This summary highlights a number of the principal underlying trends and initiatives which are currently shaping the long-term characteristics of the US construction industry. The hypothesis is that such can only be realized through the simultaneous combination of business process change and the complementary implementation of new IT support systems.
The most encouraging aspect of such initiatives is that, for the most part, they are being undertaken on an integrated and cohesive basis and address the same set of underlying criteria.Those taking part and driving such change include leading commercial, consultancy, trade, and professional organizations and universities. The funding for such activities is being made available via various sources, including US Government research programs, direct commercial sponsorship, and the subscription to more generic studies and initiatives by joint industry-academic bodies.
Technology As A Major Change Enabler
(a) The Potential
As demonstrated by the varied (but interrelated) objectives identified by studies, there are now several major areas of strategic industry focus currently gathering pace and high-level commercial, professional and governmental support within the US.
However, a common underlying factor in nearly all cases is the importance and value of information and the implementation of new communication networks such as intranets to support client and project team information management, access, flow, and exchange between both remote office-based staff and the construction site itself. In addition, there is also the increased potential for the introduction of other leading-edge technologies such as PC-based video conferencing and electronic whiteboards for group working, 24-hour access to live site based ‘birds eye’ video, 3D virtual reality modeling, and augmented reality applications, all of which have the on-line project-oriented capability.
Furthermore, there are emerging portable technologies such as barcoding and portable digital assistants for site-based staff to use with support for sending and receiving data such as work-in-progress valuations and materials delivery recording. However, the real added value is in approaching all such systems strategically and ensuring their interoperability and integration in operation across a common project communication network.
Construction organizations are proving themselves to be increasingly ready, willing, and able to invest in proven administrative-based, proprietary office systems developed by the major IT hardware and software vendors. They admirably cater to everyday operational tasks such as accounting, sales, and marketing presentations. Where it is more difficult for such organizations, however, is about more strategic and industry-specific applications and especially those which require a fundamental review of predominant and traditional methods and processes and the acquisition of new technical skills at both managerial, consultant, and site-level.
The US is particularly well supported by the high-level university-based construction research, which has close relationships with the industry and where a good number of leading-edge initiatives are being investigated and modeled for commercial application.
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In addition, because of the scale of funding and the publicity that tends to be generated. As a result, knowledge dissemination of such projects is guaranteed useful profile via the press, conferences, exhibitions, etc. In this way, the gospel of strategic industry thinking and trends towards cultural and process-related paradigm shifts and the application of new technology tends to permeate through to all levels of commercial and professional representation with individual organizations and practitioners focusing on specific elements relevant to their own specific areas of operational interest.
But what are the technologies under development, and how are they being applied specifically about construction?
(b) Technological Convergence
One of the keywords used in current technology circles is ‘convergence.’ Convergence accurately describes the trend towards the integration, interrelationship, and blurring of the distinction between computing and communication technologies. Such convergence is simply the result of converting all kinds of different information into digital format. (e.g., text, sound, video, speech, graphical images, and drawings).
This means that particularly when coupled with new dedicated digital-based communication infrastructures, the diversity of possible new domestic and industry-specific applications and services is now leading to introducing such technologies as digital interactive TV, video-on-demand, Internet, etc. What we are really talking about, of course, is Multimedia.
(c) Multimedia Applications
The fact that multimedia technologies are now only beginning to filter through into everyday life actually belies the underlying development that has occurred during the last three years to the point where multimedia technologies and networks are being utilized to support a wide variety of serious commercial applications all manner of business sectors.
Multimedia technologies have particular potential within the property and construction industry in a general business management sense and industry-specific activities such as surveying, design, project management, information gathering, and sales and marketing.
The early multimedia applications proven popular via CD-ROM and first get the Internet/World Wide Web services running over existing copper telephone lines have helped identify a strong potential long-term market for multimedia. This has in turn given greater confidence to public and private network providers who, following global telecommunication liberalization and deregulation, are now investing heavily in designing and developing a high hierarchy of different local, regional, national, and international networks capable of supporting a variety of combined digital multimedia data and telephony services.
Such networks offer different levels of speed and capacity to suit different end-user needs and utilize various clever compression techniques designed to help achieve an optimum balance between quality, speed, and cost.
As a result of the development of such networks, this, in turn, has stimulated a new round of multimedia application and service development geared to the specific capabilities of different network technologies. These network technologies are aimed at the different needs of demanding, high-end group work-based business users such as the construction industry.
By now, we had reached the point where multimedia represents the single most important global focus for both the information technology and telecommunication industries. The increasing potential for both business and domestic-related multimedia applications and how they can be delivered, received and interacted with means that mass-market development occurs at a point where many aspects of using such technology have already been resolved.
In addition, the required level of average user understanding and ability to access and utilize a whole new range of multimedia-based applications and services is really no more than is required to cope with the latest generation of the TV set.
Therefore, the marketing and promotion of such multimedia applications and services will focus on their user-friendly functionality and cost-effective benefits rather than the nature of the underlying technologies themselves. The most successful services and applications will be seamless and transparent and ‘just work.’
(d) Multimedia Technologies
Multimedia technologies are now being used to develop all kinds of diverse general and specialist applications and which with the construction industry include, for example, PC video conferencing based group working, 3D virtual reality, online construction product, and cost data information, survey data gathering using PDA’s (portable digital assistants) and training and education. One of the most important multimedia software applications is the Web browser.
The web browser represents the most potent single source interface to online multimedia communications, products, and services, and its development has been phenomenal. Web browsers are increasingly being developed as project management interfaces, capable of supporting various integrated and seamless applications such as video conferencing and electronic whiteboards for group working. Web browsers can also act as the interface to server push-based technologies such as webcasting, enabling new and highly potent methods for delivering commercial and educational multimedia web-based content automatically to a wide range of industry and specific project-based clients and individuals consumers.
Delivery systems will include a wide range of cable, digital broadcast, satellite, and intranet-based multimedia networks serving PC and TV. Webcasting will even provide the ability to combine conventional TV program content with interactive web page support information, which can be supplied as part of the overall broadcast signal and displayed in a separate part of the screen.
The move to using Internet-based protocols on internal networks has given rise to the concept of Intranets, which are effectively private multimedia networks.
Intranets provide the means for both the controlled internal access to multimedia information and resources and the control of external access to online services such as the WWW. In addition, gateways can be provided which permit intranet interconnection so that a particular company’s intranet can be connected to that of a major client or supplier, for example.
• Mobile Multimedia
As part of the online multimedia revolution, no review would be complete without briefly considering current developments with mobile technologies and their supporting networks.
There is recognition of a growing need for more potent mobile capability and the need for a wider range of mobile and handheld devices that have a greater degree of integration and interoperability with fixed desktops and “back at base” networks. This particular area has great potential for use with on-site-based real estate, estate management, facilities management, and construction applications.
• Broadband Delivery Systems
The latest generation of broadband networks will provide the means for more potent access to online PC-related networked multimedia resources and introduce more consumer services such as interactive digital TV and video-on-demand.