Reconstructing the Construction Industry
Based on ideas and technology developed at The Grainger College of Engineering, the early-stage technology company, Reconstruct is bringing computer vision and AI to buildings, infrastructure, and retail stores around the world.
Reconstruct announced $17.3 million in Series B venture funding in July 2021. The company -- which builds artificial intelligence and digital twin-based software for the construction and real-estate industries -- has more than 1,000 projects underway. They’re on every continent. They’re working on projects with companies like Pfizer, Oracle, Microsoft, Skanska, KDB group, Walbridge, Taisei Corporation, 7-Eleven, and McDonalds. Customers are throwing around phrases like “godsend” in testimonial videos.
To say things are going well would be an understatement.
Yet five years ago, Reconstruct’s only employees were the founders, Grainger Engineering Professors Mani Golparvar, Derek Hoiem, and Tim Bretl and a handful of students. A couple of years before that it was little more than a notion incubating in the IDEA Lab that provides innovation space for faculty and students in the Grainger Engineering Library. Fittingly, the IDEA Lab was under construction, still little more than some basement cubicles and a couple of 3D printers back then.
“This concept of entrepreneurship, in terms of streamlined transformation of research ideas to real-world working solutions, was really scaling up at the time at the university and the college of engineering, and it stood out to us that we needed to have a culture shift,” said Golparvar, a member of the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering’s faculty who also earned his PhD here. “A culture shift that allows for making that impact that we all signed up for. A shift that balances between rigor and relevance in engineering research as a way to grow our own opportunity.”
“That means startup companies. But it also means students are being exposed to research problems with real practical significance. We can balance between having real impact and working on bleeding-edge research. Research that contributes to the body of knowledge and has a path forward for commercialization. We have the support.”
The intellectual infrastructure is in place for global businesses like Reconstruct to grow at The Grainger College of Engineering. That also feeds basic research and deep academic collaborations in the role AI can play in construction more generally.
Ready for new solutions
“I’m always blown away by the big statistics,” said Hoiem, who is part of Grainger Engineering’s Department of Computer Science. “Construction is a trillion-dollar industry in the United States. Thirty percent of the costs are due to failures in coordination. There have been very minimal improvements in productivity over the last 50 years, while other sectors like manufacturing improved quite dramatically. The construction industry was ready for new solutions.”
Consultants at McKinsey had a similar assessment in a 2017 report: “The construction industry employs about 7 percent of the world’s working-age population and is one of the world economy’s largest sectors. [M]uch of construction has evolved at a glacial pace...Construction is among the least digitized sectors in the world. In the United States, construction comes second to last, and in Europe it is in last position...
If construction-sector productivity were to catch up with that of the total economy -- and it can -- this would boost the sector’s value-added by an estimated $1.6 trillion, adding about 2 percent to the global economy, or the equivalent of meeting about half of the world’s infrastructure need. One-third of the opportunity is in the United States.”
Consider just how complicated a construction site is, though.
Materials, workers, and specialized equipment each with their own schedules and project plans. Each interrelated. Each subject to delays and speed-ups, mistakes and corrections. The electricians can’t hang lights until the ceilings are up, the wire and conduit has arrived, and the ladders and lifts are in place. The shipments arrived two days early, but the lifts are still being used elsewhere on the job site.
Now extend that web of connections to plumbers, carpenters, masons, and glaziers. Then spread it over a billion-dollar stadium, skyscraper, or factory.
It quickly becomes apparent why failures of coordination are so common and costly -- and why innovation in the industry has been so slow. Reconstruct brings computer vision and artificial intelligence to construction sites using technology developed by the founding team at Grainger Engineering, addressing some of those issues.
“Building plans and schedules have been digitized. It’s really easy to take photos now. Being able to connect images and videos that show what’s actually going on with the project -- with your schedules and your drawings and your building information models that show what’s supposed to be happening -- is now suddenly possible. Just making that connection makes it possible to address all kinds of issues -- productivity, quality, safety,” Hoiem explained.
Companies image their job sites using video, 360-degree cameras, lidar, drones, or even cellphone cameras. Reconstruct’s “visual command center” software then compares that reality in the moment to project plans, blueprints, and digital representations of construction designs known as Building Information Models. Companies use the software to monitor progress, sort out problems, and manage delays.
