Piecing it all together: AI in Construction Workshop identifies use-inspired applications that will benefit one of the world's most important industries

7/21/2021 Aaron Seidlitz

Written by Aaron Seidlitz

Mani Golparvar-Fard
Mani Golparvar

By Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS 

Over the past year-plus, the continued development of a first-of-its-kind institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Construction has taught Mani Golparvar several things. The most important lesson, though, is that there has never been a better time to bring together the industry leaders in an Institute that develops foundational research to address some of the most urgent problems of the construction industry.

As the United States attempts to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic and formulate a new infrastructure effort, Golparvar said that the time is now for AI and the construction industry to work hand-in-hand.

“What we’ve actually learned is that the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of technology in the construction industry,” said Golparvar, associate professor in CEE. “Previously, the industry viewed AI-driven solutions as something that was nice to have, but now it’s become a necessity. This sense has only heightened as entities attempt to streamline their engineering and construction activities during a period of remote workspaces, after which many industry leaders realized productivity in many workflows can be magnified.”

To meet this need, Golparvar and the nine other organizers from the Institute – including Illinois CS professors David ForsythJulia Hockenmaier and Derek Hoiem – spent time this past year assessing and organizing ideas around this growing need for AI in the construction industry. The DPI and NSF-funded effort has furthered strategic partnerships with entities like EX3 Labs – a design and digital innovation firm – and the Discovery Partners Institute.

Key Takeaways from the AI in Construction Workshop

IDavid Bowcott Global Director - Growth, Innovation & Insight, Advisor to World Economic Forum, Aon
David Bowcott Global Director - Growth, Innovation & Insight, Advisor to World Economic Forum, Aon

“Traditionally capital has done its underwriting on data of the past, which is good. With IoT sensors we’re seeing data of the present, or data as it happens, which is better. The area we’re talking about today is the idea of getting predictive or prescriptive analytics. The insurance sector pays tons of money out in claims and it’s time for them to maybe pay some money in order to prevent the claims or mitigate the claims. I think there’s a great opportunity for the insurance sector to be a partner ...”

Burcin Kaplanoglu - VP, Industries Innovation Labs, Oracle<br /><br />
Burcin Kaplanoglu - VP, Industries Innovation Labs, Oracle

“For the construction industry, there’s a tremendous opportunity to provide solutions and improve the day-to-day life of our workers. I strongly believe artificial intelligence and machine learning is here, not to replace us, but here to support us as we go through this journey to make the most out of these technologies.”

Dareen Salama - Co-Founder and CEO, Gryps, Inc.
Dareen Salama - Co-Founder and CEO, Gryps, Inc.

“Any solution that we can think of we need two things: we need connectivity between solutions and we need more data in order to do better in terms of AI and to have better quality data.”

One of the final steps to aiding this effort included forming the AI in Construction Workshop, which the Institute hosted digitally on April 29 and 30.

More than 170 targeted participants joined to further collaboration between industry leaders from more than 85 organizations – like Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, Turner Construction, Aon Insurance, Autodesk, Nemetschek, Oracle, etc. – researchers at the Institute, and entrepreneurial collaborators throughout the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus. As Golparvar believed, the time proved right for three primary reasons:

  1. AI has reached a solid level of maturity, making it easier for the researchers to lay out compelling reasoning to benefit construction work processes.
  2. A growing massive amount of data in the industry is available and construction leaders want to mine and analyze it for new insights.
  3. New funding opportunities abound, as growing investment money begins flowing toward construction technology.

“We felt that the workshop brought people together around these opportunities, because we all share the same vision,” Golparvar said. “We all want to make an impact on the safety, productivity, and maintenance problems of the construction industry, and we feel as though there’s no better place to accomplish this than the Institute.

“But, wearing my construction hat for a moment, I know real progress requires a solid plan to properly work off of.”

The workshop strove to plan for what’s next, by first building community among the various participants. Once that foundation was set, the entire group focused on two primary activities.

First, they came to better understand the needs in construction through several different, highly engaging workshop sessions. Afterwards, participants had a much better idea of the type of concepts that AI-based research activities could address and be suitable for possible larger-scale funding.

David Forsyth
David Forsyth

“Why should academic AI engage with construction?  It's a source of innovation, because the AI problems that are really important to the industry – and aren't just routine – are different than the ones we’re good at, and that is a significant challenge for the academic community,” Forsyth said. “Also, it's a source of impact, because any good that academic AI can do will resonate through a huge industry. There'll be major cost reductions, lives saved, work made easier." 

Next, they set about outlining educational missions that will further propel these projects forward.

Golparvar said that, in addition to identifying research opportunities, this effort focused on three primary lessons on the educational component:

  1. The need for AI education for executives, which sought to define what AI means in construction and how it can improve ROI for all project stakeholders.
  2. AI in Construction for engineers, which asked the industry experts how they could combine efforts to get people already out in the field working and interested in new ways to adapt and improve their practices through AI-driven methods and solutions.
  3. At a foundational level, preparation of our professional-level Master’s students who can come to the U of I to contribute to this effort. This includes designing a new master’s program that serves as a hybrid of CS, CEE and Technology Entrepreneurship Education to transform and produce a new generation of engineers from this campus who can have solid engineering background, who poses strong management skills and who can be the entrepreneurs driving the change in construction moving forward.

Additionally, the Institute plans on two more workshops. The first will focus on AI in Design, and the second will be about AI in Operation/Maintenance.

Each of the next two conferences will be open to anyone interested, representing a shift from this past conference that targeted attendees the Institute identified beforehand.

Those interested in attending should email Golparvar or call him at (217) 300-5226.

Randy Deutsch
Randy Deutsch

The Institute also looks forward to expanding its research collaborations across campus with individuals like Randy Deutsch, a professor with the School of Architecture.

“One thing that this campus has as a strength is entrepreneurship,” Deutsch said. “Our partners in the Institute remain interested in collaborating outside of The Grainger College of Engineering. Disciplines throughout this great university engage with real problems that are happening daily for technology providers.

“To collectively plan for the future together will lead us to a new era in productive entrepreneurship at Illinois.”


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This story was published July 21, 2021.