As more stories come out about the potential use of 5G across different industries, the construction industry is one that could quickly see specific – and significant – benefits from the technology.
One such case could be around the “network slicing” capability of 5G, which enables communication service providers to tailor connectivity services to the precise requirements of any given application, user, device, or context.
Some of the obvious benefits of 5G for engineering and construction business are around the speed, latency, and scalability of the technology as follows - Enhanced mobile broadband providing high speed and capacity; mission-critical operations providing low latency and high reliability, and massive machine-type communications providing high scalability and geographic coverage.
Practical benefits of 5G for construction projects
Monitoring the health, location, status, and specifications of assets of all kinds on site is crucial, and 5G can help in terms of data collection, capture, and analysis.
This can, for example, confirm whether site machinery is operational and available to be used, and capture the status of an order such as a window frame or fire extinguisher to assist to ensure the project schedule is on track.
High bandwidth and low latency from 5G should improve data capture across project delivery processes.
Increased visibility into data informs decision-making in the design phase, helps minimise issues and changes during construction, and potentially decreases future renovations.
As technology solutions available to construction projects gain traction, we could see more Internet of Things (IoT) and reality capture solutions on site helping in a number of ways.
For example, in terms of video capture (think 4k and 8k cameras, augmented and virtual reality), 5G will provide a wealth of opportunities for organisations to inexpensively deploy technology to quickly capture, organise, and analyse massive volumes of video information.
5G will mean sensors can more effectively be deployed to improve safety by tracking individuals’ safety compliance.
Supply chain efficiency can be enhanced by enabling better tracking of materials both on and off site.
For building information modelling (BIM), 5G can help ensure the site plan is accurate. The potential is for the plan to be updated based on almost each and every action on site.
Many of these use cases can drive efficiencies on a project as well as reduce costs. They can help manage the need for some teams to even be on site because the information they need is available in real time and in high resolution video form via any device wherever they are.
It can also provide real-time, rich, visual information to the owner as well as an on-demand transparent view of the project at any particular moment in time.
But what additional value could network slicing bring to construction’s use of 5G?
For construction businesses to benefit from these solutions, connectivity will be key to ensure the information captured is available at the point and time of need.
As a result, bandwidth will become a potential battleground on site as the competition for which data and information is most important intensifies.
Construction projects are already working against thin margins and the cost of providing 5G connectivity universally on site could be prohibitive.
A possible solution is to adopt a tiered prioritisation approach ensuring 5G capabilities are utilised on those processes requiring the greatest bandwidth such as video or other visuals.
It would essentially mean creating different access points and levels for specific use cases. But as with any new technology, there will likely be a learning curve: What construction projects consider to be the highest tier initially may not turn out to be the highest tier in the long run.
One such consideration is around site safety and security. While heavy video files may well provide a strong argument to use a 5G network due to the latency benefits, processes of critical importance to the safety and security of a project may have a similar if not stronger argument due to the speed of 5G.
We could well see a tiered prioritisation strategy that considers safety, security, and bandwidth at different phases of a construction project, so what may be thought of as the highest tier initially may not remain so.
Any initiative that tries to realise a safety and security benefit, however, will be dependent on people on site having access to the information being shared.
It would mean that team members need to have 5G-enabled devices available to them. Is that affordable?
Device cost reductions
Deploying hundreds or thousands of smart devices across a project site at the current cost is, again, prohibitive for construction businesses.
Relying on employees to have their own 5G enabled smart devices to use on site may well in the shorter term be ambitious. Smart devices today are like mini-computers processing most activities on the device and that is where much of the cost exists.
However, with 5G technology a lot of the processing power will be able to happen in the cloud, so the hardware won't need to be as expensive.
Phones won't need to have the processing power they have now. You'll just need something that collects data. That may well mean we’ll see as many 5G-enabled smart devices on site as we would in any other industry.Either way, the benefits of 5G and capabilities of “network slicing” open up many possibilities for engineering and construction businesses to find efficiencies, improve safety, mitigate risk, and reduce security concerns on projects; while the build quality can also be enhanced through more accurate updates to the real time plan.