A construction project is a network of hundreds of processes, participants, products, and materials. It's no wonder that everything does not always go as planned. A building or infrastructure can have defects that are costly to repair and that can end up in lawsuits. The Internet of Things (IoT) and blockchain technologies could give construction quality management a much-needed boost.
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The problem with traditional quality controls

In the 1990s, I was involved in establishing quality system guidelines for design and engineering in construction. Back then, I had doubts about how all the necessary controls could be put into practice.

The problem with implementing quality controls in construction is that the system is mainly based on human actions. This has led to a situation in which managers and employees working on construction sites feel overburdened with paperwork, even if it's mostly digital. When you expand this model to the whole supply chain, the amount of non-value-adding work is huge.

Human controls often happen too early or too late. The damaged goods have been installed, or the work has been done improperly. To fix the problem, you have to dismantle and rebuild or pay penalties. In Finland, several concrete structures had to be demolished at a construction site in 2016 because they did not reach the required strength. The reason was ostensibly the long transport time of the fresh concrete from the batching plant to the site.

IoT for construction supply chains

IoT has been on the radar of forward-looking construction executives and techies. The discussion has mainly been around smart homes and building automation. However, IoT has the potential to change how we manage supply networks of construction products and materials. Coupled with the blockchain capabilities, we could move from human to automated, persistent controls.

IoT for construction supply chains and logistics could use sensors that monitor different aspects of a product or a material and their environments. Camera-equipped IoT devices can monitor environments using different wavelengths. They can be fixed or mounted on a drone, for example.

In an earlier blog post ("Construction Innovation News from the North"), I wrote about Thingsee One. The device provides remote monitoring and data collection. With Thingsee One, you can measure environmental data such as temperature, humidity, and air pressure. The sensor notifies you about vibrations or impacts. It can send live data about location and speed, or it can trigger actions using geo fences. The company, Haltian, has since expanded their product line with golf-ball-sized and coin-sized sensors.

IoT is not limited to lifeless things. The workers supplying a construction site and working on a site can also be monitored. I did a podcast interview with Laura Kassovic, CEO of MbientLab, on how wearable sensors can provide data to make the workplace safer and more efficient.

Big data is a good term to describe the amount of data IoT devices will provide. To use the data, companies need systems for collecting, storing, and analyzing it. Data is only valuable when it becomes actionable information. Companies also need wired and wireless data transfer capacities.

Blockchain is the ultimate tracker

When you collect data along the logistic and construction processes, you need a place to keep records. Blockchain is a distributed database or a type of digital ledger that maintains an accumulating list of ordered records called blocks. The technology makes sure the data is safe and that it cannot be altered retroactively.

Blockchain originates from Bitcoin, but pundits see many feasible application areas for it other than from financial transactions. Legal documents, medical records, shipping documents, and copyright records, among others, could be stored in blockchains.

In construction, data on every action that happens to an item could be retrieved from IoT systems and recorded in a blockchain. That way, it would be possible to follow the path of an item from its origins to the construction site and into the final built product. Machines and the workers operating them could also be tracked. Machine makers such as CASE and Caterpillar are already adding IoT to their products.

The technology would help automatically track any anomalies in the production process. A prefabricated façade element, for example, would know if it has been stored in wet conditions. A concrete floor would tell if it has been given enough time to dry. Getting this information early enough could prevent costly fixes and even lawsuits. An objective record of the process would reveal any anomalies or negligence. All the parties, including building control authorities, would get access to this data. Automation would reduce paperwork and give everybody more time for value-adding activities.

How and when will the new technologies become useful?

According to the IoT report by the SAS Institute (September 2016), governments and businesses are expecting IoT to hit the mainstream by 2020. That may be true in some business areas, but for construction it's an optimistic scenario.

IoT and blockchain are still in their early stages when it comes to industrial applications. IoT is not just a gadget. To manage the devices and connect them to backend applications, you need a special IT platform. Amazon, Cisco, GE, IBM, Oracle, Salesforce, and Microsoft are tech giants with their own IoT platforms. Software developers and cloud service providers will use these platforms to create industry applications. So far, we haven't seen many developers targeting construction.

Blockchain is not technically hard to apply. However, there are many practice-related hurdles to overcome before it breaks through. Incidentally, I reviewed the program from a global blockchain expo. None of the presenters or companies mentioned in the program addressed the construction industry. I know some startups are working in this area, e.g., San Jose-based Peernova, of which a Chinese construction firm has a 5% stake.

I see great potential in combining IoT and blockchain to create better construction businesses and, eventually, better built environments. Perhaps the first applications will be in some surprising area that we cannot yet anticipate.

Aarni Heiskanen is the managing partner of AE Partners and co-founder of Thinking Portfolio. This article first appeared on AEC-Business.com.