protocols. It is also the only contractor with a Chief Data Officer and a dedicated team of 30 in-house data analysts who help pull data from its job sites and operations and continuously measure the company’s progress toward project goals. Together, Hines and Suffolk have made large investments in their data platforms internally, allowing more predictive analysis that leads to better forecasts and project planning. A recent New York Times article noted that in in the construction industry, technology will empower the existing workforce to achieve greater productivity.

This data can be used for Artificial Intelligence (AI) applications – where data is generated from new sources on site, from cameras, sensors, tags and other tools through the Internet of Things (IoT). That data is then fed into AI systems that evaluate, analyze and automate the information.

“Adding AI in construction advances capabilities and problem-solving in ways that we never could have anticipated,” says Hines Managing Director Joe Norris, who works on the South Station project. “Investing heavily in AI technology will help transform the built world.”

Beyond Human Assessment – IoT Integration for Speed and Accuracy

Seamless documentation of project sites is now available without human intervention – using IoT tools like OpenSpace cameras affixed to hard hats or mounted on the renowned Spot® robotic dog from Boston Dynamics. These cutting-edge cameras capture on-site footage that, through image recognition and automatic tagging, facilitates the coordination of new crews and material deliveries.

Real-time tracking of concrete supplier trucks is another tool that delivers immediate results. By closely monitoring the exact location of the trucks, a team can ensure that concrete pouring begins promptly upon their arrival at a construction site. This innovative use of data not only ensures workforce readiness but also streamlines workflows and reduces downtime.

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What’s more, technology removes guesswork on measurements and blueprints. By deploying highly accurate on-site sensors, project managers can immediately detect deviations from project plans, even those as slight as a few millimeters, prompting timely adjustments when necessary.

Improving Safety Through Tech Advancements

Across the contracting industry, companies are innovating to provide additional safety and security. For example, the Israeli startup Wint has harnessed proprietary sensors and advanced algorithms to proactively combat water damage, a significant contributor to construction site damage claims. Contractors implementing Wint have reported remarkable results, with a study by Munich Re indicating the potential to reduce loss rates by an impressive 90 percent.

Emerging technology like wearable gadgets, for example, can recognize and monitor worker presence, further enhancing safety and productivity. In an MIT Tech review, Suffolk EVP and Chief Data and Innovation Officer Jit Kee Chin estimates that these digital tools could increase productivity by 14 to 20% in a few years. This aligns with a McKinsey prediction that construction firms could boost productivity by up to 50% through real-time data analysis. Such gains in productivity lead to cost savings and faster project completion.

Perhaps most important, new technologies promise to diminish both the frequency and severity of accidents. Algorithms harness the power of AI to scrutinize photographs captured on construction sites systematically. These algorithms meticulously analyze these images for potential safety hazards, including instances of workers not adhering to adequate protective measures. Subsequently, they correlate this data with historical accident records, facilitating predictive analytics that estimate the probability of injury, enabling timely interventions to avert accidents.

Reducing Insurance Costs

Depending on the location and nature of the work, insurance costs can comprise as much as 10% of the total expenditure for a single project, often reaching hundreds of millions of dollars. The integration of AI solutions into construction operations offers a promising avenue to enhance efficiency and minimize delays, accidents and other risks, ultimately resulting in more cost-effective insurance options.

Enterprising entrepreneurs are taking advantage of the new insights AI data can bring. For example, Shepherd, an emerging insurance startup, leverages advanced construction data to offer contractors more affordable premium rates, thereby reducing the financial burden associated with insurance coverage.

A New Standard for Data-Driven Decision-Making

In contrast to conventional construction approaches that rely heavily on experience and intuition, modern contractors now harness the power of data science to drive well-informed decision-making. In building South Station, Hines and Suffolk work from an owner's dashboard that undergoes real-time updates at seven-second intervals. This dynamic dashboard offers clients a comprehensive view of their projects, displaying vital performance indicators and metrics, enabling clients to closely track progress with unrivaled transparency.

By seamlessly integrating data from diverse sources and developing predictive algorithms, owners and managers can significantly improve their ability to mitigate construction risks, optimize project schedules, and bolster overall safety measures. According to Suffolk Chairman and CEO John Fish, “Quite simply, measuring and using data allows us to make better business decisions. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”