Computers for the construction industry


Chisolm Institute of Technology

The construction industry is the largest in America, providing 10% of the jobs and generating 10% of the GNP [1] [2]. Its labor-intensiveness is high, its technological-intensiveness is low, and for two decades its profitability and competitiveness have been marginal [3]. The potential impact of computers in effecting a remedy to the construction malaise is enormous with computer-aided design, drafting, manufacturing, fabrication, quality control, and management, as well as robotics and artificial intelligence providing revolutionary tools. However, as in so many other industries, resistance to computers by workers who feel their jobs are threatened is inevitable.

The Information Society

The information society, sometimes termed the post industrial society, computopia, or information axis society, has seen the rise of tertiary service industries such as transportation and utilities, as well as quartenary service industries such as trade, finance, insurance, real estate, health, research, recreation, education, and government. In addition, nonprofit organizations are growing rapidly. Thus, the overall thrust of the American economy is being redirected, but a concomitant economic malaise and crisis in American capitalism is stimulating debate about the need for reindustrialization, deindustrialization, or post-industrialization. The pivotal force about which all these changes turn is the explosive development of electronic digital computers.

The development of microcomputers as “personal mainframes” and a ten percent per annum downward spiral in hardware costs for three decades has forced a reevaluation of the information processing methodology, similar to that which occurred in the 15th Century with the invention of the printing press. But the impact of computers has a second massive dimension, that of sparking an industrial revolution no less significant to mankind than that marshalled by the steam engine in the 19th century, a revolution that is replacing men's minds as well as their muscles with machines and is still in its infancy with unknown potential. The changes have been so rapid that man has not been able to adjust his thinking to keep pace with the endless possibilities unleashed by declining computing costs.

Computer applications on site have not traditionally been seen as cost effective, while the wisdom born out of experience together with intuition and rule-of-thumb methods have been effective in simpler ages. However, there is a growing realization that the computer can be a general tool for making better bids, managing jobs more profitably, and controlling costs; specifically, it is not limited to the ability to model “what if?” scenarios, to perform sensitivity tests on decisions made under uncertainty, to generate probability spectra of expected profits/risks, etc. In addition, it frees management of mundane repetitive tasks, so more time can be spent on professional-level overviewing, innovation, and creativity [4] [5].

For the mega-project, very large volumes of information as well as frequent design or regulatory changes mandate automated management control systems. For example, the time frame for the planning, designing, and constructing of a nuclear power plant plan in 10 years, requiring 500 specifications, 5,000 drawings, 500,000 design documents, 100,000 vendor drawings, 30 million pieces of paper all total, tens of contractors and possibly 5 million engineering man-years to complete, all require complex changes.Similar mega-construction challenges are apparent in urban rapid transit systems, refinery and chemical plants, pipelines, mineral resource development, etc. [6].

The impact of computers on the construction industry can occur during design, fabrication, and construction; this impact must be evaluated in terms of cost, speed, reliability, versatility, convenience, and user acceptance.

Computer Aided Design, Drafting, Manufacturing, Fabrication, Quality-Control (CAD/CAM/CAF/CAQC)

CAD handles engineering input including design criteria and methodology as well as code requirements, drafting, preparation of plans and specifications, prepares materials and quantity lists, estimates costs, work flow, inventory requirements, machine tool loading, and shop floor control. It liberates the designer's creativity by eliminating manual calculations and drafting. Graphics, in particular, permit the exploration of a whole repertoire of design options, reduce manufacturing errors, enable a fast response to changes in market, code, and site requirements, as well as new structural ensemble concepts [7]. Design is usually five-times faster, but may be fifty-times faster for repetitive designs.

CAF is factory based, as opposed to onsite automata, which are to be described subsequently. CAF executes the design by controlling the fabrication and manufacturing of structural, mechanical, and electrical components. The computer directs the manufacturing process on the shop floor, such that quality is maintained, waste and labor costs are reduced, and deadlines are met.

