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Connecting the A and B — Part 3

We have witnessed technologies change our world and even some technologies that have dominated our discussions this past year or so. Most popular has been AI (artificial intelligence), the AI that everyone talked about in 2023, which was covered in Part 1. Another “A” buzzword is AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality) and its massive cousin, the metaverse. AR and VR have been around for a while in various forms, including video games, and we’ve covered them in Part 2.

One technology that has been hyped heavily but hasn’t really made a strong appearance in practical applications is blockchain, the foundation of the cryptocurrency. A blockchain is a distributed ledger with growing lists of records, called blocks, which are securely linked together via cryptographic hashes. Each block contains a cryptographic hash of the previous block, a timestamp, and transaction data. Since each block contains information about the previous block, they effectively form a chain, with each additional block linking to the ones before it.

In a distributed ledger, each node or computer will independently host project data. Each node will also update that data. That means that blockchain transactions are irreversible once they are recorded: the data in any given block cannot be altered retroactively without altering all subsequent blocks. In other words, no single party in this system can alter or change this data and, in turn, the entire project team will reference a single source of truth.

Blockchains are typically managed by a peer-to-peer computer network for use as a public distributed ledger, where nodes collectively adhere to a consensus algorithm protocol to add and validate new transaction blocks. Although blockchain records are not unalterable, since blockchain forks are possible, blockchains may be considered secure by design and exemplify a distributed computing system with high fault tolerance.

While the technology has been around since at least 2008, blockchain is new to construction and its challenges and opportunities are yet to be fully realized. Although the basis of crypto, blockchain might have limited value to industry. Among the challenges—technical, regulatory, and social—are potential opportunities in improving efficiency and reducing conflict through transparency and trust. That will ultimately create value in the procurement side of construction.

According to the Harvard Business Review, blockchain technology is among the most disruptive forces of the past decade. Its ability to record, enable, and secure huge numbers and varieties of transactions raises the question: Can the same distributed ledger technology that powers bitcoin also enable better execution of strategic projects in a conservative sector like construction, involving large teams of contractors and subcontractors and an abundance of building codes, safety regulations, and standards?

Among the possible uses of blockchain in construction, Autodesk Construction Cloud points to four areas:

1: Smart contracts

Automated contracts that reduce the necessity of intermediaries can save time and money. These smart contracts are largely hailed as the future of the construction industry. Blockchain is one way that these contracts can be updated, and transactions recorded. It would likely involve the creation of some sort of centralized tracking system, where the parties involved define the rules, regulations, penalties, etc., around the project. The system would then work to automatically enforce these rules and regulations as the project progresses. For example, if a material was not shipped on time, the blockchain system would record that and an appropriate action—per the pre-agreed upon rules and regulations—could be imposed.

2: BIM

When combined with BIM (building information modeling), blockchain could be an effective combination. For example, in BIM, the model itself can be used as part of the contract between the parties involved in the job. Then all the parties would be working to match the actual physical construction on the project to the BIM model in the contract. Any deviation from the model may result in re-work or change orders. Incorporating BIM into smart contracts could also only award payment when the project is built according to the digital plans.

3: Payments

Getting timely payments to all stakeholders on a project tends to be a significant challenge for many companies. Failure to pay on time can lead to conflict, and when a dispute arises, there’s the potential for a project to go bad as a result. By increasing security and creating traceable information, blockchain can be of benefit. It can better ensure that subs are paid fast and that relationships with good subcontractors are fostered and not burned.

4: Supply Chain Management

If your supply chain is not in sync, then your project is going to suffer. There’s likely to be delays that lead to lapses in productivity, cost overruns, and an unhappy owner. How exactly does blockchain play into supply chain management? Specifically, blockchain can help trace physical items from origin to final destination. It can help improve transparency, which can help all parties stay on the same page and avoid potential pitfalls and oversights.

Contracting with Blockchain

Blockchain can help enable contractors to use unique digital-specific identifications to verify vendors and suppliers, and thereby grow their reputation over time based on how well their work is performed. These digital IDs can also help a company verify the credentials of any subcontractors before they’re ultimately hired.

Using blockchain to automate the contractual processes and paperwork underpinning complex projects could save money, free up valuable resources, and speed up project delivery.  A California-based blockchain firm, Briq, is demonstrating the potential to capture and secure a construction project’s documentation in a blockchain ledger that parties can navigate and give to the owner as a deliverable.

For example, Briq developed a “digital twin’ of a new office construction, with a room-by-room inventory of every asset. The blockchain-encoded specifications are granular: paint colors, ceiling fixtures, LED bulbs, door hardware—plus manuals, warranties, and service life in a countdown clock that building owners can monitor. In other words, building owners get a living ledger of everything that has happened with the building.

