A Data-Driven Approach Is Key to Construction Process Improvement
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Technology and data are changing all aspects of construction project delivery. Matt Kram, a project manager with Burns & McDonnell, offers insights into a few of the key questions that are arising as the construction industry moves toward more data-driven approaches.
Q: Why is data so important to successful construction projects?
A: The engineer-procure-construct (EPC) world is changing at an increasing pace. There are many nuances of EPC delivery, but the common thread for process improvement is data, an increasingly important key to executing any construction project.
We can make the case that data has become just as important as drawings, if not more so. While drawings remain extremely important — the deliverable of record in our business — the data surrounding all aspects of that project has become extremely powerful. With 3D design models and digital drawings, we can leverage information derived from these systems to create a data repository that can be accessed rapidly and with extreme ease.
With a data model instead of the drawing, we can quickly get a visual and see locations and configurations of all components. It’s all information that is linked together, allowing us to grab more as needed, starting with finding out where components and materials are placed out in the laydown yard. We can do all this without literally paging through multiple drawing sets as we did under conventional construction practices.
Q: What are we talking about when we say data?
A: In construction, data generally relates to the individual components of work, workflows, scheduling processes and much more. Simply put, it’s the data on everything we need to build something.
For material management, it’s data on every component that is shipped loose to the project. It could be a valve, a pump skid, a pipe spool, an electrical cable or anything else. The next layer is to have data talking between two different technology tools. Do we need information on a particular work package? Then, we need to know what drawings go with that particular work.
Q: What challenges have you seen in your pursuit of data-driven construction?
A: The biggest challenge for us in construction is probably changing mindsets. By that, I mean making it a priority for everyone on the job site to get the data from a number of sources moved into our construction models and management systems. If we change the mindset to getting the data complete and available when the drawing is issued, we can extract all the related data and it will then act as a digital version of the drawing, saving time on the back end.
The second half of this challenge is getting all the different engineering and construction systems on the same page with respect to agreements on what data is important and how we will extract it. If we have a wealth of data available, but then can’t extract it, we lose the value of the information.
Q: How has a data-driven approach impacted your project execution?
A: I recently supported a solar project for which we leveraged some new and existing software packages to start looking at information in different ways. We were able to analyze data more quickly than ever while also connecting different data sources. This paid off when we were able to put project data in front of the project management team in near-real time. Whether it’s a manager or project owner looking for high-level information or a superintendent in the field evaluating production measures, we’re seeing better ability to spit out information relatively quickly.
Q: What is the most beneficial aspect of data-driven construction for your clients?
A: For clients, the value of data is the increased control over the full EPC process. If they have the data at their fingertips, then they know where we are at any given time for every phase of the project. Communication has always been a key for delivering successful projects and now it’s getting easier.
If every form is digitized in our system and every inspection we need to do is put in that program, we can report in real time. The big benefit is that when the project is complete and we’ve gone, all the data that was generated will have continuing value to the owner. They can pull this information into their system to support plant maintenance and operations processes. The more data we utilize, the more flexibility we give our clients in terms of operability of a project.
Q: What do you see as the future of data in the construction industry?
A: The future is now, and we have the ability to do everything we need to be productive today. The challenge is to be able to apply the technology in a practical manner to create the efficiencies we’re all looking for.
Software and business processes are constantly evolving. That means the tools we’re using today may be obsolete in a short time, due to technology evolution. How do we leverage our effort today so it pays off in the future? We may start engineering today and need to remember to create a dataset that allows someone to use it two or three years from now.
One of the biggest leaps forward in data-driven approaches is the ability to preserve data from each project that allows us to learn and improve from project to project. Managing data within an integrated EPC delivery framework accelerates the path in finding solutions to challenges that exist in the industry as a whole. Really, we’re just scratching the surface of what we can do with data.
The technology revolution reshaping construction starts with data and extends to tools like wearable assisted reality glasses.