CAQC may be integrated into the construction process to permit real time compensating adjustments for defects, and may be applied to manufacturing, fabrication, and precasing in the factory, as well as to onsite activity. Tests are performed:

• on incoming materials

• at various steps in the construction process

• on the completed facility

The inspection method may be:

• noncontact

• contact, nondestructive

• contact, destructive

CAQC examples might be:

• Electrical field techniques based on reluctance, capacitance, or eddy currents, and, together with X-ray methods, can be calibrated to record dimensions, concrete cover on reinforcing bars, etc., as well as imperfections below the surface in welds of pressure vessels and pipelines. Automation is particularly cost-effective with radiation methods, since the shields necessary for manual methods in the hazardous environment are dispensed with.

• CA photogrammetry may be used to check the geometries of a highway surface course, or may be used during the investigation or design stages to provide topographic contours for prospective highway corridors. Photographic hardcopy is avoided as signals from the stereoscopic cameras are fed directly into a microprocessor for online 3-D analysis.

• Computer controlled vision systems or laser scanners can be used to check the spans, spacings, levels, slopes, etc. of structural elements; they can determine timelapse profiles of cut and fill operations in highway construction, and so provide signals to receptors on a bulldozer that responds like a planetary rover.

• Routine CAQC might be an automated fog room or curing tank for concrete test cylinders which would operate like a microcosm of an automated factory with automatic control of casting, queuing, curing, and destructive-testing.

• Closed circuit cameras can capitalize on the manmachine interface and human judgment to reinforce the CAQC techniques listed above.

Computer-Aided Construction Management

Two options that exist for onsite computing are:

1. A stand-alone micro, specifically tailored to site requirements; or a turnkey microsystem integrating hardware, software, and peripherals for a particular application.

2. A remote terminal, or a micro used as an intelligent terminal, connected via telephone lines and acoustic coupler to a mainframe.

Previously, the second has been favored, as it capitalized on the massive software back-up, fast CPU times, and peripheral capability of the mainframe. However, shortcomings of the micros are on the verge of solution as follows:

1. Software availability for micros is rapidly increasing. For example, America's most popular micros, the Apple II and III, are serviced by 3000 programs commercially, and many of these are specifically related to the needs of the construction industry and include the following:

• general ledger • estimating and bidding
• job costing • inventory transfer and management
• payroll • equipment costing
• fixed assets • network scheduling
• purchasing • accounts receivable
• financial planning • accounts payable and cash-disbursement

In addition, project-oriented tasks such as productivity monitoring, drawing and specification control, traffic coordination, etc. can be facilitated. As hardware costs have decreased exponentially, labor-intensive software development costs have escalated, and the decisive favor in choosing a machine today is the availability of software backup. Programs that write programs, except for high-level programs and CA programming, seem to be in the realm of science fiction. Artificial intelligence is developing, while the linking of computers from different manufacturers and protocol specification for software, database, graphics access, and transfer are inhibited by a lack of available technology as well as copyright laws and corporate rivalry. At the more mundane level, developments in office automation such as:

• word processing,

• optical character recognition,

• online photo-composition,

• online intelligent copiers,

• electronic filing, and

• micrographics, including computer output

microfilming, and computer-aided retrieval are producing a value-adding cascade effect that reinforces the servicing of the megaproject needs.

2. CPU speeds are increasing rapidly as micro generations evolve through 8-16-32-64 bit machines with growing information capacity per line (e.g., Hewlett-Packard already markets a 32-bit machine, while a 64-bit machine is planned in Japan).

3. Interaction at the cumbersome man-machine interface is being facilitated by magnetic wand and light-pen input, with vocal input in prospect, while the rapidly expanding field of graphics is rendering output immediately understandable and usable.

When the cost relativity of micro versus mainframe ($1-10 K/S100-500 K) is also considered, micros seem to be on the verge of overwhelming the existing computer field as well as carving out great new application areas of their own. The micro millennium is upon us.

Computers do have costs other than capital costs—during the implementation stage, productivity will drop and the learning, familiarization, and shakedown stage may last many months and will increase psychological pressures on personnel involved, as well as disrupt routines. This will be an ongoing process as each new generation of machines becomes commercially available. Comfortable, nonthreatening change can only be effected by enlightened management policies that seek to marshall the support of those affected by the change to the extent required by the reward system of the organization. Older personnel especially may feel vulnerable because the advantages accruing from years of experience are eroded by change and, in fact, new recruits often have extensive exposure to computers during their schooling and have acquired sophisticated computer literacy. To compensate for waning adaptability and energy levels, the older people generally become skillful at political maneuvering and at thinking up convincing reasons why the computer impact on their activities should be minimal. Even more intractable, however, are redundancy problems caused by computers; industrial relations will be reviewed subsequently.

