In the throes of adversity lies opportunity, goes the saying.
For our world, as a collective, the past three years have been defined by adversity and unprecedented challenges.
As the coronavirus pandemic engulfed the globe, devouring millions of lives and restricting physical interactions, it spurred humans to further push the bounds of our digital world.
Those shouldering the responsibility of rebuilding economies and forging a way forward have banked heavily on digital transformations – and with remarkable success.
The focus has been on restructuring systems and advancing awareness of just how big an impact artificial intelligence can have in all sectors of an economy.
Digital Transformation: An Overview
The term digital transformation refers to the integration of a whole range of digital technologies that organizations can utilize to streamline and enhance the efficiency of their operations, leading to elemental changes in workflows that have been proven to improve output in all aspects from production to customer service.
For the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the strides it has made in the realm of digital transformation have been far from an overnight success.
The Kingdom has pursued this objective for nearly two decades, as part of a larger vision for the future of a country that commands a significant position not just in the region, but the global geopolitical sphere.
This concerted effort is the reason why Saudi Arabia stands at the forefront of digital transformation in the Middle East and North Africa.
Today, its digital infrastructure ranks first in the Arab world and 14th on the globe, according to a report in the Saudi newspaper Al-Bilad.
Part of the Kingdom’s digital transformation push is the launch of CNTXT, a joint venture with leading industrial software firm Cognite.
CNTXT will provide digital transformation services based on advanced cloud solutions “to help public and private sector companies to future-proof their data infrastructure, increase revenue, cut costs, and reduce risks while enhancing operational sustainability and security,” according to a statement by Saudi Aramco.
The services and solutions of CNTXT will become a prerequisite for standardized and automated manufacturing processes, a key objective in the Kingdom’s digital transformation vision.
Given that the construction sector forms one of the core pillars of the Saudi economy, it features heavily in the country’s digital transformation plans.
The aim is to drive the sector forward in a way that attracts the best young talent and creative minds, boosting employment and the rate of localization, all of which are primary goals of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030.
Digital Transformation: Benefits for the Construction Sector
Over the years, technological advances have stimulated progress in all aspects of the construction sector.
The same applies for digital transformation techniques, which harbor the potential to revolutionize the entire sector.
First, let’s take a look at technologies that can streamline the administrative side of construction, particularly management and project supervision:
The use of blockchain technology increases transparency and decentralization, according to a report in the Harvard Business Review, and enables:
• Logging, executing, and securing large numbers of projects and sharing their data with relevant individuals and entities.
• Completion of paper transactions and contracts for complex projects in a way that contributes to saving expenses and speeding up project delivery.
• Provide an accurate workflow sequence and hold everyone responsible for the completion of key tasks.
• Preserve, retrieve, and transfer data, while archiving features enable easy access for all parties.
• Easy access to specific product information or project specifications.
• Store data on all improvements, modifications, and maintenance measures for multiple projects.
• Tracking achievements of contractors, delegation of tasks and progress.
• Smart contracts, or digital contracts on blockchain, that are automatically executed when predetermined conditions are fulfilled. They are used to manage and transfer assets, with timestamps and security measures for every transaction that make unauthorized modifications impossible. They also cut out the need for intermediaries, reducing red tape and saving time.
BIM technology is recognized as one of the fundamentals of digital transformation in the construction sector.
It relies on the concept of generating digital 3D representations of projects to iron out all details prior to start of construction.
The technology offers a complete simulation of the project’s life cycle, from design to actual operations, which helps to identify and avoid any potential problems.
This technology lies at the heart of modern construction, allowing for integration of all functions with the internet.
From heating and ventilation to general building maintenance, all systems are connected to the internet and monitored through sensors to detect and prevent issues.
Recent research advances have linked BIM and IoT as mutually reinforcing technologies, with each offering crucial insights at different stages of the construction cycle.
Now we take a look at technologies that are changing the on-site work of the construction sector:
Drones have been used in commercial construction for years, but their utility really came to the fore during the pandemic and the consequent curbs on physical human interaction.
They are used for a range of purposes in construction, including:
• Modeling of projects and surveys of construction site topography with generation of detailed 2D and 3D maps.
• Monitoring project construction at all stages.
• Tracking locations of construction equipment on work sites.
• Relaying real-time information and videos from construction sites that help expedite decision-making processes.
To acquire drones for operational purposes, companies have to follow guidelines set by the Civil Aviation Authority and Interior Ministry, the two government bodies that supervise the use of drones in the Kingdom.
3D printers can transform digital files into real and tangible objects, a real boon for the construction industry.
For the construction sector, designs and specifications of projects can be visualized in full detail in a matter of hours to make necessary adjustments.
In construction, delays can prove extremely costly, and 3D printing offers an alternative that greatly reduces risks and speeds up delivery.
According to recent studies, 3D printing has made it possible for a concrete house to be built within 24 hours, that too in the harshest of weather conditions.
One of these cites a project by the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, which created a 29-meter concrete bridge for cyclists using a 3D printer.
This technology is known to cut down on costs and material waste, as it makes sure that required materials are used in precise amounts, without any sort of compromise on quality.
It has also helped foster a new streak of creativity, innovation, and architectural freedom in the field of construction.
Using autonomous robots on construction sites ensures faster, more accurate, and more efficient operations.
These can range from autonomous construction vehicles, such as excavators or haul trucks, to smaller equipment such as rovers.
Automation can help address safety risks in construction, greatly reduce labor costs, and even provide an entire alternate workforce in the long-term.
Digital Transformation: Challenges
The drive for digital transformation is here to stay in all economic sectors and aspects of human life.
For the construction industry, it represents an integral step toward the future.
However, there is still quite some distance to cover on the road ahead, with some of the main challenges being:
• Recruitment: Highly qualified personnel are needed for all areas of the construction industry, who then have to be trained and brought up to speed on the various technologies that are expected to be implemented in construction processes.
• Finances: In the long run, digital transformation will undoubtedly slash costs in the construction industry. However, to get it up and running requires major investments, particularly on acquiring the best available technologies and bolstering workforces.
Challenging as it may be, Saudi Arabia is pursuing this objective with unwavering determination and perseverance, taking significant steps to further its standing as a champion of digital transformation, not just in the region, but the entire world.
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