This summary highlights a number of the principal underlying trends and initiatives which are currently shaping the long-term characteristics of the US construction industry. The hypothesis is that such can only be realized through the simultaneous combination of business process change and the complementary implementation of new IT support systems.
The most encouraging aspect of such initiatives is that, for the most part, they are being undertaken on an integrated and cohesive basis and address the same set of underlying criteria.Those taking part and driving such change include leading commercial, consultancy, trade and professional organizations and universities. The funding for such activities is being made available via a variety of sources including US Government research programs, direct commercial sponsorship and the subscription to more generic studies and initiatives by joint industry-academic bodies.
Technology As A Major Change Enabler
(a) The Potential
As demonstrated by the varied (but nevertheless interrelated) objectives identified by studies, there are now several major areas of strategic industry focus currently gathering pace and high level commercial, professional and governmental support within the US.
A common underlying factor in nearly all cases however is the importance and value of information and the implementation of new communication networks such as intranets to support client and project team information management, access, flow and exchange between both remote office based staff and the construction site itself. In addition there is also the increasing potential for the introduction of other leading edge technologies such as PC based video conferencing and electronic whiteboards for group working, 24 hour access to live site based ‘birds eye’ video, 3D virtual reality modelling and augmented reality applications all of which have on-line project oriented capability.
Furthermore, there are emerging portable technologies such as bar coding and the use of portable digital assistants for site based staff use with support for sending and receiving data such as work- in-progress valuations and materials delivery recording. The real added value however is in approaching all such systems strategically and ensuring their interoperability and integration in operation across a common project communication network.
Construction organizations are proving themselves to be increasingly ready, willing and able to invest in proven administrative based, proprietary office systems developed by the major IT hardware and software vendors and which admirably cater for everyday operational tasks such as accounting, sales and marketing presentations. Where it is more difficult for such organizations however, is in relation to more strategic and industry specific applications and especially those which require a fundamental review of predominant and traditional methods and processes and the acquisition of new technical skills at both managerial, consultant and site-level.
The US is particularly well supported by high level university based construction research which have close relationships with the industry and where a good number of leading edge initiatives are being investigated and modeled for commercial application.
In addition, because of the scale of funding and the publicity that tends to be generated as a result, knowledge dissemination of such projects is guaranteed useful profile via the press, conferences and exhibitions etc. In this way, the gospel of strategic industry thinking and trends towards cultural and process related paradigm shifts and the application of new technology, tends to permeate through to all levels of commercial and professional representation with individual organizations and practitioners focusing on specific elements relevant to their own specific areas of operational interest.
But what are the technologies under development and how are they being applied specifically in relation to construction?
(b) Technological Convergence
One of the keywords used in current technology circles is ‘convergence’. Convergence accurately describes the trend towards the integration, interrelationship and blurring of the distinction between computing and communication technologies. Such convergence is simply the result of the ability to convert all kinds of different information into digital format. (E.g: text, sound, video, speech, graphical images and drawings).
This means that particularly when coupled with new dedicated digital based communication infrastructures the diversity of possible new domestic and industry-specific applications and services is now leading to the introduction of such technologies as digital interactive TV, video-on-demand,etc. What we are really talking about of course is Multimedia.
(c) Multimedia Applications
The fact that multimedia technologies are now only beginning to filter through into everyday life actually belies the underlying development that has occurred during the last three years to the point where multimedia technologies and networks are being utilized to support a wide variety of serious commercial applications in all manner of business sectors.
Multimedia technologies have particular potential within the property and construction industry not only in a general business management sense but also in relation to industry specific activities such as surveying, design, project management, information gathering and sales and marketing.
The early multimedia applications proven popular via CD-ROM and first generation Internet/World Wide Web services running over existing copper telephone lines, have helped to identify a strong potential long- term market for multimedia. This has in turn given greater confidence to public and private network providers who, following global telecommunication liberalization and deregulation, are now investing heavily in designing and developing a high hierarchy of different local, regional, national and international networks capable of supporting a variety of combined digital multimedia data and telephony services.
Such networks offer different levels of speed and capacity to suit different end-user needs and utilize a variety of clever compression techniques designed to help achieve an optimum balance between quality, speed and cost.
As a result of the development of such networks, this in turn has stimulated a new round of multimedia application and service development geared to the specific capabilities of different network technologies. These network technologies are aimed at the different needs of demanding, high-end group work based business users such as the construction industry.
By now we had reached the point where multimedia represents the single most important global focus for both the information technology and telecommunication industries. The increasing potential for both business and domestic related multimedia applications and the means by which they can be delivered, received and interacted with means that mass market development is occurring at a point where many of the aspects of using such technology have already been resolved.
In addition, the required level of average user understanding and ability to access and utilize a whole new range of multimedia based applications and services is really no more than is required to cope with the latest generation of TV set.
The marketing and promotion of such multimedia applications and services will therefore focus on their user-friendly functionality and cost-effective benefits rather than the nature of the underlying technologies themselves. The most successful services and applications will be those which are seamless and transparent and ‘just work’.
(d) Multimedia Technologies
Multimedia technologies are now being used to develop all kinds of diverse general and specialist applications and which in relation to the construction industry include, for example, PC video conferencing based group working, 3D virtual reality, on-line construction product and cost data information, survey data gathering using PDA’s (portable digital assistants) and training and education. One of the most important multimedia software applications is the Web browser.
The web browser represents the most potent single source interface to online multimedia communications, products and services and its development has been phenomenal. Web browsers are increasingly being developed as project management interfaces, capable of supporting a variety of integrated and seamless applications such as video conferencing and electronic whiteboards for group working. Web browsers are also able to act as the interface to server push based technologies such as web casting which enable new and highly potent methods for delivering commercial and educational multimedia web-based content automatically to a wide range of industry and specific project based clients and individual consumers.
Delivery systems will include a wide range of cable, digital broadcast, satellite, and intranet based multimedia networks serving both PC and TV. Web casting will even provide the ability to combine conventional TV program content with interactive web page support information which can be supplied as part of the overall broadcast signal and displayed in a separate part of the screen.
The move to using Internet-based protocols on internal networks has given rise to the concept of Intranets which are effectively private multimedia networks.
Intranets provide the means for both the controlled internal access to multimedia information and resources and the control of external access to on-line services such as the WWW. In addition, gateways can be provided which permit intranet interconnection so that a particular company’s intranet can be connected to that of a major client or supplier for example.
• Mobile Multimedia
As part of the online multimedia revolution, no review would be complete without briefly considering current developments in relation to mobile technologies and their supporting networks.
There is recognition of a growing need for more potent mobile capability and the need for a wider range of mobile and handheld devices which have a greater degree of integration and interoperability with fixed desktops and “back at base” networks. This particular area has great potential for use in relation to on-site based real estate, estate management, facilities management and construction applications.
• Broadband Delivery Systems
The latest generation of broadband networks will not only provide the means for more potent access to on-line PC related networked multimedia resources but also introduce more consumer services such as interactive digital TV and video-on-demand.
Optical fiber will play an increasingly important role in the establishment of broadband networks. As far as the domestic market is concerned installation will mostly be provided on a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTM) basis for the future. For commercial users however, some providers are now providing full Fiber-to-the-Building (FTTB) connection and this is an increasingly important consideration in relation to building specifications for owner occupiers and tenants.