The traditional line, functional, and hierarchical structures of the construction organization are giving way to the matrix framework as increasing complexity necessitates lateral coordination and communication, and manpower becomes accountable to a number of different authorities. EDP is reinforcing this distribution of information flow and the balance of power. For example, a superintendent might now consult the computer instead of the construction manager regarding material inventory, crew deployment, etc. Lateral communication with a computer or a peer is also attractive because of fewer judgmental implications. Today's workforce has been conditioned by schooling, the media, and a democratic political system which challenge authority, and it responds less and less to authority figures and vertical communication.

Other Computer Impacts

Robots—Another impact on the construction stage is the use of robots to perform repetitive tasks on relatively constrained and favorable construction sites. For example, prototype robots for bricklaying, tunnel lining, reinforcing mesh fabricating, etc., have been developed and capitalize on innovations in industrial automation and autonomous planetary rovers. Robots, the bluecollar workers of the future, will upgrade quality, work around the clock, as well as minimizing industrial injuries, manpower training and salary costs, and overall construction costs. However, the primitiveness of present sensory devices limits their usefulness in the unstructured construction environment as much as the conservative attitude of management.

Communications—Communication satellites also impact computer and telecommunication developments. They facilitate information transfer between the head office and an inaccessible megaproject thousands of miles away. Telephone communication cannot readily transmit a hard copy of updated, modified drawings, specifications, or facial expressions that deny the spoken word; travel to the site by key personnel not only imposes travel, accomodation, and time costs, but may inject a time-delay in the decision making, as well as reduce effectiveness because of jet lag and lack of accustomed support systems. The costs of satellite communications are still relatively high, but $10K mobile ground stations for receiving satellite signals are now commercially available. However, the dollar value of time grows enormously for any delay in return on investment for the megaproject, and fast tracking necessitates an expedient information flow from the design at the head office to the construction on the site. Peter Drucker predicts electronic mail (including engineering drawings and specifications) and teleconferencing will be major factors in restructuring management styles and organizational frameworks in the future. The advantages of teleconferencing include:

• real-time or delayed communication

• public or private communication (the anonymous input option facilitates Delphi consensus)

• automatic recording and analysis of proceedings

Problems other than cost may arise, however, and include:

• Inadvertent errors due to the extensive preprocessing and interpretation of satellite data.

• Home office management far removed from the workforce is at the mercy of any self-serving and selective information fed to it by the site management. Any changes in local social, political, and economic climate may be difficult to assess from afar. Generally, management requires a strong presence and visibility to be effective.

Artificial Intelligence—The hierarchy of computer languages may be categorized as follows:

• machine

• assembly

• high level (e.g., FORTRAN)

• report generators and packages (e.g., MIT‘S, STRESS, COGO)

• database query or expert systems (e.g., LISP)

Artificial intelligence (AI) is addressed by the database query languages, and tries to simulate intelligent behavior by combining information processing, non-numerical symbol manipulation, and the use of heuristics with human judgment. The fidelity of the intelligent machine will depend on its ability to:

• clarify the problem, and assess the user's goal

• identify the type of procedures that can be used

• judge the reliability of the information available, find gaps or errors, weigh or balance conflicting information

• recognize patterns, make common sense deductions

• test the reasonability of results

LISP, short for list processing, is the language for AI, and is efficient for linking non-numerical symbols into concepts such as frames, scripts, and semantic nets to evaluate “if-then” associations. Fifth generation computers, with a parallel rather than series CPU concept structured around the special needs of AI, are being developed. In fact, the Japanese computer industry, supported by the Japanese government, hopes to seize the initiative and world leadership in this field as Japan has in so many other fields.

