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The When, Where and How of Construction Automation

Automation in construction has long since moved from experimental to expected. But what progress has been made, and where can benefits be most readily realized moving forward?

The digitalization of construction continues unabated, but not consistently and evenly among global markets, nor through all aspects of the construction industry. But as our interview with Topcon Positioning Systems’ Chief Marketing Officer Ulrich Hermanski reveals, targeting of key construction activities for automation yield rapid and substantial gains.

Hermanski has been tracking progress in construction automation from the vantage point of being a force in implementation. This through his decades of sales engineering and management positions, a period where machine control grew from the experimental to the expected. Geospatial World has been seeking an industry insider’s take on the progress of automation in construction, and so got in touch with Hermanski, who has witnessed, and had a hand in this evolution from the front lines.

Construction as an industry has been far behind, say manufacturing, in automation and digitalization. But I see so many great tools and solutions — that is encouraging. How has the adoption been going across the industry globally?

The adoption in the various regions of the globe is very much driven by different standards for machine technologies — integrated machine control is not sold in the Middle East, Russia, and Africa — here the digitization moves on only with aftermarket installation, as it is not an automatic offering from the machine manufacturers. Governmental influence and initiatives in the industrial economies, like BIM or IT construction in Japan, are forcing the construction industry towards faster adaption of technology. But in the end, the largest push for automation comes from the integrated solutions of the manufacturers. In the past, we have talked about hundreds of machine control systems and today, it’s becoming a standard for new machines, like car navigation systems.

Which elements of Topcon’s construction digitalization and automation portfolio have been seeing gains?

Besides the machine control systems for dozers, graders, excavators and the workflow management of earthmoving on sites, the road resurfacing activities and solutions have become a substantial part of the business. With our SmoothRide (paving automation) system that represents a complete workflow from inspection of the road surface, precise scanning, over planning with the new road parameters to paving with thickness and intelligent compaction, we have made this process easy to control and execute. As almost 50% of the road infrastructure budgets are related to maintenance and road resurfacing in most of the industrial countries with established roads and highways, this new integrated workflow gains high market acceptance.

Do you feel that the 2020 pandemic has been a factor in AEC firms digitalizing more rapidly?

The trend looks like that, but we still are affected by the reduction of the machine production in general, and we had a slowdown in the OEM business. But this is more than compensated for by the increase of technology adaption in the aftermarket and rental business. The pandemic has just made the already known problems more visible: lack of skilled experts in construction and now availability on top, safety, and security in production on the site. In general, there is more of an imperative automate processes for faster and more effective execution of construction projects.

The talk of ‘Digital Twins’ has gained interest, but these involve massive data capture. Building the initial 3D models, applying attributes, then continuous asbuilt during construction, and updates during the operations phase. Do you think people are aware of these needs?

The principle answer is yes, but there are of course differences in the construction industry: most of the larger building projects are already demanding to control the workflow with BIM technology, so it is not the question if everybody understands it, they have to adapt to these regulations. The projects where it is not part of the tendering process to utilize BIM technologies, it’s more difficult to move forward as you have to convince a couple of involved trades and their project managers. We need to make all these workflows easier to be executed and make clearer what the overall benefit for the industry and the society is. Sure, it’s an education program as well.

With nearly 50% of road infrastructure budgets related to maintenance and road resurfacing, automation in paving has yielded substantial cost and time savings | Courtesy: Topcon Positioning

I hear from GC’s about the long process of comparing the design to constructed, particularly for tight tolerance elements. But I also see solutions like GTL-1000 and Verity to check the fidelity of structural elements. How is the adoption of such solutions, and are there solutions for horizontal construction, where automation could occur?

There is much more technology focus in the vertical building industry since we can also work 3-dimensional inside of building projects. In the past, the industry and the trades were working mainly with paperwork like maps and plans, but today we are able to work directly in 3D on the site. The adaption speed depends, of course here also, on the size of the projects and companies working on it. The larger construction companies with their own engineering or BIM divisions are adapting faster than the smaller ones, but here is the challenge for us as a technology provider to make these products and workflows easier to use. In horizontal construction, we have already made the first move with our SmoothRide (paving automation) system. For sure it’s not only useful for re-surfacing, but it can be used also within new road projects, or like in Reunion, for finishing a concrete bridge with an asphalt surface.

You have a background in geodesy. Folks seem to overlook when it comes to mass data capture (e.g. mobile mapping), is that the Earth is dynamic: data captured years apart has essentially ‘moved’, and reference frameworks are updated. Do you see a hazard in automation, where nearly anyone without a background or training can capture vast amounts of geospatial data, but might overlook the geodetic implications?

Thanks for reminding me that my background is surveying. What I remember from my studies is that we learned to judge the quality of data. We know that whatever we are measuring, with what kind of instrument tape, level, total station, GNSS rover, mobile mapping system, etc., it has (potential error). Surveyors have learned to calculate the potential error and to judge the quality of the measurement. This function, or let’s say this quality control, will not disappear, and maybe it can be automated more in the future to minimize the risks. Therefore, technical support functions will continue to exist. Engineers, surveyors, and other experts will take that responsibility.

As almost 50% of the road infrastructure budgets are related to maintenance and road resurfacing in most of the industrial countries with established roads and highways, new integrated workflows are gaining high market acceptance

Another key function that has benefited from advanced construction automation is verification of constructed elements to the design. In this example, and total station/scanner combination provided the point cloud data to compare the design model in Verity software | Courtesy: Topcon Positioning

Please tell us a bit about yourself. Which aspects of AEC and the work you are doing inspire you?

My background as a surveyor was almost a short history. I learned in an engineering office the surveying profession before I started my studies at the University of Essen. Immediately after the studies, I moved into the sales business and stayed in there until two years ago, when I moved to California to take the marketing position at Topcon Positioning. My last passion in sales was the market development for our SmoothRide solution and the main challenge there was, and sometimes still is, to convince surveyors that we can scan road surfaces at up to 80km/h and get an accuracy of a couple of mm. Of course, this accuracy is relative only, but more than sufficient for the workflow and a precise re-surfacing.

That is, by the way, our challenge in general — we are sticking to roles and regulations. Many such regulations and even specifications were defined 30-50 years ago — sure, right and perfect at that time. But we cannot request adoption to new technologies and still insist to fulfill all history norms and reporting requirements. By the way, to convince my marketing team to go digital was much easier, faster, and very effective.