JUST as the Fourth Industrial Revolution is unleashing a whole new world of possibilities for the operation of infrastructure, artificial intelligence, Big Data and the Internet of Things are set to transform how new railways are planned and built, potentially unlocking huge cost benefits for projects.

“Construction 4.0” is still in its very early stages and the construction sector still lags significantly behind other industries in terms of the automation of processes and the level of digitalisation. New technologies such as Building Information Modelling (BIM) are giving architects, engineers, and contractors a completely different perspective on how to optimise the design, construction and operation of infrastructure. The notion of creating a “digital twin” of a building or a piece of infrastructure is central to Construction 4.0 and enables accurate, well-informed decisions to be made throughout the lifecycle.

AI will also transform project management. Project schedules will adjust themselves automatically according to the availability of labour. In the event of an absence, AI will be able to transfer a task to the individual best qualified for that job. AI will also be able to support engineering decision-making, verifying the design and implementation phases of a project and using data from past projects to provide advice. This means engineers will be able to make evidence-based decisions with a high degree of certainty.

“We are only at the start of this process because construction is a very traditional industry,” Mr Pierre Verzat, CEO of Systra told IRJ at the recent SNCF Forum on International Mobility in Paris. “I came to Systra from the space business, and before that the aircraft business, where they are far more advanced in terms of cost efficiency, use of IT, use of 3D modelling to cut costs. This will come to the construction industry.”

Verzat sees potential for digitalisation to significantly shorten construction times and cut the cost of building new infrastructure.

“If you imagine every construction worker is connected to a virtual vision of what is being built, you lose far less time because everyone understands what they are working towards,” he explains. “On a construction site today you lose hours because workers don’t know what they should be doing, they have to go back to the office to check something, or perhaps they have to wait for the concrete truck to arrive. Imagine a world where everything is synchronised, the concrete deliveries are scheduled to the minute, the construction workers know exactly where they have to be and at what time for the next operation. You could save a lot of money if everything was connected in this way - there’s a huge opportunity for cost-cutting in infrastructure construction.

“If you look at what has already happened in the aircraft industry, all the information is integrated into one 3D model, and this is also used for asset management and maintenance. It’s clear when it comes to innovation in the construction process that there’s huge room for development. By using new technologies like data mining and AI we can anticipate what to do next with much more precision, because the construction process is something where you need to adapt. If you have AI there to permanently reconfigure things if something is not happening as it is forecasted, you can save many hours of work.”

Verzat argues that this technological leap in infrastructure construction will be hugely important because of the urgent need to respond to global megatrends, particularly urbanisation and decarbonisation. “There has to be greater efficiency in terms of the speed and cost of construction because we are in a race against population growth in cities and climate change,” he says. “There’s also the political cycle to consider, because those in power want projects completed before the end of their mandate. If you can build more quickly you can build more cheaply. This is key because public funding is a scarce resource.”

In rapidly expanding cities where surging congestion threatens economic growth and public health, the ability to deliver mass transit at lower cost and in less time could be crucial to both their sustainability and prosperity. “We still see a huge demand for public transport, supported by population growth, especially in Asia, where cities are running after the population in terms of their infrastructure development, Verzat says. “It’s incredible what Asian cities are building. In 2000, India had no metros, now there are programmes in 20 cities and 900km of line in operation. Speed and efficiency is essential in Asian cities, because they have no time to lose.”

The prospect of faster implementation of major projects and lower construction costs is a tantalising one for policymakers looking to deliver better value infrastructure. Disruptive technologies will present a challenge to the construction industry, which will have to adapt to very different ways of working, but the potential benefits to society could be enormous.