IBM's Watson finds new challenge: construction

Folake Dosu
October 16, 2018
Updated: April 29, 2019
Folake Dosu
October 16, 2018
Updated: April 29, 2019

construction-AI-IBM

IBM’s Watson is building the future in a literal sense, setting its sights on the construction industry, reports Curbed. IBM and Fluor, a global engineering and construction company, are partnering to use artificial intelligence to increase efficiencies in this space.

“These are multibillion dollar project sites, that are like walking into a city. The sheer volume of data is tremendous.”

Watson’s formidable data crunching and predictive logistics skills will be now at the service of sprawling construction megaprojects. “These are multibillion dollar project sites, that are like walking into a city,” Leslie Lindgren, Flour’s vice president of Information Management, tells Curbed. “The sheer volume of data is tremendous.”

Two new tools will be used for particularly complex projects: the EPC Project Health Diagnostics and the Market Dynamics/Spend Analytics. These tools will be used for forecasting issues and automating the distribution of materials and workers. 

“Think of it as a living and breathing system,” explains Sai Yadati, an IBM Global Business Services partner. “This is truly one-of-a-kind for the marketplace.”

The global construction industry is a $10 trillion market that has traditionally lagged in technological innovation, creating a void of innovation that tech companies, large and small, are aiming to fill. Artificial intelligence is viewed in this field as a huge potential costcutter since waste is rampant on construction sites, as a McKinsey study revealed. Accordingly, venture capital for startups addressing these needs is booming.

The industry, however, is not ripe for AI disruption quite yet. While they remain overall hopeful about the promise of the technology in construction, McKinsey analysts also found that “few E&C firms or owners currently have the capabilities—including the personnel, processes, and tools—to implement them.” The firm predicts AI will impact other industries in the supply chain before AI investments in construction find their footing.

Industry experts blame a lack of standardization as a barrier to wider AI adoption. “We get compared to the auto industry, and people ask why we can’t be standardized like them, but it’s really not comparable,” Carlos Serra, a managing director at JLL, explains to Curbed. “For that to be fair, you’d have to have an individual design for each and every car. For us to get there, we’d need to make architecture redundant.”

These roadblocks have not hindered investment in this space, as billion-dollar acquisitions this year by Oracle and Trimble demonstrate. Meanwhile, some firms in the architecture, construction and engineering industry have built in-house AI solutions. The construction industry is a way off from technological disruption, but the opportunity is there and growing.

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