All Under Control on Connected Construction Site

02.02.2022 by Daniel Kunz
Engineer with tablet monitors excavation pit

From time recording and location of tools, equipment and vehicle fleet to securing the excavation pit, many construction site operations can already be digitized.

At an amazing speed the two-hundredweight printer head moves with astonishing precision along the ground plan laid down by the computer, adding one layer of concrete after another until the interior wall is finished. A few weeks later, after around 100 hours worked, construction of the first house built entirely by a 3D printer has been completed. Once only, three specialists visited the site to set up and monitor the machine. Is this the future of construction?

The Construction Site: A Complex Workplace

Maybe, at some time or other. But until then construction sites will continue to be a complex playground for vehicles and tools, construction workers, equipment and machinery of all kinds – a playground that is still relatively analog. According to the Digitization Index 2021 only 38 percent of construction industry enterprises in Germany have as yet firmly anchored digitization in their business strategy; the average for German small and midrange businesses is 53 percent. “On construction sites the digital chain is stalling,” Munich TU’s Christoph Gelen recently told the German newsweekly Der Spiegel (40/2021). “Building construction still involves a great deal of manual labor.”


 

„On construction sites the digital chain is stalling.“

– Christoph Gelen, Professor of Materials Engineering, TU Munich


 

Yet many construction siter operations can already be digitized, making them safer and more efficient (see Info box). Right in there, in the middle, is the Internet of Things (IoT).

Securing the Excavation Pit

To protect construction workers from slipping soil, construction pits are secured by, for example, sheet metal or concrete bulkheads. Load cells measure pressure on bulkheads. At the Bavarian construction company Bauer AG technicians had to make regular on-site visits to check the cells. They noted the figures on paper and it was often days before they were evaluated. Damage to bulkheads was noticed after a delay. A more timely response might have prevented it.

Digital solutions can answer these construction site queries:

  • Who is allowed on the site?
  • Are my team’s working hours accurate?
  • When is a full container collected?
  • Is a wheel loader available?
  • Where is the scaffolding checked?
  • Where is my construction material and what condition is it in?

IoT sensor systems and networking now improve safety: Bauer has equipped its load cells with wireless transmitters. A robust local IoT control unit receives the signals from all load cells in the pit and evaluates them. If a specified threshold level is exceeded the device triggers an on-site alarm to warn employees. The control unit relays measurements continuously via Deutsche Telekom’s LTE cellular network to Bauer’s Cloud platform, where the data is visualized. The duty engineer is notified by e-mail of any incidents. Critical levels and values can be identified and rectified much sooner thanks to the sensor systems and the network, thereby preventing damage. Regular site visits to check safety are no longer required, saving time and money. Comparison with historic data and other construction sites also enables the company to optimize construction and projects.

Keeping Track of Tools and Equipment

On large construction sites it is often hard to keep track of tools and equipment. Lists on paper are smudged or lost. A hammer drill or slot miller that goes missing is often not noticed until the site is cleared. Otto Heil, another construction company, decided to equip all valuable on-site tools with Bluetooth beacons and NFC tags. Tools and equipment are now easy to find – and to find fast. Via a link with the company’s ERP system it is also easy to tell when and how long tools and equipment were last used. And taking stock of the inventory takes much less time too.

The startup Sharemac keeps an eye on larger construction site assets. It has developed software to evaluate utilization and location of machinery and vehicles. Construction companies often don’t know exactly how wheel loaders, crawler excavators or vibrating plates are being used, where they are and when they will next be needed. This is data that IoT can deliver. Telematics modules record, location, operating hours or motor status and relay this information to the Cloud via the cellular network. Manufacturers and users can now keep an eye on their construction machinery 24/7.

Deploying Construction Crews Efficiently

HR is an obvious contender for digitization. Exactly where and how long is a crew of construction workers at which construction site? Painters Dekora used to rely for this information on paper time sheets the contents of which were transferred by hand to an Excel spreadsheet at some time or other. The entire time recording process has now been automated. On larger construction sites employees log on and off at a terminal in the company’s site container. The terminal automatically relays the hours worked via the cellphone network to a DATEV interface in Payroll. On smaller sites or rush jobs employees use a smartphone app to report the hours they work. The team leader always knows exactly where his team is working and each terminal also has the site instructions for employees. So the data is transferred automatically to the ERP system and the work can be billed. Precise and up-to-date data enables projects to be recalculated precisely. Another step on the way to the paperless construction site.

Outlook: The Networked Construction Site of the Future

These are just a few examples from practice that show how using technologies such as the Internet of Things, networking and cloud computing is already making the construction industry more digital. Geofencing registers thefts of valuable machinery and vehicles, predictive maintenance prolongs their service life and prevents outages, digital access management secures the construction site – and the list could be extended. In the future 5G campus networks will provide all trades, machines and vehicles with swift, secure Internet access for the purpose of, for example, automation or remote machine control. Autonomous vehicles on a digital construction site will transport material from A to B relying on 3D site models and artificial intelligence. Building Information Modeling (BIM) and Digital Twins will make construction and buildings totally transparent – in construction and in subsequent operation. And robots and 3D printing will relieve humans of arduous and time-consuming work.


 

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Daniel Kunz
Daniel Kunz

Expert Digital Marketing

Digitization and the Internet of Things are among the favourite topics of Daniel Kunz. He has been with Deutsche Telekom since 2017 and regularly writes about technology trends and many exciting topics, especially for the retail trade and the logistics industry.