Artificial Intelligence and the Wall and Ceiling Contractor
Get Used to It. It’s Here to Stay.
S.S. Saucerman / September 2023
Unless you live in a deep, dark cave on a lonely, isolated mountain, you’ve no doubt heard of artificial intelligence. AI is changing the world in ways we never imagined and is currently one of the hottest hot-button topics in civilization. In the construction industry where we reside, the lion’s share of attention regarding AI has so far been given to AI’s integration into the design phase and primarily its integration into building information modeling, a 3D model-based process that gives architecture, engineering and construction professionals deeper insight into plan efficiency through AI-powered generative design.
AIGD identifies and mitigates clashes between different models generated by different teams of designers (even from different disciplines of work) to prevent rework of building plans and specifications. There are even software programs that use machine learning algorithms to explore all the variations of a solution and then generate design alternatives themselves. Once a user sets up the base requirements for the model, the generative design software creates 3D models optimized for the constraints, learning from each iteration until it comes up with the ideal model.
And this is all well and good, but what if you’re not a designer? What if you (and I) are members of that part of the construction industry that actually “builds” the buildings, the ones traditionally known for our “hands-on” work and manual processes? What has AI done for us lately? Well, the answer is a lot, and there is much, much more just around the corner. In fact, AI is already being integrated into scores of jobsite activities ranging from layout, safety monitoring and even construction robotics (the fun stuff). And newer and more innovative applications are being added every day.
Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
But let’s take a moment to learn a little bit more about our topic. Artificial intelligence is a term used for describing when machines mimic human cognitive functions, like problem-solving, pattern-recognition (here’s the really cool part) actual learning. In fact, there is a process called machine learning (ML) that is a subset of AI that uses statistical techniques to give computer systems the ability to “learn” from data—without being explicitly programmed for such. Yes, this is a program that is learning to program itself. The more data that the learning module is exposed to, the better it will become at understanding and providing accurate output.
Let’s dig a little deeper now. Let’s examine specific ways AI (and ML) are working to improve the world—and modern building construction—with a particular emphasis on how it can used to help the wall and ceiling contractor. We’ll start with administrative applications and work our way outward into the field.
AI/ML: Office & Administrative Applications
Data Distribution. AI is like having a smart assistant in the office who can sort through mountains of data faster than any human counterpart. Once the data is delineated, the AI can then alert critical team players (i.e., project managers, estimators, accounting) about that which needs immediate attention. Several applications already use AI in this way—including the filtering of spam emails, but in short time it will become a mainstay in real-time, advanced safety and compliance monitoring.
Accounting/Budgeting. Besides speeding up the accounting process itself, AI can help prevent cost overruns by employing artificial neural networks that are used to predict cost overruns based on factors such as project size, contract type and the skill levels of project managers. Historical data from past projects is also used to build predictive models that will form new and realistic timelines for upcoming projects. The same can be said for creating truer and more realistic budgets.
Estimating & Scheduling. AI-based cost estimating models (sometimes referred to as “prediction models”) have already shown great results in the budgeting and cost analysis stages of the construction process. These prediction models are key tools in determining early construction costs and durations, which in turn are key factors in whether or not your project will be successful—or even move forward. Cost prediction models can also be integrated right into the BIM models we discussed earlier to ensure project budgeting limits are keeping pace with the design needs.
Project Management & Contract Administration. Construction contract management can be a tediously voluminous and complex undertaking and there are huge ramifications when mistakes are made. Consequences include litigation, paying court costs, client civil claims, project delays, loss of profit dollars and of course loss of reputation. AI can help avoid all that by making it easier to inquire of contracts in order to retrieve important information in short time. AI can also provide contract summaries and aids with addenda integration. In addition, it can preemptively search out potential trouble areas like dispute-prone clauses or partisan/bias wording that has historically lead to litigious clashes.
Risk Mitigation. We all know that every construction project comes with some level of risk. The larger and more complex the project, the greater that risk is. There will be a number of AI applications available to the wall and ceiling contractor that can be used to automatically (using cameras and algorithms) monitor and prioritize day-to-day risk on the job site, so the primary project team can focus its time and resources on the biggest risk factors. And since a subcontractor workman’s comp is rated based on a risk scores, the contractor now has something viable to help improve his score and mitigate both risk and insurance costs.
AI/ML: Jobsite & Field Applications
Project Progress Monitoring. AI allows for real-time monitoring of construction sites to ensure projects are running according to scheduling, quality and safety protocols. It can even tell you if your building (thus far) is structural integral. It incorporates cameras, movable mounts, sensors and an array of software packages and algorithms to collect and analyze data based on your inputted parameters. These systems can detect deviations from design specifications, identify potential safety hazards, and provide immediate alerts in case of anomalies or emergencies. Not only will this aid the contractor immensely with schedule and staffing decisions, but also if something appears off track, both the prime and sub management teams can step in early to deal with small problems before they become big.
Asset Management (Equipment Maintenance). AI will play an important role in your maintenance and asset management programs. By analyzing sensor data and historical, electronic logs and maintenance records, AI algorithms will predict equipment failure, recommend preventive maintenance protocols and even optimize equipment usage. This asset management package minimizes costly breakdowns, reduces downtime, and extends the lifespan of critical machinery and infrastructure. It also enables efficient asset tracking and inventory management, enabling contractors to optimize their resource allocation, streamline procurement processes and reduce operational costs.
