Innovation and Entrepreneurship

BY: Dr. Mani Golparvar, Reconstruct Inc

Research centres and construction companies will benefit by bringing prototypes to the real world

As a field engineer at Turner Construction, I realised that inconsistencies in daily construction, reporting can expose construction management and general contractor companies to a variety of risks.

Subcontractors frequently fell behind with paper-based submissions. Superintendents were forced to chase subcontractors for information that was generally insufficient to complete a useful and actionable daily construction report.

It was around this time that people started using 2-3 megapixel consumer-grade cameras. The applications of building information modeling (BIM) for pre-construction cost estimation and constructability reviews were just emerging. I was intrigued by the potential of how comparing images and videos to BIM connected to the schedule could help visually document and measure work in progress.

It was then that I decided to focus my Ph.D. dissertation and academic research at both the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and Virginia Tech on the interface of construction management and computer vision. Re- construct’s visual 3D command centre for construction projects emerged from this work.

State of innovation

The engineering and construction culture has dramatically changed over the past 10 years. Since 2008, we’ve seen a change in the generation of people who are working at construction sites.

Technology readiness has dramatically improved, especially in terms of how we model, simulate and share project data, as well as how we capture information from job sites, including using the internet of things. Companies are witnessing a change in this generation because technologies have improved and the price point is lower. This is where opportunities are emerging.

Assessing processes

Over the past five to six years, numerous companies have decided to invest in establishing central research and development or innovation divisions.

Companies want to ensure there is an internal process that can measure how new technologies fit into their process- es and workflows and assess value. It is the return on investment that matters at the end of the day.

These technology assessments offer an opportunity for companies to either map them into existing processes or standardise new processes across their projects.

However, the real challenge is that – similar to tech companies and university research teams – the innovation teams are not directly involved in construction projects.

Innovation teams must introduce new ideas and concepts to their project teams and get buy-in. Hence, for some companies, adopting and adapting technology may become a two-step process as opposed to a direct process.

Due to dramatic improvements in technology, there is a rise in funding and startups. The concepts of digitising job sites and industrialisation have also matured.

New opportunities have emerged. There is a possibility of bridging the gap in terms of what the industry wants – processes and products that work – versus what academics typically work on: theories, methods, and software/ hardware prototypes.

Fostering a culture

My mission in academia is to devise problem-driven research and explore scientific solutions to problems that matter. I work with startups and advanced technology companies to translate the research into processes and products that the industry can ultimately use. This process is easy to explain, but very difficult to implement.

At universities, we receive funding from numerous national and local agencies – including the National Science Foundation, which has funded most of my work – to drive research that contributes to the body of knowledge in construction.

We use this as an opportunity to develop scientific concepts that are typically transformed into prototypes. We work closely with the construction industry and listen to what their biggest pain points are that we need to focus on.

However, academic research typically stops at publications and developing prototypes. Because of this, we don’t go the extra mile of transforming that prototype into solutions that a construction company can use. Universities traditionally don’t support the transition of prototypes into a product or process. However, now that startups are adding excitement to our academic research, university leadership at our campuses are beginning to support this transition.

At UIUC, our leadership recognised this opportunity early on. I was selected in the first cohort of faculty entrepreneurship fellows at the University of Illinois College of Engineering to transform our software prototype into products that can add value to the construction industry. A prototype is great because it proves the concept and value.

But construction companies should really interact with products because they have the potential to scale and be standardised across projects. There must be a viable business case when assessing and testing a new solution before opportunities sustain and grow across the organisation.

In my opinion, startups are the best way to bridge between what the industry and academia both want. Numerous academic colleagues are interested in transforming their research into industry solutions through startups.

However, this means that somebody must fund it, and these transitions come at a cost that is driven by venture capital firms.

Close partnership

In the next few years, academia – particularly in construction informatics will focus more on educating our students to develop internal entrepreneurial skill sets.

This will include new ideas on machine learning, artificial intelligence, etc, and how this technology can address pain points in the industry.

Interested students can gain a better understanding of industry pain points through conventional construction engineering and management education. They can also grasp new opportunities through data-driven courses.

Students will be well-equipped to establish business models with an academic background in entrepreneurship. They can transform ideas and concepts from the classroom and research lab into new industry-grade solutions.

Indeed, this is the right time and space for innovation and entrepreneurship in construction.

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