Immerse yourself

Disrupting the construction industry with collaborative virtual reality. By Matt Keen


Disrupting the construction industry with collaborative virtual reality. By Matt Keen

From pen and paper to CAD, BIM and 3D modelling, the ability to visualise, design and build using digital methods has always been a core component of construction. New technologies are coming to the fore that are shifting the way construction is done, from apps and mobile devices to laser scanning and drone photogrammetry.

The construction industry has traditionally been slower to innovate than other adjacent industries, and adoption of technology by UK construction firms remains relatively low. Indeed, our research revealed that one in five (19 per cent) construction firms admit that all of their projects are still being run with paper drawings on-site.

According to McKinsey, the industry is suffering from a $1.6bn productivity gap, and firms must take note and look to adopt emerging technologies that are set to disrupt the sector and help them tackle their biggest challenges.

Closing the industry’s productivity gap
It’s clear that change is needed, and one industry-leading technology that’s being brought into the industry to address these challenges is Virtual Reality (VR). Combining the power of BIM with the cloud, construction workers can move from static images to fully immersive, intelligent virtual reality. VR can be a valuable tool for the AEC industry, particularly during the preconstruction phase when digital data starts to translate into real-world resources and logistics.

Accessing accurate, timely information remains a key issue for UK firms, with over a quarter (28 per cent) of respondents in our study saying that lacking the information needed on-site is the biggest factor impacting their productivity. Correcting mistakes is taking up unnecessary time on sites, according to half the industry professionals surveyed.

Entering buildings, before they’ve even been built
VR enables workers on-site to not only access information like 3D BIM data, but better visualise how it will come together, avoiding costly errors and enabling more complex builds. Utilising VR allows any project stakeholder to experience a digital model before it’s built, helping to ensure vision aligns with the design. Potential conflicts or required changes can more easily be identified before issues arise during construction.

In the same way, VR helps with the co-ordination of different construction stakeholders, by enabling, for example, specialist subcontractors to visualise how their work fits into the design – both ahead of their arrival on-site and during their work. This could help address the fact that one in four (24 per cent) professionals said the co-ordination between stakeholders was a time drain for their business, according to our research.

Model co-ordination
One use case for VR is through model co-ordination, which is the synchronisation process of all 3D model data into a centralised, master model. This gives sub-contractors the ability to provide their design to the model co-ordinator, who overlays each model in its appropriate location.

Some of the benefits of leveraging VR for model co-ordination are decreased decision time, increased decision accuracy, and unquestioned accountability through the contextualisation of BIM data into the VR experience.

Ultimately, VR has the potential to create more profitable and seamless construction processes by improving scalability, streamlining collaboration, and enhancing the client experience. Instead of screen-sharing, team members can review models in an immersive 3D environment using VR headsets and moving away from collaboration on paper.

Furthermore, combining VR with other technologies such as sensors and GPS technology on-site creates a real-time connection between a physical construction site and its digital twin in the cloud—unlocking an infinite number of opportunities for efficiency and project management. Bringing various data sources together and real-time analysis enables better decision making and the ability to adapt to the project’s needs. Digital twins are a critical enabler for the industry to deliver more sustainable buildings and reduce the negative impact that construction has on the environment.

Putting VR into practice
Placing collaborators in a virtual space where data is represented spatially has many benefits. One such project gives us a demonstration of just how. A construction firm was working on a small project, which had four sub-contractors submit their designs for an equipment room. When the concrete manufacturer updated their drawings to show post-tension cables running through the precast panels, the electrical, fire pipe, mechanical (HVAC), and plumbing contractors were forced to reroute their designs. A scan of the paper drawing was passed around via email and marked up by each contractor. After three weeks, there had been little progress, and with the clock ticking, the client had to fly a team on-site for three days. Eventually the issue was resolved, and work continued. However, the damage had been done; the delay had negatively impacted the project schedule and cost the customer in project delays, as well as travel and accommodation expenses.

This firm is not alone, we have seen similar experiences in other industry-leading construction firms, on projects of all sizes.

An effective, proven solution is NVIDIA’s Holodeck VR platform. Project stakeholders can connect to project BIM data in VR, allowing them to plan sessions before jumping to 1:1 scale. With the click of a button, the project team is transported into a virtual model at full scale, where they use familiar industry toolsets to address the problem. A solution is reached, a snapshot is taken, and the 13resulting solution is sent back to the data platform attached to the issue for the designer to pick up the changes.

A new virtual era
VR is one of a handful of technologies at the nucleus of a changing, digital world. Digitalisation connects people, data and tools together in an immersive context, and this new and exciting workflow is already changing industries to help decision-making and improve productivity. Moving away from traditional methods of project design and towards these collaborative VR projects can ultimately lead to fewer setbacks, and more cost-efficient outcomes.

Matt Keen is Construction Industry Strategist at Autodesk. Autodesk makes software for people who make things. If you’ve ever driven a high-performance car, admired a towering skyscraper, used a smartphone, or watched a great film, chances are you’ve experienced what millions of Autodesk customers are doing with its software. Autodesk gives you the power to make anything. For more information visit autodesk.co.uk or follow @autodesk_UKI