Fundamentals of IoT for construction

By Jeff Winke

Experts believe the Internet of Things (IoT) will consist of about 30 billion objects in as little as two years. But, what is IoT and how does it apply to the construction industry?

Probably the best definition of the Internet of Things (IoT) appears in a Forbes magazine article written by futurist Jacob Morgan. According to Morgan, the IoT refers to the concept of “basically connecting any device with an on and off switch to the Internet.”

This includes everything from cellphones to lamps, and almost anything else. It also applies to components of machines, for example the drill of an oil rig. Again, all of these examples have an on and off switch.

Which begs the question: why? Why would we want a thing, such as a coffee maker, connected to the Internet? Easy, to get it brewing so when one comes downstairs after showering and getting dressed there’s a pot of freshly-made coffee.

A 2013 Global Standards Initiative on Internet of Things defines IoT as “a global infrastructure for the information society, enabling advanced services by interconnecting (physical and virtual) things based on existing and evolving interoperable information and communication technologies” and for these purposes a “thing” is “an object of the physical world (physical things) or the information world (virtual things), which is capable of being identified and integrated into communication networks.”

The Global Standards Initiative further states “the IoT allows objects to be sensed or controlled remotely across existing network infrastructure, creating opportunities for more direct integration of the physical world into computer-based systems, and resulting in improved efficiency, accuracy and economic benefit in addition to reduced human intervention. When IoT is augmented with sensors and actuators, the technology becomes an instance of the more general class of cyber-physical systems, which also encompasses technologies such as smart grids, virtual power plants, smart homes, intelligent transportation and smart cities. Each thing is uniquely identifiable through its embedded computing system but is able to interoperate within the existing Internet infrastructure.”

IoTThe construction industry is out front

When examined, the technologies behind the Internet of Things have existed for many years in construction. Features like remote access, office-to-field data exchange, cloud computing and data storage are not new to the industry.  In consumer markets, these technologies are still new and revolutionary. In the construction realm these connected devices and real-time communication already exist, and now it is more about contractors accepting and investing in the techn. The developers in the construction market are now focusing on creating easier, reliable access to the abundance of data. For a construction contractor, a smartphone, tablet, or laptop failure can raise concerns about the security, data integrity and response times, which are absolutely critical.

“Interconnected smart technology is central to how we engineer our solutions and their functionality in the hands of our customers,” said Ivan Di Federico, executive vice president and chief strategy officer for Topcon Positioning Systems. “The opportunities are seemingly limitless. The power of IoT provides comprehensive planning, process control, workflow monitoring and extensive reporting that will bring our customers the full advantages of connectivity.”

The IoT Platform

What is referred to as the “IoT Platform” is the operating world in which the construction market has been evolving. The IoT Platform is meant to provide construction equipment manufacturers and the end-user contractors with analytics and reports about various aspects of their tasks and assets, to enhance the decision-making process and obtain the best possible management of resources, fleets and personnel.

In the construction field, the key is sensors. Sensors make it possible to capture all information needed to improve decisions with real-time data about the work site and the workforce.

Equiping each piece of equipment with the capability of sending and receiving data allows the platform to reproduce a digital detailed representation of the product itself. That is called a digital twin.

“Thanks to the digital twins of our products, activities like monitoring, diagnosis, and repair can be completed remotely,” Di Federico said. “What this means is we can have experts based anywhere in the world able to provide monitoring, troubleshooting, and repairs. This would result in tremendous savings of time and travel expenses. Moreover, there can be direct collaboration between on-site personnel and equipment operators and our experts.”

It’s all big data

Smart, connected construction equipment can allow tracking of how it is used. Through the accumulation of historical data, the IoT platform can build patterns of information to better understand customer-contractors’ necessities, the environment in which they operate and provide advanced solutions to fit their needs.

The collected data, which is called Big Data, provides options for different types of analysis:

  • Descriptive: to retrieve a detailed report of current conditions and understand what happened in a specific working environment.
  • Predictive:  to provide a reliable prediction about product performances and forestall the occurrence of potential malfunctioning or damage.
  • Prescriptive: to know how to optimize and automate the process and the workflow via realtime project maps and plans which feed the machines.

The platform provides numerous and detailed information that can be selected according to the need at the time. This enables effective and profitable choices. It is possible to retrieve virtually any useful information, from fuel consumption to equipment productivity, from maintenance services to, in the near future, prognostics. In addition, most of the functionalities are completely customizable, for meeting specific contractor needs.

The ultimate benefits of Big Data is cost reductions and deeper insights as to what customers need.

“Interconnected smart technology is both central to how we engineer our solutions and produce their functionality for our customers,” Di Federico said. “The challenges, as with most innovation, have mostly to do with adoption. Once construction contractors have an opportunity to see first-hand how the solutions we provide make them more efficient, the concept of IoT makes perfect sense. Greater productivity means undeniable higher profits for their businesses, and assists them in meeting what we at Topcon call ‘The Intersection of Infrastructure and Technology.’ It is the meeting point where construction productivity is improved by applying intelligent positioning technology, and clearly IoT is part of this bigger picture.”

For Topcon and other technology companies in its niche, providing connected solutions to the construction market enables contractors to have comprehensive monitoring of conditions, operations and the work site through sensors and data. Assets can be monitored from everywhere, wherever the contractor happens to physically be.  It enables real-time communication and task management with machines and crews on the work site. Additionally, the entire fleet of machines working at the site can be connected.

“We call it ‘descriptive, predictive and prescriptive’ analytics,” Di Federico said. “The result for customers is higher productivity, less downtime and waste, and ultimately more profitability, combined with less stress.

“We absolutely design our solutions with IoT top of mind, such as our Topcon Tierra remote asset management system that provides total visibility and control, including diagnostics and maintenance for reducing  costs and improving performance.

“Our MAGNET software solutions suite, provides real-time connected support for hardware as well as integration with our Sitelink3D service for instant data transfer and connectivity into active project sites. Additionally, Sitelink3D allows customers to plan, schedule, assign tasks and get reports, all in real time. When practically any new product or system is designed, integration with these solutions is standard and expected procedure.”

The IoT is here to stay. It is the future, and for many it is the present. In the construction market, the success of technology that enables construction contractors to bid projects more accurately based on their own historic production data and get their jobs completed faster, more accurately, and more efficiently using intelligent interconnected technology, has raised customer expectations.