There is one more “A” technology that has, indeed, seen practical application in the real, not virtual world: autonomous vehicles, specifically autonomous construction equipment. In many cases, “autonomous” is the wrong word to apply to the equipment being tested worldwide, however. Programmed might be better, remotely operated even better still. It’s only a matter of time before autonomous (not to mention electric) construction equipment—from tractors, bulldozers, and cranes to dump trucks and excavators—enter the mainstream.

As pointed out by Freethink, excavation is a necessary step in virtually every construction project. Although relatively straightforward, this process takes time, can be dangerous, and sometimes causes costly delays if mistakes are made.  An autonomous excavator can reduce those challenges. The unit can be given a digging task to complete inside a digital “geofence” that confines it so it can’t wander or swing its arm outside of the boundary. 

The robotic excavator can also dig ditches in straighter lines than human operators. By using a laptop, the person supervising the machine can determine where the trench will go, where the robot will place the dirt, and all the other parameters. The software will even provide an estimated time to completion. 

The process isn’t entirely autonomous, however. The geofence must be physically drawn by a human, the work must be supervised, and the robot can’t make any major decisions, like where the best place is to dig the trench. Additionally, it can only dig trenches in straight lines. While these lines are better than the ones you can expect from a typical human operator, it can’t build an entire apartment building alone; a machine that can replicate every part of construction work doesn’t exist—yet.

San Francisco-based Built Robotics is applying the lessons learned from industrial robotics to construction vehicles, equipping them with technology that allows the vehicle to conduct work that is dangerous, repetitive, or both, with very little human intervention. In October 2017, the company launched its ATL (autonomous track loader), which can be used for digging out and grading a large, well-defined area, such as the foundation for a building.

Using a combination of LiDAR sensors, inertial measurement units, and GPS technology, the ATL can sense location down to the centimeter, handling basic construction site tasks such as digging foundation holes.

Caterpillar has deployed more than 100 autonomous haul trucks to mines throughout the world. As long ago as 2017, Cat’s autonomous fleet included trucks that achieved 20% greater production than manned trucks working in the same mining complex. These trucks are also integrated with a fleet of more than 150 manned vehicles, including graders, loaders, water carts, light vehicles, and bulldozers, which are all managed via the Caterpillar MineStar System.

Cat notes in less than five years of operation, the company’s autonomous trucks have hauled 400-plus million metric tons of material with greater than 99.95% system availability, worked an average of 2.5 more hours per day compared with manned vehicles, and posted no human injuries.

A mine site is an ideal environment for autonomous vehicles. Haul trucks travel predictable routes at predictable speeds. They go from fixed point to fixed point, usually from a loading tool to a dump and back. And autonomous machines are immune to the fatigue and distraction faced by human operators who spend hours at the wheel performing a monotonous task.

But that doesn’t mean there are no obstacles to autonomous operation. One of the biggest is also one of the most obvious: Even if the route is predictable, the behavior of everything and everyone else on the road is not. Other machines, light vehicles, personnel on foot, loose debris and more might end up in the path of an autonomous truck.

Being able to detect and react to surrounding conditions and obstacles is critical to the safety and productivity of an autonomous haulage system. For a human operator, this process is simple enough. Observe another vehicle approaching an intersection, apply the brakes depending on priority rules at site, wait until the obstacle or vehicle is clear, and resume driving.

With no human operator onboard, the autonomous equipment relies on, what else? Technology. Specifically, LiDAR. LiDAR is a laser-based imaging system that fires its 64 Class 1 lasers over one million times per second, creating a detailed point cloud showing where the lasers encounter solid objects.

The device’s cylinder rotates at 600 rpm, offering wide coverage of the truck’s path to ensure that nothing enters the area without the truck detecting it in time to respond appropriately. This could mean slowing down, stopping, honking the horn or any other action necessary to avoid a hazardous situation.

According to Caterpillar, the early version of LiDAR caused trucks to stop as often as 200 times a day—for dust. Now, they run in the rain, fog, snow, at night. In Australia, they’ll stop to let kangaroos cross the road. In Canada, one followed a family of moose down the road at a safe speed until they got out of the way. Very human-like behavior, it seems.

According to the company, Caterpillar has worked with Virginia-based Torc Robotics for the past decade, with the latter company helping to develop Caterpillar’s RemoteTask skid steer remote control system. Caterpillar has also partnered with Torc to develop a system in which a Komatsu 930E haul truck can be operated by the Caterpillar autonomous haul truck system.

Construction workers endure the third-highest injury rate in any industry in the United States. In 2020, 1,008 American construction workers died on the job, accounting for 20% of all worker deaths in the country, despite the industry only employing 6% of workers. 

While it probably goes without saying, the fact that nobody is inside or even near the 80,000-pound machine makes working with it a lot safer. By removing the human element from this task, the possibility of injury declines. Not only will robots at the construction site complete work at a higher standard than humans (who will be free to do other work), but it will also allow some people to be able to go home rather than to the hospital—or the morgue. 

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