Construction Safety. In the United States, construction workers are killed five times more on the job than any other laborers. According to OSHA, the leading cause of these private sector deaths (excluding automobile crashes) in the construction industry were falls (from ladders, scaffold, etc.), followed by struck by an object, electrocution and caught-in/between work elements (i.e., crushed, suffocated). Similar to the smart monitoring programs above, there will be AI safety modules that take and analyze jobsite photos, scan them for safety hazards and convey that information back to key players. This proactive approach can help stop accidents before they occur and make the overall work site a safer place.
Automation, Robotics and Jobsite Productivity. In what many agree is the most exciting aspect of AI in construction, AI applications will soon help your job site be more productive by offering up self-driving construction machinery to perform repetitive tasks more efficiently than their human counterparts—such as plastering, painting and wall construction. Other trades such as masonry and excavation will also be performed by autonomous or semi-autonomous machines. This frees up human workers for the construction work itself and reduces the overall time required to complete the project.
Oddly enough, robotics may lend themselves particularly to you, the wall and ceiling contractor, for a number of reasons, including these two: the surfaces on which you ply their trade are generally rectangular and compartmentalized (making the AI math easier), and your work is primarily indoors, allowing for sheltered work on flat, solid floors for AI robotic equipment to roll around on and maneuver. If you want to see examples of AI robotics in ceiling and wall applications, you need look no further than YouTube, which hosts a treasure trove of fascinating new applications for the wall and ceiling industry.
If you want to go deeper still, once you’ve viewed these videos, let the YouTube algorithms (more AI!) take you down the legendary “YouTube rabbit hole” to many, many more examples of AI/ML robotics. I did just that and it was a fascinating ride. You can literally spend hours doing it. I think you’ll be surprised by how many companies are already deeply invested in robotics for the construction industry.
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
But as exciting as the future of AI appears, don’t think for a moment that the transition to a primarily AI-driven construction industry is going to be smooth ride. Besides the obvious and inevitable human-versus-machine debate that will only most certainly get worse as more and more jobs are usurped by AI, there are other pitfalls and obstacles that may slow society’s acceptance of this fascinating and powerful tool. Just a few hurdles AI can look forward to include:
High Up-Front Costs. At this point in time, the initial costs required to invest in AI solutions (e.g., robotics) are very high. The maintenance requirements for these same applications can also be quite high. This means that for the foreseeable future, AI and ML will exist primarily in the domain of the wealthy. This further means that it will likely be unaffordable for the vast majority of subcontractors and small firms that make up the bulk of the construction industry. Therefore, it’s important that firms considering the transition to AI do their due diligence to determine whether the cost savings and return on investment of a conversion to such technologies is wise or not. The good news? As AI technologies become more accepted and prevalent in construction, prices should drop to where it’s an affordable option to even small firms.
Security. Any time you add a computer to any equation, you add the possibility of being hacked. Despite AI being able to detect security lapses and intrusions, AI applications will remain exploitive targets for hackers and cybercriminals. This is a critical issue in an industry that deals in substantially large, complex and expensive products. And it’s not just the product itself that can be in jeopardy. The safety of construction workers might feasibly be compromised by hackers, possibly leading to life-threatening incidents or even loss of life. Thankfully, a new application known as “adversarial machine learning” may step up to resist high-level attacks, but the application is still in its infancy. In the end, only time and diligence will tell the tale.
Computing Power and Internet Connectivity Speed. Construction sites (often remote) are notorious for lacking power, telecommunications and internet connectivity—and if it is available, it’s generally spotty. And sometimes, even the construction activities themselves can lead to interruptions in power and connectivity. This poses a serious problem to those using AI on-site whose operation relies on a sound connection, especially when that electronic information needs to arrive in real time. The emergence of 5G does offer some respite, but with the fantastic growth of AI, more help will be needed soon. It’s a big problem.
Manpower Shortages. Sound familiar? Well hold on—it’s not what you think. This is a different sort of labor shortage. We have been so preoccupied finding non-skilled laborers for drywall and ceiling work that we never dreamed there was coming a new kind of labor shortages in the construction industry: AI administrators. Yup, plan for at least one in each office. As AI takes over the construction industry there will be a grand need for employees trained to handle AI hardware, coding and troubleshooting—and right now those people just aren’t out there! So look for more colleges/universities to offer this curriculum, and look for this skill to boost résumés from coast to coast. This does offer some solace against the doomsday soothsayers who claim AI will replace human workers, although in truth, once AI is up and perfected, there will almost certainly be men and women of classical building trades out of work. Progress? I guess it’s just how you measure it.
Ethics and Government. Maintaining public trust in AI technologies will forever be dependent on an inclusive, transparent and dedicated government to oversee it. This is a crucial—and worrisome—issue considering the state of our government at present, but one hopes that the historical importance of AI’s inclusion into to society outweighs the petty and pointless nonsense going on in our government. It’s just too important. AI will test business ethics too, particularly in regard to security, hacking and corporate espionage. The government will definitely need to be there to regulate and oversee the growth of AI.
From intelligent design to predictive analytics, AI will continue to drive efficiency, safety and productivity in the construction industry. It is also safe to say that our industry can expect further AI enhancements in productivity, cost-effectiveness and greater project applications.
AI in construction is no longer a pipedream, and it will soon be a necessary asset for even small companies wishing to remain competitive in a rapidly evolving industry. The future of construction has never been clearer: AI will belong to those who harness its power and use it to transform their operations into something remarkable and new.
Leaders of construction companies should already be prioritizing capital investment toward AI applications that best benefit their company philosophies. The early embracers will set the direction for the next era of construction and will be the ones who will most benefit in the end.
S.S. Saucerman is a retired commercial construction estimator and project manager who worked for a large upper-Midwest general contractor. He is also an established freelance writer and author whose work spans 20 years.