Contractor

Advancements and opportunities in civil engineering market

This article first appeared in Contractor Perspectives 2017.

The coming year will deliver exciting advancements and opportunities, from more sophisticated methodologies, to rapid-to-deploy Wifi connectivity. Alan Sharp, business area director Strategic Software Solutions, Trimble Civil Engineering and Construction Division.

IN 2016, the civil engineering and construction industry saw capital spending decrease and heavy machine sales decline.

This slow-down was due in part to the collapse of oil prices, which caused energy companies worldwide to delay projects. Although this market contraction had some impact on the construction technology industry, heavy equipment manufacturers felt the results most acutely.

As we look ahead, I anticipate an uptick in construction spending in 2017. In the civil engineering space, the coming year will deliver many exciting advancements and opportunities, from globalisation driving more sophisticated design methodologies, to rugged, rapid-to-deploy Wifi connectivity solutions, to the continued adoption of technology solutions by small contractors. I believe the following five key trends will shape the civil engineering market in 2017.

Increased BIM awareness and adoption of model-based construction

I anticipate that we will see significant advancement of BIM – Building Information Management – in the civil construction space in the coming year. We are seeing increased adoption of BIM technology throughout Asia Pacific; in Europe, where government agencies are driving the adoption of BIM technology; and in North America, where Department of Transportation (DOT) agencies are requiring its use for projects more frequently. Contractors at all levels globally are becoming more aware of the benefits of model-based construction, and I believe we will see more engineers and owners moving away from paper design delivery to digital delivery in 2017.

In addition, with BIM there’s a push to improve communication among different disciplines when generating models. These groups need to be on the same page to build a common model that’s accurate and can be delivered between various disciplines such as highway or railway design, utilities, structures and landscaping, for example. People want more integrated solutions that can provide real-time information to each party. However, this also requires a change in the requirements around design methodology to facilitate this integrated model approach. We will start to see those changes appear in the marketplace in the coming year.

 Cloud-based design spurred by globalisation

Big changes are coming in design methodology, driven in large part by globalisation. Traditionally, designs and models have been tied to a PC, which makes collaboration challenging and cumbersome. We are seeing an increase in the number of organisations outsourcing design work to India, Eastern Europe or Asia where skilled engineering talent is less costly and readily available. The result is a lot of cross-border, cross-time zone, cross-language, and cross-discipline design happening 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Cloud-based design technologies help meet the need for collaborating in a global environment, making model sharing easier and more prevalent.

A recent example of this shift is the move of the popular design software SketchUp from the office to the cloud. SketchUp in the cloud, for example, allows a collaborative design approach, data storage in the cloud, and enables multiple people to work on the same model almost simultaneously from anywhere in the world.

Leveraging the connected site on large and small projects

Over the past five years, there has been growing adoption of what we call the “connected site”, and that evolution is continuing full speed ahead in 2017. The goal of a connected site is a project environment where equipment is connected and communicating seamlessly, and information is being shared on project progress and machine diagnostics, back and forth between everyone involved in a project, both in the field and in the office. In the coming year, I anticipate that contractors will continue to look for opportunities to more deeply leverage their intelligent job site technology on both large and small projects.

I also expect that we will see an increase in the number of equipment manufacturers providing factory-fit machine control programmes in the coming year, making it even easier for contractors to adopt machine control technology.

And while machine control on the high end has evolved over the past several years, we’re now seeing the demand for the same kind of technology by small and mid-size contractors and for use on compact machines. In addition, as machine guidance and GPS solutions have become simpler, easier to use, and less costly, contractors are realising they don’t have to hire a professional surveyor to get the most out of the technology, whether it’s site positioning technology or machine control. Nor do they have to be a large-scale contractor to be able to afford it in the first place.

Automated machine guidance can help save a significant amount of money on a job, both in time and in material savings, so the payoff is relatively quick. This is helpful for all businesses, but particularly for small contractors with smaller budgets. I expect to see increasing adoption of machine control solutions on smaller equipment such as skid steers or compact track loaders, especially when used on projects such as sidewalks, bicycle paths, parks, and other small sites that have complex topography.

Site-wide connectivity with Wifi

While the speed and availability of cellphone coverage is improving, the cost of cellular service on a job site is still relatively high because contractors must pay for multiple users and assets. This is why new advancements and options to bring high-speed broadband connectivity to a job site, at relatively low cost, is truly ground breaking.

Rugged wireless connectivity solutions are already available and being used to manage shipping containers at harbours and ports. Today, these wireless networks monitor inventory and continually process containers across the yard. I anticipate that the civil engineering industry will flock towards this calibre of reliable Wifi hotspot technology. Wifi will become more typical for corrections and data transfer, sharing of data between a machine and a field asset, or machine-to-machine or field asset-to-field asset, and then back to the office as well.

These small, rapid-to-deploy Wifi solutions will allow contractors to deploy more technology on the job site, but they will also enable more data-gathering and data-sharing technologies. This will drive greater change in terms of information management, and it will give contractors more flexibility, at significantly lower costs.

Continued advancements in positioning

The appetite for a connected site and intelligent construction technology is in part being driven by advancements in satellite or internet delivery of GPS corrections. This is a move away from traditional base station technology where customers set up and operate their own base station, to a service-based model.

In the new era of GNSS technology, Positioning-as-a-Service options will give contractors access to accurate positioning and GNSS corrections on-demand. Now we are starting to see those types of services be delivered not just by satellite, but also through the internet.

These positioning services will certainly proliferate significant opportunities and new applications for GPS technology. These technology advancements will essentially allow contractors of all sizes to mobilise an entire workforce of people using cellphones with relatively low-cost antennas and services to get centimetre-level positioning accuracy anywhere on the planet, within seconds. This major shift will fuel a whole new generation of application development, and it will let contractors leverage high-accuracy GPS for an even wider variety of construction-related tasks.

In all, these market dynamics and industry advancements mean civil construction contractors will have access to more sophisticated, digitally-evolved design methodologies, more real-time information sharing, better real-time decision making, and more collaboration across the project site, driving productivity and, in short, giving us a lot to look forward to.

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