Technology-led approach to transforming the infrastructure industry
The adoption of technology in the construction industry has been the least progressive in comparison with other industries, with the infrastructure sector looking to transform itself to improve efficiency.
Infrastructure’s tryst with Technology
In 2017, the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) highlighted that the construction industry needs to evolve and showed ways in which it can improve productivity by 50 percent and deliver $1.6 trillion a year in incremental global value. Although the construction ecosystem represents 13 percent of global GDP, it has seen a meagre productivity growth of 1 percent annually in the past two decades. Plagued by time and cost overruns, its earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) are only around 5 percent. This highlights the industry’s need to embrace digital technology and accelerate the three core Ps: productivity, predictability and profitability.
The Post COVID 19 scenario
With the COVID 19 crisis accelerating the digitalization of several industries including construction and infrastructure, we are seeing a positive shift of momentum particularly in areas of technology adoption. The construction process is veering towards becoming more product-based where structures will be products and manufactured off-site. The next phase will increasingly involve platforms (digital marketplace) and partnerships as the platform-based economy starts to gain ground in disrupting the sector.
Automated parametric design and object libraries will transform engineering and the change is already happening. It is expected that the use of digital tools will significantly improve on-site collaboration. With this, the value chain will get more integrated and disintermediation will become the norm with digital marketplaces. Contractors’ focus will shift to lean methods — on-site execution and assembly of products. Data and analytics are expected to significantly add value in optimizing the total cost of ownership of the asset.
Among a range of technologies that are considered potential game-changers, Digital Twin, Internet of Things and Blockchain are increasingly seen as key drivers of digitalization, especially from a design and engineering perspective, that can enhance predictability and improvements in asset performance.
Digital twins are digital replicas of physical assets, which can be residential buildings, commercial buildings, industrial factories, hospitals, railways, subways, bridges, roads, etc. It integrates IoT, artificial intelligence, and software analytics with spatial network graphs to create digital simulation models that update and change as their physical counterparts’ change. Using 3D simulations and human-computer interfaces such as augmented reality and virtual reality, engineers can determine a product’s specifications, and adherence to policies, standards, and regulations, before the designs are finalized. Thus, accelerating the traditional prototyping process, moving products into production more efficiently and at a lower cost.
In the UK, the Centre for Digital Built Britain, is working on a “National Digital Twin” (NDT), envisaged as an ecosystem of connected digital twins. This approach fosters connections between transport, energy, telecoms, water, social infrastructure and residential/commercial/industrial buildings within the built environment.
Internet of Things
The Internet of Things (IoT) is the network of physical objects that contain embedded technology to communicate and interact with their internal states or the external environment. Any physical object can be transformed into an IoT device if it can be connected to the internet to be controlled or communicate information. A lightbulb that can be switched on using a smartphone app is an IoT device, as is a motion sensor or a smart thermostat in your office or a connected streetlight. On a bigger scale, smart cities projects are filling entire regions with sensors to help us control the environment.
Connected devices are touted as having great benefits for businesses in the construction, infrastructure and property industries, like early warning, remote monitoring and continuous data collection for analysis. And due to a rise in its adoption, the total value of this market is expected to exceed $1.5 trillion by 2025.
Smart grid technologies give energy providers a better understanding of power usage and using data analytics enhance the ability to make real-time adjustments for efficiency. This is possible thanks to IoT devices that use artificial intelligence to track, predict demand curves and reduce the amount of energy wasted, thereby helping lower our dependence on fossil fuels and contributing to sustainability.
A blockchain is a time-stamped series of immutable records of data that is managed by a cluster of computers not owned by any single entity. It’s an essential tool to aid the application of digital twins in IoT, thereby enabling a transfer of data and value onto the internet with security and transparency.
The use of blockchain can help break down information silos as it can validate and feed information into the digital twin simulations while also free up previously inaccessible data, making simulations more detailed, dynamic and potentially, valuable than ever.
To explain how Blockchain can be a gamechanger when deployed on Digital twin in the infrastructure realm, it needs to be seen in the context of construction and asset operations. Remote monitoring of construction sites delivers huge cost savings because operators can monitor multiple sites from the same facility. It also allows key personnel to be concentrated in the same location which drives up efficiency. Digital twins can be utilized in remote monitoring to replicate processes on the construction site for troubleshooting and optimization.
The key to building trust in digital twin systems is the integrity of the data used in the modelling. It is here that Blockchain technology will play a pivotal role in ensuring that data generated on the site is rapidly and immutably delivered to the digital twin.
This can be better articulated with an example. In 2018, Chevron launched an effort to predict maintenance problems in its oil fields and refineries, wherein wireless sensors were put in strategic places along heat exchangers, which captured a wider dataset, about temperatures and oil flow. With the additional data and cloud-based predictive analytics applications, data scientists can predict when the heat exchanger will need cleaning. That would reduce equipment downtime and repairs, savings millions of dollars.
Many Governments the world over are using Blockchain in Infrastructure for public services -
· In the UK, Her Majesty’s Land Registry has set up a digital asset management platform to explore the potential of blockchain technology in the U.K. real estate industry.
· The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH established a ‘Blockchain Lab’ to leverage the potential of blockchain and related technologies in efforts to reach the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
· Valencia’s port in Spain uses blockchain to bring transparency and security to supply chain.
Data is the new oil and its integrity is enhanced through the immutability of blockchain technology. While the time may seem ripe for this technology to make inroads into an already evolving infrastructure space, the pace of technological adoption and development needs to accelerate. More use cases need to be widely shared and benefits demonstrated for this to happen.
As the blockchain ecosystem evolves and different use cases emerge, organizations in all industry sectors will face a complex and potentially controversial array of issues, as well as new dependencies.
Roadblocks to Technology Adoption
Awareness and understanding
The principal challenge associated with adoption of Digital Twin, IoT and blockchain is a lack of awareness of the technologies. This is hampering investment and the exploration of ideas. It will help to collaborate with thought leaders in the industry that are embracing these technologies and keep tab of what competitors and peers are doing in the space.
Given that the deployment of these technologies will bring about a paradigm shift in the mindset and kind of skills people will need, can be unsettling and meet with resistance. This means a more imaginative approach is needed to understand opportunities and what and how various aspects in the spectrum might change.
Regulation & Governance
There is a strong argument for blockchain applications to work within existing regulatory structures which means that regulators must understand the technology and its impact on the businesses and consumers in their sector.
Across all these emerging technologies, it is important to also consider how data privacy and security can inform the design. Driving public acceptance of these will mean proactively framing the discussion of privacy around concepts of value, security and trust.
Until these are actioned, across-the-board sectoral transformation will remain an elusive.