The ultimate goal might be an intelligent robot that acquires and learns from experience, and replicates human activities in the design office or on the construction site. However, this is decades away and the immediate application of AI at the MIS level could be a simple expert system that delivers decisions based on specific facts stored in a database. The identification and encoding of management skills, knowledge, and experience into the database are very labor-intensive and expensive, possibly requiring 50 man-years of tedious effort, but the potential for computer-aided “intelligent” management does exist with present technology. Even so, there is a body of opinion that contemporary expert systems (e.g., those used for medical diagnosis) can create more problems than they solve. This is an update on the GIGO concept—garbage in, garbage out. The legal and ethical ramifications are also in question and, although increasingly complex, will be much the same as for computer use in general.


A computer is no less a corporate asset than a bulldozer, and the rapid development and increasing capital intensiveness of construction information processing have caught some universities unprepared. Because financial stringency has left universities with outdated facilities, academicians have unintentionally abrogated their traditional leadership role of telling industry what the possibilities for the future are; some students may now only be exposed to the latest innovations after graduating.

In cost-intensive computer areas such as CAD, CAM, CAF, CAQC, and robotics, firms in West Germany are showing the way by placing their newest equipment in universities but, in the United States, universities are being forced to cut financial corners with miniature versions or pure simulations. The actual implications of the latter policy on the educational process is open to speculation. Computers will increasingly be used in the future as black-box tools with specialist operators, much the way a dragline or backactor is used in construction today. Yet, how many university civil engineering departments have in-house scrapers or bulldozers operating on campus for students to study?

Legal Problems

The prerogative for standard, repetitive design and construct decision-making is being usurped by suites of library software, thus liberating engineers and contractors from some of the requirements of detailed technical and managerial knowledge. Black-box usage of software as a cost cutting measure is inevitable and, provided heuristics and empirical tools are available for checking orders-of-magnitude of results, legal spin-off from computer generated errors should be minimal. Already a wide range of mathematical programs covering statistics, matrix manipulation, linear programming, etc. are being used as black boxes on large problems with no hope of manual checking of even typical results in real time, while finite element programs in design and CPM/PERT programs in construction are tending to black box usage. A dilemma may develop, however, in that older engineers with the experience needed to spot errors may have little computer knowledge, while young engineers with computer skills lack experience.

Another legal difficulty with computer use is the redistribution of liability that ensues. For example, computerized take-off sheets are already blurring the engineering-construction interface, and engineers may now be liable for aspects of a project never before seen as their responsibility.

Labor Relations

The construction industry is labor-intensive, itinerant, seasonal, and volatile in nature, as well as divided along craft, geographic, and specialty lines. All this adds up to potential for industrial leverage. Strikes are numerous and expensive, and there is a tendency for contractors to bow to wage demands and pass on costs to the owner. Such coercive pressure has resulted in wage hikes without productivity improvements, thus reducing the viability of many projects. However, self-equilibrating forces are soon activated:


Labor often amounts to 50% of the total costs for a project, and any fluctuation in labor productivity due to:

• strikes, demarcation disputes, lock-outs,

• divided loyalties,

• wage hikes,

• overtime, absenteeism, turnover, and labor security,

can jeopardize a project. Overall, the construction industry is reacting to this type of pressure by favoring open shop construction, which is now estimated at 60% of the total [2]. High unemployment in the construction industry today has resulted in skilled craftsmen being attracted to lower paid open shop jobs and this, together with improved open shop training methods, has eroded the traditional advantage of superior manpower skills for unionized construction. Historically, itinerant construction workers had stronger ties with unions than employers, but the megaproject era with its greater job security and expanded in-house labor force has reduced workers’ need for union support. However, for both open and closed shop construction, industrial relations is usually on the critical path of human resource planning. The best technical decisions may be the worst as far as worker attitudes are concerned, and generally all decisions should be reviewed for their industrial relations impact.