They’re walking the job site without leaving their desk, and issues are highlighted automatically.
“Reconstruct makes it really easy to see what is there and compare it to what should be there, so you can catch problems earlier before they become million-dollar problems,” Hoiem said. “And you can better coordinate the teams if you have faster access to reliable information about the state of the different tasks.”
This capability is an asset for new construction projects, and it’s being applied elsewhere too. The tools are being used to monitor the condition and safety of infrastructure like bridges, to remodel office spaces, and to ensure the consistency of layouts and product displays in retail stores. A 7-Eleven in Phoenix feels just like a 7-Eleven in Chicago because companies put a lot of research and effort into the design of their stores, and that drives sales.
“It’s all about transparency, and transparency is what drives ROI in construction,” Golparvar said in a recent webinar. “Making sure that the owners, contractors, subcontractors, the designers are all on the same page in terms of what-is-there vs. what-should-be-there on any project and leveraging that actionable insight to keep projects on schedule and on budget. However, there’s no single reality capture method that fits all job sites. We have to deliver a computer vision driven solution that taps into all the available data such as images from drones to 360-degree cameras, transforms them into measurable reality models so that they can be compared against the design and project plan. Map out the as-built conditions on the job site in a way that is measurable, no matter what types of visual data is used as an input.”
Reconstruct works directly with individual customers to do that work. It also partners with software giants like Oracle to integrate their technology. Oracle develops scalable cloud construction management software solutions that enable digital transformation for teams that plan, build, and operate critical assets, and is used on more than four million projects worldwide. That smart construction platform supports everything from project management to scheduling to budget to hiring.
“Schedule and the budget are the two most important things. You need to be on time, you need to be on budget, and you need to deliver high quality,” said Burcin Kaplanoglu, a vice president at Oracle who runs the company’s Industries Innovation Lab and works closely with the Reconstruct team.
With that in mind, the companies started by integrating Reconstruct with Oracle Construction and Engineering’s project management and scheduling tools. The companies’ products work bi-directionally, meaning the Oracle construction management platform works with Reconstruct’s software and Reconstruct’s software works with Oracle’s.
“Reconstruct has a really innovative product that allows you to take reality capture and align it with different datasets that our customers use. Our joint customers can do inspections, they can see status and the schedule. All these things are actually integrated,” Kaplanoglu said.
All of this work has “University of Illinois IP and innovation in it,” according to Golparvar. “We’re a college of engineering. We care about how science transfers into engineering solutions. Going beyond what we publish and beyond prototypes. Transforming those into real, working solutions.”
That work is changing the very nature of a very old industry.
“The pandemic accelerated digital transformation in the engineering and construction industry. Oracle’s Textura payment management cloud service went from $500 billion to $1 trillion between 2018 and now. If you look at the digitization of the industry, it’s a hockey stick. Not just payments,” Kaplanoglu said.
“It is all accelerating. It is accelerating faster. And imagine where that takes us.”
Projects Around the World
Reconstruct’s visual command center is everywhere. Here are some examples of projects that used the Grainger Engineering-born technology.
- Golden 1 Center -- home to the Sacramento Kings -- celebrated its fifth anniversary in late 2021. The 19,000 person stadium hosted Harry Styles, Foo Fighters, Ricky Martin, and ten NBA games that month. It’s a global stage that ranks among the Top 20 for annual ticket sales, according to the concert industry publication Pollstar.
- The first phase of the $1.2 billion expansion of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Broward County Convention Center opened in October 2021. It added a 350,000 square foot exhibit hall, with new ballrooms, waterfront plazas, and an 800-room hotel in the works.
- The Oracle Industries Innovation Lab in suburban Chicago was completed in 2020. The hands-on space brings together Oracle and technology partners to co-innovate and shape the future of construction and other industries. It is a proving ground for augmented reality, IoT hardware, remote worksite applications, autonomous equipment, artificial AI, ML, and other emerging technologies to drive the industry forward in safety, quality, efficiency, and predictability.
- The Philippines’ North-South Commuter Railway is a $15 billion project in the greater Manilla area. Reconstruct is collaborating with Taisei corporation, a leading Japanese general contracting company, on the project.
- Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism uses the visual command center as the national standard for inspecting infrastructure assets.