The construction industry has discussed how to make buildings smarter and more sustainable for at least two decades. The advent of the Internet of Things or IoT and the devices that powered them accelerated those discussions starting around 2009, when the term IoT was being heralded as the next best technology.
IoT marketing hype overall may have reached its peak around 2015 when projects and pilots started to come to market. In the construction industry, two Seattle-area projects, which we’ll explore in this blog, catalyzed a radical shift in the thinking about what was possible for buildings in the 21st Century. These buildings proved the tremendous savings construction smart sensors and smart buildings could provide for building owners, designers, and builders.
What are Smart Sensors?
So, what is the difference between a regular sensor and a smart sensor? The main difference is that smart sensors typically contain microprocessors that perform basic data processing, such as edge computing that is then shared with a central data repository located for analysis.
These devices can be used to monitor and control mechanisms in a wide variety of applications and environments including smart grids, road conditions, bridge integrity, rainfall monitoring, public engagement and much more.
Smart sensors outperform more basic sensors because they are usually small, easy to deploy and support basic computing capabilities which helps reduce the amount of information that needs to be transmitted.
How Do Smart Sensors Fit Into the Construction Industry?
The first smart sensors project was The Bullitt Center, a Net Zero six-story high-rise completed in 2013 that was honored by the World Architecture News as the “greenest commercial building in the world.”
To help The Bullitt Center achieve its Net Zero status, the design team incorporated “smart sensors connected to the building’s central nervous system to monitor light levels, CO2 levels, temperatures indoors and outdoors, as well as wind and sun, to control and deliver heating, cooling, ventilation and illumination efficiently and effectively,” according to a case study on the project written by The University of Washington Center for Integrated Design.
Two years later in the Seattle suburb of Redmond, Darrell Smith, then director of facilities at Microsoft Corp., unveiled a data-driven software solution for its HVAC system using smart sensors that cut the cost of operating the company’s then-125 buildings by millions of dollars.
How IoT Construction Sensors Improve Operations
Hundreds of architects, building owners, and builders traveled to Seattle over the past six years to learn from the two projects, not only about how construction sensors can improve a building’s function, but also about how they can incorporate sensors to improve their operations.
Understanding how to tie so many disparate sensors together is a herculean task but also hugely beneficial. Building management sensors and construction sensors can be used to:
- Monitor site conditions
- Keep track of assets
- Increase worker safety
- Improve facility management
Bonus, when used effectively, these smart sensors can add intrinsic value that may boost construction margins.
A McKinsey & Company report on IoT in late 2021 outlined several ways IoT sensors will improve operations in construction. They estimated that IoT solutions in construction operations from making workers more efficient to remotely monitoring operations could generate $70 billion to $540 billion in economic value annually by 2030.
“We estimate that operators can increase throughput by 5 to 10 percent, reduce raw material cost by 5 to 9 percent, and improve personnel efficiency by 7 to 15 percent,” the study authors wrote.
5 Use Cases of Smart Sensors in Construction
So how can building owners and construction firms achieve those savings? The following outlines several smart sensor use cases.
1. LOWER RISK PROFILE, IMPROVE SAFETY WITH WEARABLES
Construction sites can be dangerous. But construction workers can now wear gloves, hats, belts, vests, boots and personal protective equipment that contain sensors providing real-time data on the physical state of the worker, performance levels, tool management and operating conditions, among other data. The data collected can improve productivity, increase worker safety, and help prevent accidents.
Some construction sensors can also alert management when slips, falls, or other environmental conditions such as extreme heat occur, which can speed response times and avert dangerous working conditions.
2. IMPROVE CONSTRUCTION ASSET MANAGEMENT
Scheduling construction equipment over various projects has traditionally been difficult. Today, however, smart sensors such as RFID tags can be placed onto graders, dozers, skid steers—you name it. These sensors allow you to see in real time and track where your equipment is, and allows you to better coordinate and schedule its use across many sites in a more efficient manner.
Smart sensors can also alert the on-site team to upcoming equipment maintenance, an expense that can be very costly if the lifecycle of a particular part is unknown. A sensor that can alert you to perform predictive maintenance can reduce repairs and breakdowns and save you money.
3. CREATE A MORE EFFICIENT SUPPLY CHAIN
Smart construction sensors can also be used to track materials used on your job sites. Sensors attached to materials or a truck that’s picked up a load of drywall, for example, can show you where those supplies are before they get to the job site and why they might be delayed. On very large job sites, the sensors can pinpoint where the materials are being stored, which can eliminate a walkabout when someone forgets where something was left.
Being able to instantly track materials through the supply chain – or on your jobsite - allows you to stick to project timelines and better communicate with clients.
4. IMPROVED COMPLIANCE
Armed with data – and hence a record – about conditions over a building’s construction timeline can potentially save a firm millions when faced with defect claims. Historically, builders and building owners didn’t have any data to back up or refute claims made against them. With construction sensors, now they have referenceable data providing a full accounting of what happened.
5. REFERENCE POINT FOR FUTURE CONSTRUCTION PROJECTS
Sensors integrated into a BIM model can provide data about the structure once it’s up. And consider that linking data to the model will provide an "as-built" model that will become the basis of the "as-maintained" model. This will help with a more efficient operation of the asset long term, and be the foundation for any expansion efforts in the future. Having a real-time view on how efficient a building may be operating provides data upon which to use to make future buildings, data that could save millions over time.
How to Get Started With Construction Sensors
Launching a smart sensor program begins with establishing Internet connectivity at your jobsite, or establishing a link via smartphones or smart tablets and mobile apps you already have running. Some owners are creating connective job sites through tools such as DeWalt’s Jobsite WiFi System whereby you can create multiple access points on your site with its standalone system.
Other construction firms are setting up mesh networks, which allow you to extend connectivity across job sites and eliminate you having to move WiFi signal extenders when site conditions change.
DON’T CREATE A SMART SENSOR SILO
One important item to consider when setting up a sensor program is how you plan to integrate this new information into your construction management system. Ideally, you have implemented a digital construction project management system that offers open APIs and easily integrates and seamlessly connects with other systems such as a sensor system. Tightly integrated systems allow you to see data from many sources in one location so you can make the best data-driven decisions quickly.
The last thing you want to do is set up a siloed system where data has to be exported from your sensor set-up and manually entered into another program, thereby creating a process that’s fraught with errors and wastes time.
INTEGRATE CONSTRUCTION MANAGEMENT SYSTEM WITH SMART SENSORS
The construction industry, often considered a technology laggard, has come a long way since The Bullitt Center opened and since Microsoft unveiled its smart HVAC building system. Both projects garnered worldwide attention in the construction industry, and the smart sensors and software used in the Microsoft project became a product offering. These projects showed the construction industry the many opportunities and benefits of smart sensors.
Nevertheless, the smart sensor and the promises of IoT are still very nascent, both in construction and in all industries as devices, sensor systems and related software are still being developed. Many IoT projects, some 70–75% of IoT deployments, according to a 2018 World Economic Forum study, were stuck in the pilot or prototype stage, unable to reach scale due in part to a lack of business planning. Deploying IoT remains complex.
As you already know, having access to critical data is essential to a construction project’s success. Incorporating a smart sensor system into your technology portfolio provides an additional level of achievement, allowing companies to improve worker safety, track materials as they move through the supply chain, and monitor equipment health to prevent costly breakdowns. Making sure your new sensor system is connected to your construction management technology solution is essential for success.