This traditional industrial relations scene is being overturned by computer technology. However, its selective effects on manpower profiles are undercutting the bargaining power of some unions while simultaneously enhancing that of others, eliminating some unskilled jobs while at the same time creating skilled jobs elsewhere, and causing dislocations, redundancy problems, and retraining requirements. Such restructuring of the workforce can only further provoke already militant unions but, provided the menial, boring, repetitive, dirty, and hazardous jobs are eliminated and the transitional needs of workers catered for, unions can generally be sold. Again, a cycle of forces is in operation:


In evolutionary terms, labor-intensiveness must be downgraded, with technological intensiveness and computer intensiveness upgraded, or the industry will be likely to experience a catastrophe, and the workers themselves will be the ones to suffer most. In efficiency terms, resistance by unions indicates extra energy that could potentially be redirected towards achieving the project goal.

American workers sometimes like to see themselves as computer fodder for the information revolution. Current skills are continually being devalued and new ones created. Manpower management strategies to minimize continual transitional shock might include:

• retraining

• reduced working hours, time-income trade offs

• job sharing

• protection of seniority

• flexi-time, flexi-place

• olden handshake

• attrition

• profit sharing

• union in the board room

With the inexorable restructuring of the workforce by computer-generated technological change, management versus labor conflicts are being rivalled by union versus union conflicts. New materials and methods are not covered by work assignment tradition included in the Associated General Contractors’ (AGC's) “Gray Book,” and each union is seeking to claim as much jurisdiction as possible, particularly at a time of high unemployment. In an effort to head off labor problems, AGC is now trying to include recommendations of the Business Roundtable Cost Effectiveness Project into contracts negotiated by its collective bargaining chapters, but some see this as union busting by an employers’ organization selling the results of an owners’ survey of the industry. However, the owners have the money, so they can dictate to the contractors; the ramifications of these decrees eventually affect all the workers.

Paradoxically, the more important the issues facing the workers, the less rational their response is likely to be. Crisis issues such as loss of jobs due to new technology and computers often become submerged in chauvinism, tradition, defensiveness, envy or stress that obscures them from reason. The education-work-retirement lockstep is being shattered by technological change; the traditional workforce meritocracy is yielding to a 3-D framework of merit, competence, and equity; new values such as meaningfulness, satisfaction, participation in decision-making, etc. are emerging; and the security versus high wages tradeoff is under constant debate as is the societal versus individual responsibility for the retraining of a displaced worker. In fact, work and leisure are being redefined. Solutions are fragile compromises and often involve an attempt to avoid the worst possible scenario.


Potential application of computers to design, drafting, manufacturing, fabrication, quality control and management, as well as the implications of robotics and artificial intelligence, have been described for the construction industry. Many of these techniques are still in the experimental stage, but if some indication might be gleaned from the revolutionary changes that have occurred in other industries, traditional methods in the construction industry may eventually be overwhelmed by computer technology. However, as in other industries, as labor-intensiveness is reduced, severe manpower dislocations will occur.


1. Business Roundtable Construction Industry Cost Effectiveness Project-Management Education and Academic Relations Survey, Report A-5, New York, 1982.

2. Business Roundtable: Summary Report of the Construction Industry Cost Effectiveness Project – More Construction for the Money, New York, 1983.

3. Moavenzadeh, F. & Rossow, J.A. The Construction Industry – A Review of Major Issues Facing the Industry in the United States, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, Report No. R73-44, 1974.

4. Muspratt, M.A., Corporation's Dilemma, Technology and Society, 1972, 7, 130-133.

5. Muspratt, M.A., The Challenge for Engineering, Journal of Engineering Issues, October 1978, 104, 237-244.

6. Muspratt, M.A., Urban Degradation and Building Systems, Journal of Urban Planning Division, 1973, 99, 235-246.

7. Muspratt, M.A., Graphic Display, International Journal of Computer Mathematics, 1970, 2, 259-268.

Murray A. Muspratt is currently a visiting engineer in the Department of Civil Engineering at the Chisholm Institute of Technology, Australia.

The Project Management Quarterly will increase its frequency of publication in 1984. Deadlines for submission of nonrefereed materials for future issues will be:

December 1983 October 15, 1983
January 1984 November 15, 1983
March 1984 January 15, 1984
May 1984 March 15, 1984
September 1984 July 15, 1984
November 1984 September 15, 1984

Address all inquiries and submissions to:

Dr. Terry L. Kinnear, Editor

Project Management Quarterly

School of Business

Western Carolina University

Cullowhee, NC 28723

(704) 227-7401



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