Blog September 5, 2019

IoT in the Construction Industry: Supply Chain Monitoring

We’ve all driven by that condo that was supposed to be built last winter. You know, the one with the words “Coming this Winter” crossed out and “Coming next Summer” etched over top.

Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence in the construction industry. People might blame it on any number of things, but you might be surprised to learn that poor supply chain monitoring is more often than not the leading cause of construction projects being significantly behind schedule.

Everything from bricks to paint arrives at the construction site at various stages of the building process. However, even if one or two specific supplies are running behind schedule, the whole project could be put on hold. These small delays end up accumulating, setting project completion dates further and further behind.

So how can IoT speed up the processes that are currently relied on in the industry?

Before we begin, be sure to read the first two blogs in this four-part series to find out how IoT dramatically increases efficiency in other aspects of the construction industry.

Current Methods

Traditionally, the construction industry supply chain is built around manual processes and materials being supplied periodically on an as-needed basis. Efforts have been made to refine the process, but with little to no success. The following problems are prevalent in the construction industry despite attempts to make supply chains more effective.

Unplanned Delays

Just-In-Time (JIT) is a supply chain model that construction heavily relies on. Construction projects are expensive and require supplies at frequent intervals. Thus, the JIT model works to supply materials only as they are needed. This sounds promising, but when all is said and done, it can be extremely unreliable and not as “in-time” as the name might suggest.

Let’s say a construction company needs valves to attach to pipes for the plumbing. Something as simple as valves arriving a day or two late would mean that the plumbing remains unfinished and you can’t move on to the next stage. If this delay happens at each stage of the project, the hours being wasted start to add up and very quickly become days and even months.

Limited Visibility

Recently, one of the methods that have been introduced to construction supply chains is RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags. They aim to provide better supply chain visibility for tracking and receiving. While this technology sounds promising – depending on whether the tags are active or passive – its implementation could be far more costly than more traditional tracking methods.

Active RFID tags are expensive, as they need to be constantly powered but can send detailed information like package temperature, humidity and location. Passive RFID tags, on the other hand, are less expensive since they don’t need to be powered, but the tradeoff is they only send information when they are read by a tag reader (for instance, when a product is sold or when it enters a warehouse). Since most construction materials are supplied from off-site distributors (sometimes located in different countries/provinces) in high volumes, active tags would need to be used, which could result in much higher costs.

Tedious Manual Processes

A method that has been used for decades in the Construction industry is one called SCOR (Supply Chain Operations Reference). It acts as a reference framework to organize and track the movement and supply of materials throughout the building process. A major inconvenience with this model is that while companies can use the software if they choose, all entries are manually done. This means that the entire process relies heavily on whether or not someone properly enters data every time specific building materials are transported to a new point. Human error often plays a major role in reducing the value of these systems, especially if most of the information is either outdated or inaccurate. 

What Does IoT Offer?

The Internet of Things (IoT) is poised to revolutionize the efficiency and overall value of the three most critical aspects of construction supply chains: Fleet, Material, and People.

Fleet and Materials Management

One big improvement brought by IoT is the use of sensors to track fleet and assets in real-time for better supply chain management. Fleets often consist of containers, trucks and other delivery modes and vehicles. Stakeholders, construction workers, and third parties alike have the ability to tap into the cloud to track fleet location and progress from start to end.

Critical data concerning delays in the supply of materials such as traffic jams, and other unpredictable time delays is instantly available. Moreover, the remote access to fleet progress opens up opportunities for managers and stakeholders to determine the best course of action to be as time-efficient as possible in their planning.

If they know that the cement mix will be arriving 12 hours late, they can plan their project schedule around it instead of waiting around wondering when it will arrive. Materials management from the supplier to the job site is easily traceable, ensuring that job site decision-makers can best plan and coordinate the at each stage of the construction process.

People Management

While it is often overlooked, people are also an important part of supply chain management. In a building project, different professionals are needed for different stages. It can be chaotic though, as a plumber needs to be hired to install plumbing before the drywall is installed, a painter needs to be on-site after a carpenter installs trim, and so forth.

Real-time data can help provide insights on when their services are required based on when the materials are available on-site. Workers can also access a database from their mobile devices to track their personal progress on their jobs. For instance, the painter can receive notifications on the progress of the drywall installation to make sure no time is wasted when his skills are needed. Managers can not only track materials but also construction vehicles through IoT sensors to ensure that workers are remaining safe and productive.

The Takeaway

Managing materials, fleets, and people becomes more efficient with IoT. All parties involved in any construction project can stay “in the know” about materials available on site and the progress of other workers, improving operations significantly.

Existing processes in the construction supply chain revolve around the general estimation of when materials and workers will be needed in a project. With supply chain monitoring through IoT, there is no guessing. Keeping things running smoothly is a given…not an exception.

Look out for our next and final blog post in this 4 part series where we talk about preventative maintenance in the construction industry.

Interested in exploring IoT for your next construction project? Schedule a call today to learn how AOMS can help!