Using the latest technology in construction is nothing new. However, since perhaps the development of the shovel, nothing has had the ability to change the construction industry quite like artificial intelligence. What could the future look like?
Slow Adoption of AI
We have seen artificial intelligence become the focus of construction engineering and management (CEM) research. There has been a rush of published papers on the topic in the past 10 years. Keywords have shifted to building information modeling (BIM), digital twins, and other AI-based ones. While researchers are excited, the actual industry isn’t blown away yet.
From AI-based project schedule optimizers to using AI for contingency planning, we already have several AI-focused approaches to engineering and construction. So far, there has been low adoption of AI by the AEC industry – much lower than other industries.
Since AI is driven by past data, as more people adopt AI for construction, we could see a boom in the capability of AI. This and expanding the small AI talent pool could increase the AEC adoption of AI technology.
Generative Design and Beyond
There is certainly a fear that AI will take over the job opportunities for humans. With around 7% of the world’s working force working in construction, such a drastic change would have a large impact. Experts seem to agree that this scenario is unlikely to happen – and certainly not happening any time soon.
Let’s focus on the good AI could do for the CEM industry – from improved safety to increased efficiency. Some of the ways AI have been and could be used in AEC include generative design, predictive maintenance, project management, robotics, and drones.
Generative design has the ability to save companies time and money. Generative design is the exploration of different design variations in search of the best one. To an extent, humans do this already. AI has the potential to not only do this in a fraction of the time, but also is able to create a wider pool of design alternatives. AI can ‘think’ up designs the human engineer or architect never considered.
Predictive maintenance is the use of AI to create forecasts for structures like bridges or buildings. AI could identify areas that need repairing or replacing – before it becomes a problem. Theoretically, every joint and surface could be monitored using sensors to get an accurate and complete picture of the health of a structure.
AI forecasting algorithms could be used not just for predictive maintenance, but also to improve project management. Currently, professionals use spreadsheets and their own calculations to manage budget and schedule. AI could provide highly accurate estimates of cost or budget overrun. This would make the project management more accurate, but also allow the human engineers to focus on more pressing matters.
While our distant future could have robotics building everything from start to finish, recent AI enhanced robotics look more like machinery – bulldozers and excavators – that can work alone. Manual observation and operation of machinery is prone to bias, errors, and confusion. AI could also take over for human workers in dangerous areas. Even construction with non-traditional methods, like 3D printing, could become more feasible with the integration of AI.
Drones, which are already being used in construction, could be made to ‘see’ and understand what they are observing. This could turn them into more than just flying cameras – they could spot and alert unsafe activity and monitor productivity.