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The internet of (construction) things

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Most people, if they think of it at all, think of the Internet of Things (IoT) as referring to domestic tasks – the fridge re-ordering groceries when they are running low – but in fact the phrase dates back to 1999, when Kevin Ashton wrote: 'If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things - using data they gathered without any help from us - we would be able to track and count everything, and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost.'

Now, nearly 20 years later, the IoT has begun to be used in the construction field for a wide variety of applications, including (amongst others): 

The way in which this all works is relatively simple.  Most of us know our computer has an IP (Internet Protocol) address. An IP address can be allocated to many different things, from vehicles to plan, building components and even people and animals. Once something has an IP address, it has the potential to communicate with other objects on a network and the high number of different components used in the construction and operation of buildings means the potential for IoT application is massive.  The key though, is robust and reliable connectivity, because if an IoT object loses its connection with the other key elements then it is useless (think of a fridge that “forgot” to order milk – or even worse, beer - for example!).

The potential is obvious. When projects run overtime and budget it costs everyone concerned lots of money.  Just a few examples ought to illustrate how this problem can be reduced.

Individual prefab parts can be tracked throughout the supply chain by RFID sensors, thus mitigating the effects of any downstream delays in construction. 

On a building site, the IoT allows companies to track assets as they move around (or off site), thus preventing theft or accidental loss. Also on site, we can expect to see the development of smart tools, such as drills which can change their speed in response to data picked up by sensors on the drill bit. 

Looking at green design, it’s possible to engineer a building or a site to shut down systems automatically when, for example, it is unoccupied.   Working in conjunction with green technology (see my previous blog), the IoT can open and close blinds to optimise the light coming in and thus help reduce dependence on costly electrical light.

Perhaps the biggest impact on the construction industry will be the ways in which the IoT can improve the maintenance and repair of machinery and construction vehicles. Fitting sensors to heavy construction equipment allows them to be remotely monitored for maintenance issues, such as excessive fluctuations in temperature and vibrations. Abnormal patterns trigger early intervention, helping prevent critical failures and thus saving time and money and unnecessary delays to the project.

There is a huge amount more that the IoT can – and will – do to improve the construction industry. Like many such developments, although its not obvious yet, the next few years will see companies increasing investment in this area.  A recession, which we are overdue, will also concentrate senior-management minds and force the pace of change.  I don’t want to be alarmist – and I do believe that “traditional” methods will continue for years, but we can’t put the IoT genie back in the bottle.  How we control it will be crucial in determining future labour needs in construction and property.

Chris Peace, MD, Peace Recruitment


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