By Mitch Wagner | September 2020
The future of construction can be found outside Chicago, at a worksite where Oracle and partners are showcasing a variety of digital innovations that will improve both worker safety and efficiency well beyond the current COVID-19 emergency.
At the Oracle Industries Innovation Lab in Deerfield, Illinois, Oracle and partners are reducing the need for in-person contact by automating project oversight, scheduling, logistics, financial, and other processes. It’s a place where Oracle’s construction industry customers can try the latest digital tools in a real-world environment.
“It’s OK to show slides in a conference room, but we had this idea that we should build a construction site and actually try these things out,” says Burcin Kaplanoglu, Oracle executive director of innovation, who heads up the lab.
The site opened in 2018, looking “like a half-finished project,” with a trailer office and a bunch of construction equipment and I-beams, he says. In December of 2019, Oracle started construction of a physical building resembling an airplane hangar, 45-feet tall with a large demo area inside.
The innovations at work on the simulated construction site include the following:
Live status updates. Pepper Construction, the general contractor Oracle hired for the project, is using drones and onsite cameras from Oracle partner Sensera to provide Oracle and subcontractors with live status updates. Additionally, a supervisor walks the site weekly, using a 360-degree camera to capture views.
3D models. Pepper is also deploying Spot, a dog-like robot from Boston Dynamics, to walk the site monthly. Spot has a 360-degree camera mounted on its body, as well as a Lidar scanner from Oracle partner FARO, to generate a 3D model of the construction site in real time.
“It’s OK to show slides in a conference room, but we had this idea that we should build a construction site and actually try these things out.”
Data from the camera and Lidar sensor are fed over a Verizon 4G LTE network into Oracle Aconex and the Oracle Primavera Cloud scheduling software. The consolidated information is viewed using monitoring software from Reconstruct, a company that is part of the Oracle for Startups program.
Reconstruct presents supervisors and other stakeholders with a 3D virtual model of the construction job based on 2D plans, allowing a virtual walkthrough of a site to reduce travel costs and increase accountability. Think of Reconstruct as a visual command center that monitors progress, scheduling, risk, and quality. The company explains its application in this two-minute video.
“You can navigate and spin around the space to get a real picture—as if you were there,” says Jennifer Suerth, Pepper Construction vice president of technical services.
Hazard monitoring. Oracle and partners are using technology to encourage social distancing on the site. Cameras capture photos every five minutes that are transmitted over the Verizon wireless network to Oracle Aconex and then to a monitoring application from Oracle partner Smartvid.io.
Supervisors can analyze the images by using Smartvid.io’s AI engine, nicknamed Vinnie. By entering natural language queries, users can find photos of people working in dangerous conditions, such as precariously high locations, and locate ladders and “slip and trip” hazards. Additionally, users can search for images of people violating social distancing rules.
Out of respect for privacy, Smartvid.io stops short of using facial recognition to identify which particular people are standing too close together. Oracle doesn’t want the technology used to target individuals—it wants to let companies inform themselves, and their workers, where social distancing isn’t being maintained. “We want it to be more of an educational tool to help improve behavior on the site,” Kaplanoglu says.
Wearables. Oracle partner Triax Technologies is showcasing its Spot-r Clip, a wearable device that employees attach to their hard hats and belts to alert construction companies to worker falls. Triax also produces tags that have proximity sensors to encourage social distancing, but those are not in use at the Oracle project; instead, the contractor uses Smartvid.io to detect where workers might be too close to one another.
Here are the most important technologies in use at the Oracle Industries Innovation Lab:
Materials tracking. At the construction site, incoming materials affixed with passive RFID tags automatically alert teams upon arrival, eliminating manual receiving processes. The project uses construction materials tracking software from Oracle partner Jovix, which connects with the Oracle Primavera Cloud scheduling software. Contractors can track materials throughout the supply chain, whether they’re stored at a supplier facility, the storage area on the construction site (called a laydown yard), or the worksite itself.
Faster payments. Pepper Construction, the Oracle lab’s general contractor, has reduced the time to pay subcontractors by two weeks using Oracle Textura Payment Management software since March. That’s right: Payments are actually going out faster, despite the pandemic and related logistical difficulties. Additionally, Pepper uses Textura to collaborate with subcontractors during invoicing, cutting approval times in half.
The Oracle Aconex construction management software is the hub of the Innovation Lab project, coordinating information from most of the 13 technology partners, says Pepper Construction’s Suerth. Integrating data from those products has been a big job, but Suerth says they’ve made good progress.
While many of the emerging technologies in use at the lab site improve productivity and safety, Pepper and Oracle—working with the lab partners—were able to repurpose the technologies to meet the needs on the site during COVID-19.
The construction industry was hit particularly hard by COVID-19. In a June survey by building products manufacturer USG and the US Chamber of Commerce, contractors said they expect 75% or more projects to be delayed in the next six months. Contractors are prioritizing worker safety.
Process automation is the future of the construction industry. COVID-19 just accelerated the trend. “It speeds up implementation and buy-in,” Suerth says.
Labor productivity growth in the construction industry averaged only 1% annually in the two decades until 2017, compared with 2.8% growth for the total world economy and 3.6% for manufacturing, according to a McKinsey & Company report.
But the industry started becoming more friendly to innovation even before the pandemic. Tech startups in the industry began to take off two to three years ago. “Oracle realized sooner than others that this was an untapped market that could provide real value,” Suerth says. “Pandemics or not, this is the way we should be working.”
The lab is the brainchild of Kaplanoglu, Oracle’s executive director of innovation and a 17-year construction industry veteran who joined Oracle three years ago.
About 80% to 90% of the technology is commercially available. “It’s not just prototypes,” Kaplanoglu says.
Oracle is demonstrating that the technologies don’t just work; they work together. “That’s something that customers struggle to solve,” he says. “If you run an active project with a lot of moving parts, it’s hard to try out new technology on these projects.”
Mitch Wagner is a senior writer at Oracle. He was previously executive editor at Light Reading and at InformationWeek.