Every now and then I come across an interesting company that is trying to transform the way a traditional industry works through the use of technology. In the IT industry we’re told on a daily basis about technology companies adopting technology products, but while those are interesting, it’s even more interesting to hear about tech for the “real world”. Recently I came across Aconex, a company founded in 2004 by a couple of Australians, but now based in the US, that aims to bring Software as a Service (SaaS) models to the construction industry.
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Those who have had anything to do with major construction projects will know just how much paper they generate – there are obviously the plans and specifications that every project has, but there’s also all the peripheral stuff – approvals documentation, workflow reports, job costing, final documentation etc. Indeed the paperwork a construction project generates is a real drain on productivity and efficiency. The core thesis of Aconex is that construction projects are the epitome of the mobile use-case that technology vendors often talk about, and that as such, the efficiencies that can be bought to this sector are massive.
Aconex provides a variety of different products, broken down into the following:
- Aconex Online Collaboration Platform – SaaS project information and process management: bids and tenders, workflow management, document control, communications, BIM collaboration and management, audit trail
- Aconex Mobile – mobile construction apps for access to platform on iOS and Android smartphones and tablets
- Aconex Field – field inspections and issues management on mobile devices
- Aconex Smart Manuals – compilation and delivery of digital operation and maintenance (O&M) manuals at handover
- Aconex Interface Management – management of interfaces between multiple vendors on oil and gas mega-projects
All of these together deliver a common platform to support the construction life-cycle. On the job tradepeople can see plans and specifications, make notes about change requests, track issues and create handover manuals once a job is finished. All exciting stuff that delivers on a first generation transformation of the construction industry and it seems to be doing well for Aconex, the 400 Aconex staff in over 30 offices worldwide have as customers nine of the world’s largest Engineering, procurement and Construction Management firms, 23 of the top 25 global design firms, and most Fortune 500 construction and engineering firms.
With that out of the way however we move to the arguably higher value stuff, where connected systems, the internet of things, augmented reality and the cloud can deliver game-changing improvements for the construction industry. Aconex is starting to think about how 3 dimensional modelling and representations can start delivering benefits for the sector.
I’m reminded of some conversations I’ve had with friends at Bechtel, one of the largest construction and engineering companies in the world and, coincidentally, a customer of Aconex. I’ve seen demos and had conversations about how augmented reality and sensors can add value to the industry. A couple of examples:
- Plans and specifications are available in a cloud-based and location-aware service. A foreman on a job can point his mobile device at a section of the building and have detailed plans (say plumbing, wiring, engineering or whatever) appear overlaid on the screen alongside the image. This is a huge boon on a number of levels – it helps in quality control inspections and it also avoid costly mistakes (as an electrician I know all too well the pain that occurs when someone inadvertently drills through a hidden cable)
- Inexpensive sensors can be placed on the floor before large concrete pours. During the pour and into curing time, these sensors can feedback live information to personnel about a myriad of data points – temperature, curing speeds, voids in the pour etc. Sensor data can also identify the optimum time for a pour to happen – an important factor when working in climate and work situations unkind to ideal timing
These are but two examples but are indicative of what the future can bring for the construction industry. The key thing for people to think about however, is the fact that to derive these higher value benefits, the source data needs to be in a common platform and/or format to allow the process overlays and information flows to be laid over the top of them. This is the initial challenge the industry has, a good example is Bechtel, I’ve spoken before with Christian Reilly from the company who has always been adamant that existing workloads won’t be moving to the cloud anytime soon but that organizations need to think about ways of exposing core data (albeit data sitting on legacy platforms) in a way to allow that data to be accessed by different systems (see video embedded below which discussed Bechtel’s approach to cloud and, by extension, data access). This is where API wrappers come in – by enabling easy use of data via an API wrapper, organizations make it possible to tie in the sort of high value services that companies like Aconex seek to deliver.
It’s a fascinating space – not least due to the fact that it’s generally ignored as backwards and unsexy. But in the words of some of my construction friends, what is sexier than being involved in building a massive gas plant or a gigantic airport? Engineering and construction touch all of us, technology can see a real step-change in the way these industries work.