Innovation potential in the construction sector

Sensors, robotics, and AI open doors for the construction sector, but also bring major challenges to planners and architects. Renowned scientists discussed this during BAU ONLINE in a studio of the Federal Ministry of the Interior, for Construction and Home Affairs (BMI) in Berlin. Our author Tim Westphal summarizes this discussion.

Bringing planning information and production data from architecture and planning offices to the construction site is currently one of the biggest challenges in digitalizing the construction process. The focus is on data management, as Prof. Dr.-Ing. Sigrid Brell-Cokcan (RWTH Aachen University, Individualized Building Production) highlighted in her keynote speech “Robotics in prefabrication and on the construction site—what is realistic today, what awaits us in the future?” She conducts research on the “Internet of Construction” as part of a large-scale project funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). Here, researchers sound out the gaps in information transfer, from design to handover of data at the construction site. This is important for robot systems to be used reasonably on construction sites in the future. Above all, they must receive and process construction and assembly-relevant information quickly and without errors. In addition to the data transfer, an important part of the research project is therefore the technical infrastructure, which is being created at RWTH Aachen University in a laboratory on the construction site at Campus West.

When speaking about artificial intelligence, many think of the translation of rational and irrational human decisions to a machine intelligence. However, this is far too short-sighted, as Prof. Dr. Kristian Kersting, TU Darmstadt (Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Lab) explained. In his keynote speech “Use of artificial intelligence in the construction industry—research partnership between Hochtief and TU”, he explained that this approach is not the only option. Primarily, it is a question of a good partnership between humans and machines and of complementing human beings in their decision-making power in the long term. Translated to the construction industry: symbioses are to be created and innovations developed, which TU Darmstadt and its partner Hochtief pursue in the dual PhD study course AICO—AI in Construction. According to Prof. Dr. Kristian Kersting, the AICO program will develop solutions for the problems of the day after tomorrow, which will be tested together with Hochtief and on today's construction sites for their real-life application options.

Another important field in the further digitalization of construction is the automation of construction processes, to which Prof. Dr. Cordula Kropp, University of Stuttgart (Chair of Sociology with a focus on risk and technology research) dedicates her research. In her keynote speech “Digital building—on the way to new worlds of building”, she showed that there is a distinction being made between digitalization as computerization (originally analog processes are converted into digital ones and automated) and digitalization as computation (the use of algorithmic methods so as to support human intuition in the planning, building process and robot use). This is accompanied by a paradigm shift in the way we think and act: in the future, construction will adapt to the technical possibilities and will not be limited by a building process that has been strongly influenced by craftsmanship for centuries.

The fact that there is a lot going on in construction—partly fueled by a pandemic-related technology push—was also reflected in the closing panel discussion. It was hosted by versed Bauwelt editor Jan Friedrich, who also focused on another important task by asking about growing awareness in the use of AI, robotics and computation: How can disruptive technologies be advanced in a targeted manner? All three speakers referred to the obligations of society and our solidarity community. We must manage to democratize the abundance of data and make future technologies available to all. We should realize that we create great value in research and practical application. The community must therefore resolutely oppose the efforts of individuals to secure the parallel growing pool of data for their own commercial interests and to monetize the knowledge.

by Tim Westphal