Wi-fi connectivity will be a key enabler for procurement, logistics and workforce planning at the construction phase, according to WESAM AL ASSAF*.
THE Middle East is all abuzz with excitement about ‘smart cities’ and rightfully so! Economic, social and technological factors have converged to make the region ready for widespread smart city developments.
Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, UAE, and the recent announcement of strategic plans to transform Dubai into a ‘smart city’ by HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai; six greenfield economic cities in Saudi Arabia; and Lusail’s smart and sustainable city, The Pearl-Qatar island, and Energy City in Qatar are examples of the numerous initiatives that have already gained solid backing from respective local governments.
As the Middle East ushers in this new era of advancement, much has been predicted and promised about the integration of ICT (information and communications technology) in every aspect of the completed city developments. There is, however, no reason why the benefits of technology cannot be leveraged much sooner than that – at the construction phase itself.
In the GCC, there are reportedly around $3.45 trillion worth of projects that are in the design, bid or construction stage until 2025. So clearly, employing technology to increase efficiency during construction could go a long way in streamlining operations and cutting costs.
The computing capabilities of mobile devices have advanced to a level that has made them capable of aiding the planning, designing, and building phases. But turning mobility into an effective tool requires not only computing power but also connectivity. And at job-sites, wired connections are not feasible and cellular networks are not always available. A strong case can, therefore, be made for developers to utilise wi-fi solutions. These are not only easy to install and manage, but are now also affordable and rugged enough to see deployment in harsh construction environments.
It isn’t uncommon for construction workers to still rely on paper-based documentation. Besides being cumbersome to transport and maintain, these documents need to be regularly updated, often-times at the site itself. With the introduction of tablet devices, mobile project management has emerged as a worthy replacement to age-old methods. Coupled with the broad ecosystem of feature-rich mobile applications and the ability to draw from vast amounts of remotely stored data and ‘cloud’ services, these devices are capable of granting contractors, engineers and supervisors the access to blueprints, schematics and other vital documents.
Moreover, with the ability to instantly push updates to all members working on the project, mobile computing devices can aid collaboration and revolutionise the building information modelling (BIM) process in real-time.
With site-wide high-speed wireless connectivity for all the mobile devices, workers gain the ability to transfer high volumes of data back and forth between not only each other but also the headquarters. This significantly streamlines communications while cutting costs and improving operational efficiencies. This could also bear attractive ‘green’ side effects as staff no longer have to make regular trips to and from the headquarters.
At job sites, company assets are a major investment and the progress of construction is heavily reliant on their functionality. Heavy equipment such as cranes, Bobcats and cement mixers are often required to be left on site overnight. This makes them a prime target for theft. Asset-tracking technologies help monitor such equipment at remote locations and automatically detect and report suspicious behaviour. These systems can also determine utilisation of expensive equipment and thereby help supervisors determine if it is being over- or under-utilised.
Developers can also benefit from automated maintenance schedules, logs and reports. The availability of cheap and easy-to-use RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology has made possible the automation of inventory management. By knowing in advance which materials are soon to run out, construction companies can anticipate and avoid material shortages, thus eliminating losses in productivity.
All these systems can only be deployed upon a robust wi-fi platform. Connectivity is thus becoming essential to procurement, logistics and workforce planning.
Another vital area of a construction site where mobile technology can be applied is in video surveillance. Not only does this enable better collaboration and remote supervision, it is essential to site security. High-speed connectivity for robust and cost-effective camera equipment can mean the ready availability of high-definition video, making both identification and collaboration easier. These video systems are also a key part of asset tracking systems.
Wi-fi for the site
The challenge for the developer is to find a robust enterprise-class WLAN (wireless local area network) that is affordable in terms of the capital expense and operational overhead. While construction companies may be staffed with savvy IT professionals at their headquarters, they have limited resources and RF (radio frequency) expertise at remote locations. Consequently, they must utilise mobility solutions that are simple to set up, highly reliable, and can be managed centrally. While being portable enough to be transposed from one site to another, these systems must also offer enterprise-grade WLAN functionality.
In line with keeping things simple, developers should also consider investing in controller-less ‘instant’ WLAN solutions. These solutions utilise a virtual controller on access points to deliver controller-like features including RF management and role-based access control. As construction integrates more deeply with IT, network uptime will become an increasingly important factor. It is, therefore, prudent to invest in network management tools which can prove invaluable in providing maximum network availability. Software that periodically backs up all device configurations on the network is simple but extremely useful.
Since most construction sites don’t have copper or fibre cabling installed, and 3G/4G network coverage may not be up to the mark on location, developers can consider another alternative for their connectivity needs. They can partner with mobile operators who have a wi-fi offload strategy in place. In this case, they must look for a service provider whose solution is based on the new 802.11ac wireless standard as this delivers gigabit wi-fi combined with the device density and application intelligence required by today’s wi-fi networks.
Finally, developers must also invest in training personnel to utilise newly deployed technologies. To ensure the smooth transition from traditional methods to the modern mobile construction site, it is best to ensure that all team members are well-versed and comfortable with all aspects of mobile technology. Once this has been achieved, ‘smart construction’ will usher in the era of the ‘smart city’.
*Wesam Al Assaf is technical sales manager at Aruba Networks, a leading provider of next-generation network access solutions for the mobile enterprise.