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08/29/95

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New information technology slowly transforming construction industry

STANFORD -- At first glance, hard hats and high technology don't seem to mix.

But 75 researchers from 20 countries who gathered at Stanford Aug. 20-24 demonstrated that appearances can be misleading. At the 12th annual International Workshop on Computer Integrated Construction, the group discussed a number of ways to apply advanced computer and information technology to the construction industry. These innovations hold promise for substantially speeding up the rate at which buildings are constructed, improving the quality of construction and reducing costs.

Among the ideas and applications presented at the international workshop:

  • A project that automates the production of rebar for reinforced concrete construction projects.
  • Software that automatically plans the routing of pipes for planned industrial facilities.
  • Computer simulation tools that managers can use to organize their operations.

The conference was sponsored by the International Council for Building Research Studies and Documentation. About a quarter of the participants were from industry and three quarters from academic research institutions, said Martin A. Fischer, assistant professor of civil engineering who organized the meeting on behalf of Stanford's Center for Integrated Facility Engineering (CIFE).

Use of advanced information technology has lagged in the construction field, said Fischer, who suggests several reasons. "Right now, every project is unique, due to social factors. As a result, analysis and modeling tools are not as advanced as they are in other fields," he said.

Another limiting factor is the boom and bust economic cycle to which the industry is subject, which makes it hard for companies to maintain consistent technological progress. Also, construction tends to attract hard-headed, entrepreneurial people who want to do things their own way, Fischer said.

If these barriers can be overcome, however, the application of new information technology in the construction field will have numerous benefits, Fischer and his colleagues maintain.

In addition to speeding up construction and reducing costs, the use of information technology means that the time will come when anyone can design a simple structure on a desktop computer. The technology also will allow professionals consistently to take into account matters such as a building's environmental impact and lifetime waste reduction, subjects that the industry currently handles poorly, Fischer said.

In a series of workshops at the conference, participants outlined some of the progress that is being made toward applying information technology to the construction industry.

Ronie Navon from the Technion Institute in Israel, for example, reported on a project that automates the production of rebar for reinforced concrete construction projects. He and his colleagues short-circuited a number of manual steps by using a 3-D model of a project to automatically determine the size and shape of the rebar needed, and then feed these data to the numerical machine tool that shapes and cuts the iron rods.

Another complex and time-consuming puzzle is routing pipes in oil refineries and other industrial facilities. Craig Howard of Design Power Inc. in Cupertino, described "automatic pipe routing" software that the company is developing. Starting with schematic diagrams of a plant, it can create a routing diagram that hooks all the pipes together correctly.

CIFE projects

A number of the research projects at Stanford's CIFE -- a joint research center that brings civil engineers and computer scientists together -- are aimed at understanding how construction companies adapt to change caused by new technologies.

Stanford graduate student Takis Mitropoulis identified four processes by which construction companies adopt new information technologies:

  • The force for change that is broadest in scope, but far from the most common, comes when top managers decide that the use of a new technology will give them a competitive edge in the future. Such "early adopters" are often willing to pay a short-term penalty to gain such an advantage. Such changes tend to be the most radical in nature.
  • A more common source of change is problem driven. Obsolete equipment or dissatisfaction with existing technology causes people in a company to search for new technology that meets their specific needs.
  • Individuals within companies, motivated to improve their work, also bring about change by identifying and championing new technological capabilities that they can use. Most incremental improvements are of this nature.
  • Changes made in response to external forces, such as changing institutional requirements, tend to cause the most difficulties. In such cases employees have no choice but to go along with the changes. In some cases, however, they pretend to adapt without really doing so.

"If this is model is correct, then we can use it to help design strategies for pushing new products into the market at an earlier date," Mitropoulis said.

CIFE researchers also are developing computer simulation tools that managers can use to optimize their organization for specific projects using different information technologies. One example is a major project called the Virtual Design Team that is supported by the National Science Foundation. The object of this project is to develop methods for handling one particular capability made possible by new technology: changing the traditional linear process of building design, engineering and construction into a concurrent process in which a number of different tasks are performed simultaneously.

"Before you can understand how information technology impacts on productivity, you first have to understand how the organization works," Yan Jin, a senior research scientist at Stanford, told the audience. "The biggest challenge is modeling human beings and the relationships that they form," he said.

The Virtual Design Team project has approached this problem by making their model very abstract. People are simulated as "information processors," moving information from their in basket, processing it, and putting it in their out basket.

Despite its limitations, the approach allows the researchers to study some important aspects of organizations. It allows them to identify uneven work flow and bottlenecks. For example, it can identify the amount of time individuals must spend waiting for information that they need to complete their tasks. It also can estimate the amount of time a given organizational structure causes non-productive overhead, time that individuals spend on matters not directly pertinent to their jobs.

The Stanford researchers have attempted to "validate" their model against the real world by interviewing managers at completed projects, putting the relevant data into their model and comparing how its predictions compare with what actually happened.

"There are a number of parameters you have to adjust, but when this is done we get very good matches for some projects," Jin said.

A smaller seed project is being conducted by Stanford graduate student Gaye Oralkan. She is developing a simplified organization model to study the way organizations learn and change in response to new information technology.

"We are looking for tools that can assist 'agile organizations' to respond rapidly to change," she said.

The center of this model is the individual agent, who has tasks, resources, goals, and schemas or rules governing how he should act. New technologies affect this model by changing the relationship between the different elements. A new database, for example, can make new information available to an agent that affects how he does his job.

Different types of organizations have different mechanisms for learning, Oralkan said. Research organizations are more likely to let people experiment, while bureaucracies are more likely to require people to follow established rules.

"Currently, we have only abstract and limited theories and limited tools that can aid organizations in dealing with change. We hope to deliver a language and a conceptual framework that will help them do so," she said.

CIFE researchers also are developing computer-based tools designed to directly aid in the construction process. An example is their 4-D Computer-Aided Design program. Three-dimensional computer-aided design systems are becoming commonplace in the architectural world. But the idea behind the 4-D project is to add the fourth dimension, time.

"Essentially it is a virtual simulation of a construction site," said graduate student Kathleen McKinney.

The approach, which was successfully tested last year on an addition to the San Mateo County Health Center with funding from the Dillingham Construction Co., involves using 3-D computer graphics to model not just the final configuration of a building but the entire construction process. It involves creating a series of 3-D models that are assembled in stages to create an animation that simulates the way the structure changes as it is built.

The specific goal of this project was to reduce the disruption of the hospital operations during the six-year construction period. It was thought that the animation would help Dillingham explain the proposed construction sequence to the hospital administrators and staff so that they could plan how best to cope with the conditions involved.

That proved to be the case: "This project convinced us that the 4-D models are a much better representation of the project than current 3-D models," said Fischer, who carried out the first stage of the project with research assistant Eric Collier.

In the second stage of the project McKinney will add more intelligence to the graphic model. In this fashion, she hopes to add the capability to critique a proposed construction process and estimate the project's costs more realistically than is currently possible.

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