Recently, the Construction Scotland Innovation Centre held an online event that looked at the potential impact of 5G on construction, from design, through to manufacture and build as well as building operation. It was an opportunity to hear from the experts including Paul Coffey, Chief Executive of the Scotland 5G Centre, on the benefits that enhanced connectivity could have on every aspect of the industry.
The construction sector has been one of the last to adopt digitisation and for very understandable reasons. Poor WiFi and 4G accessibility on building sites has inhibited the use of data and the challenges of cost and skills in an industry operating on low margins has made digital collaboration somewhat overwhelming.
But 5G has the potential to change all that and it could transform construction sites. Paul Coffey spelled out that we will see a 100-fold increase in the amount of data that can be processed and that, combined with negligible latency that makes every action almost instantaneous, will make coordinating deliveries, tracking materials and other processes much more fluid.
He predicts holographic building visualisation, real-time design display and instantaneous access to data will become routine. So imagine a site where materials are delivered overnight and moved into position by autonomous vehicles, ready for use the following day; a digger operator who, with the help of augmented and virtual reality goggles, can see in 3D the dimensions of proposed excavations; where real-time monitoring will allow contractors to be more responsive and remote inspections will remove the need for building control officers and site managers to be physically present. These are just some of the benefits that 5G could be delivering in the not-too-distant future.
And while the potential for improving productivity and reducing costs are significant, so too are the prospects for improved health and safety. Wearable devices on clothing and helmets for example, could not only provide real-time information to workers about the build, but they could act as sensors, delivering alerts about potential dangers such as the proximity of heavy machinery, health alerts such as blood pressure or to enforce social distancing.
Working life will be transformed when construction workers can stand in a brownfield site and see, layer by layer, what the project will look like on completion. But it’s not just that data streaming will be faster, it will have a cinematic quality that will provide better management insight and decision making.
Cost may still be a barrier, especially to SMEs, but the technology will become cheaper and the big players are beginning to recognise that they have to bring their subcontractors with them on the journey. Some are already doing this including BAM Nuttall Ltd, which is using private 5G networks to operate a system of drones, sensors and cameras on sites in Kilsyth, Glasgow and Shetland as part of a UK government-funded trial.
A poll of the participants who took part in our online event showed a demand for skills development, expert advice and funding in order to accelerate the development of technological capabilities. However the greatest need they identified was for case studies of companies who have already taken the leap, have embraced 5G and can demonstrate that change is achievable and is bringing benefits in terms of increased productivity, improved quality and profitability.
So while we will continue to work with the Scotland 5G Centre to provide the education and advisory services that have been identified as key to embracing a digital future, we need the early adopters to step forward, to do more than just talk about the potential benefits and to embrace the technology and its capabilities that are set to transform not just their own companies but their entire supply chains and the wider industry.