Technology has caused dramatic transformation in the civil construction industry over the past few decades, taking us from paper to PDFs, from simple plastic models to intelligent 3D digital models, and from orange field books to cloud-based construction administration solutions with sophisticated capabilities.
Digital transformation has touched every aspect of the industry, from planning and design to construction, inspection and maintenance. Traditional office and field roles have been augmented with many new technology-enabled jobs. Just a few years ago, many would not have imagined drone pilots becoming a common part of the construction process.
People’s personal experiences with technology have also created new expectations around transparency, convenience and accessibility, both within the industry and among government officials and the tax-paying public.
To break down how this tech-driven transformation has changed the way we exchange data and collaborate, let’s start from the beginning.
Pre-CADD Era: Construction at the Speed of Paper
Not that long ago, data management and collaboration was still predominantly based on paper documents and plastic models. Instead of digital information in the cloud, organizations relied on vast on-site libraries of reference books and paper materials.
Every document and form had to be written or typed by hand and physically delivered from one person to another via interoffice envelopes or the mail. We weren’t even calling it “snail mail” yet, because there was no alternative.
Prior to Computer Aided Design and Drafting (CADD) tools, the industry had to rely primarily on 2D drawings on linen or mylar. There were 3D plastic models, but they were primitive by today’s standards. Individual pieces had to be cut and glued together in a process that took months to complete and could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In addition to being costly and difficult to assemble, these models had limited utility. They provided a nice visual reference, but contained no usable data and had no legal standing.
CADD Era: The Dawn of Digital Transformation
In the 80s and 90s, computers brought powerful new capabilities into AEC offices in the form of word processing, email, and design, drafting, and modeling. CADD was one of the key innovations introduced during this time, but it would be years before the industry realized the full potential of digital design and data modeling.
Workflows for estimation, planning and construction were entrenched in the world of paper and plastic. At first, many people simply replicated their existing process and used CADD as a digital pencil. 3D models and digital component libraries became available, but modeling was still largely manual and only provided a surface-level visual representation. Individual components were isolated and couldn’t interact. It was also necessary to extract 2D plans to use as the legal document of record.
At the same time, new technology was unleashing new challenges. Configuring new software was complex and often required custom programming. Vendors, systems and file formats proliferated rapidly, making it difficult to share data and enable digital collaboration. Prior to the widespread adoption of PDF, there was no common format for even simple documents.
It required innovation in both technology and business practices to move the industry forward to a truly digital paradigm.
BIM Era: Accelerating Change and Enabling Collaboration
Building Information Modeling (BIM) heralded a major expansion of digital collaboration, bringing together increasingly powerful technologies with new ways of working to create the digital infrastructure for collaboration across entire project and asset lifecycles.
By the late 90s, computing power was growing dramatically. Increasingly powerful PCs offered better graphics processing capabilities and overall data handling capacity. Movies and video games played a role in changing perceptions and encouraging people to envision a broader role for technology. The civil construction industry started to move on from the digital pencil.
Computer hardware and software was only half of the story; smooth digital workflows also required better communication. As more users connected to the internet, collaboration in a connected data environment (CDE) became a possibility, although stakeholders continued to operate in a fragmented landscape with proprietary file formats and data silos.
Over time, digital models went from thousands of data points to millions and individual components became intelligent and interactive. CADD became linked to other data sources through data federation. Automated machine guidance linked digital models to the physical world and enabled virtual design and construction. Digital technology and workflows began to deliver huge gains to productivity and efficiency in the field.
Digital Project Delivery: The Road Continues
The BIM era marked a new era of digital collaboration in civil construction, and that process of innovation, adoption and optimization continues today. The vision of integrating more data sources and extending CDEs will continue to drive the industry toward technologies and practices that enable more precise capture of data in the field, better data federation and digital collaboration.
Instead of only a visual representation of a road or highway, contemporary 3D models and other digital documentation delivers the actual information that needs to be communicated between planning, design, construction, inspection, asset management and maintenance.
Industry Foundation Classes (IFC) have been a major enabler for data exchange between systems, providing information-sharing abilities that go far beyond models. Full interoperability and seamless data integration remain elusive goals, and issues with data provenance and governance persist due to the need to create a static copy of data in the IFC format. However, the industry is making progress.
Understanding the Importance of IFC Standards
The Next Era: Expanding the Digital Frontier in Construction
Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) offer a promising opportunity to improve digital collaboration while protecting vendors’ proprietary technologies and users’ sensitive data. Mobile devices and networks continue to extend CDEs into the field, leveraging digital data to increase to make civil engineering and construction faster, more efficient and more collaborative.
As the construction industry continues to implement new platforms, processes, and applications, new challenges will always be emerging on the digital frontier. While technology offers powerful new capabilities, it also raises questions about the impact of those changes.
How effectively do new tools support digital collaboration and engage tech-savvy young professionals?
Will digital project delivery continue increasing transparency and communication, or will existing silos become entrenched?
Is digital transformation simplifying workflows and collaboration, or adding complexity?
What unexpected new opportunities will emerge to leverage digital systems to improve worker safety, reduce environmental impacts?
How will all of these changes affect cost and risk in construction?
As a trusted provider serving the industry for more than 45 years, Infotech is committed to empowering our customers and partners. We’ll continue to push the boundaries of the digital frontier in construction, with an unwavering focus on efficiency, simplicity and bottom-line value.
If you're looking to digitize your approach to construction project administration and create an accessible data environment, we’d love to collaborate with you!
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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