René Morkos, CEO and founder of ALICE Technologies, discusses how AI and technology are rewriting the rules for the delivery of critical infrastructure
The built environment is something to marvel. The design, the build and the results are no easy feat and are the cultivation of hard work and dedication. Yet, something that we can improve on is spending less time on processes and paperwork and doing what we do best – getting on site and bringing projects to life. The problem is that the construction industry can get stuck with the status quo.
I understand this first-hand from my time working as both a civil engineer and project manager starting out in Afghanistan. I was given a huge amount of responsibility very early on in my career and managed more than 100 people. What became apparent was the numerous inefficiencies. And they were happening on even the most basic projects.
Problems with time, materials and cost are the biggest bugbears of any construction project. It was during a basic project – building landing strips on an airfield in Afghanistan – that I really started thinking about algorithms and how we can make faster and better decisions. From Afghanistan, I went to the US to do my PhD in artificial intelligence applications in construction at Stanford University. I didn’t want to spend all my time at university, so I undertook an “industrial PhD”. I spent six months in the field and six months at Stanford.
The lightbulb moment
I needed an area to focus on – and it hit me while I was working in Amsterdam. The project was delayed, the costs were piling up, yet I was being told that the site team couldn’t work any faster. A few of the crew were stood in this vast construction site and yet so much of it was empty. That was the lightbulb moment! I did my calculations and found that only around 3% of the construction site is worked on at any one time due to mismanaging space usage, labour and resources.
This became the focus of my PhD – to find an algorithm to understand the link between space usage on a construction site and sequencing schedules. It caught the interest of Peter Hsing, who helped fund the project, and the rest, as they say, is history.
From my research, ALICE was born – short for Artificial Intelligence Construction Engineering. It is the world’s first AI-powered construction simulation platform, and our vision is to help reduce construction costs globally by 25%.
ALICE takes the information you feed it and simulates all the best solutions in minutes. It creates schedules that would take a human weeks, or even months, to realise. And because it can simulate so many different outcomes, it can find solutions that may never have otherwise been found.
This is a tool that puts the power back into the hands of contractors and owners. From bidding to planning to building, it consistently presents the best schedules that help reduce costs, decrease risk, allow for more competitive bids and reduce the project duration.
And, if delays occur, it can re-sequence and create an updated schedule. Whether it is material shortages, labour shortages or inclement weather conditions, these delays can push a project back days, weeks or even months, and every minute spent on frantically working out a new schedule costs time and money. ALICE can reschedule and re-sequence in an afternoon, getting everything back on track faster than humanly possible.
ALICE in practice
Major infrastructure projects reap the most benefit from ALICE because the savings that can be made are in billions and years when it comes to cost and timescales, and because the amount of risk inherent to such projects is high. By measuring the outcomes of infrastructure projects, including an airport expansion, multiple mid-rise apartments on a development, a mixed-use urban development and a bid for a light rail project, we can boast that ALICE reduces costs by 11% and build time by 17%. On a $500m project, that could be a significant saving of $30m.
ALICE can be used during two stages: preconstruction and the management phase. ALICE Preconstruction is where the information is input as “Recipes”. These contain all the construction tasks and methods that guide the project plan. ALICE takes this information and analyses the solutions, creating a choice of schedules in 4D in seconds.
The project team can then evaluate and test the options before choosing the best schedule for the project. This scenario-based analysis can help to create a better project understanding and therefore more competitive bids. And, once these tasks, resources and logic have been set, the Recipes can be reused and improved between projects.
ALICE Manage keeps everything on track. If you run into problems – which you inevitably will – you enter those changes into ALICE and a new schedule is produced in minutes. It provides the agility needed on complex construction projects, taking complex problems and providing options quickly.
AI in the UK
We know that infrastructure is critical and, in the UK, significant upgrades are being made, particularly across transport networks. Projects such as HS2 are huge undertakings, yet any delay has significant cost impacts. Throw in that it is public money funding most of these infrastructure projects and the pressure to deliver on time and on budget increases. But by using ALICE, the project team can constantly re-evaluate timescales, manage expectations and anticipate constraints, whether budgetary, equipment, labour or materials.
ALICE is already in place for some major UK transport projects – which we look forward to sharing in the future – but there’s also the matter of culture change. Not limited to the UK’s construction, innovation is constrained by a general reluctance to adapt. As Mark Farmer’s Modernise or Die report stressed, the construction industry has been diagnosed and it is sick. Yet the medication is available – technology and other innovations are ready, yet not being prescribed or taken.
It will continue to take the innovators, the people who realise that technology is their ally, to implement new ideas and prove the results. But with outcomes such as reduced risk, faster build times and improved profit margins, who would fight that change?
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