NZZ from January 8, 2024 - Artificial Intelligence in Use on Construction Sites

A Zurich-based startup has developed an app that fundamentally changes everyday work on the construction site.

Link to the original article in the NZZ online (German) from January 8, 2024 >>


On this Tuesday morning, the construction site in Winterthur is quiet. The technician, Tigran Zacheriagis, is currently installing fire protection elements. His approach to work differs from many of his colleagues. Before he starts in the morning, he consults his smartphone. In an app, he sees what tasks are scheduled for the day. Once he completes a task, he takes a photo of the result, uploads it and checks off the task. "It's easy to work with," says Zacheriagis, "it saves a lot of time and there are fewer misunderstandings."

The app was developed by the Zurich-based startup Benetics. "The most important thing is that all project participants can access the construction plans and know where the others are and what they are working on," says Ferdinand Metzler, CEO and co-founder. Zacheriagis can also record a voice message in Greek and send it to his Portuguese colleague. "The voice message is converted into text and translated into the user's native language," says Metzler.

More Functionality than Office Apps

On construction sites, where various nationalities work together, linguistic misunderstandings often occur. The craftsmen also have little time to chat during work. Therefore, the app summarizes the contents from all channels and suggests a response based on this, which the construction worker only needs to adjust.

The app offers construction workers more options than many tools used by office workers for communication. Latest advances in the field of generative AI have already been incorporated. "We use Open AI and have trained the AI with construction-specific technical terms," says Aaron Shon, co-founder of Benetics, who is in charge of the technology. "We are currently working on our own AI model that better reflects the nuances of the construction industry."

A Next Step in Development

The next step in development is to assist craftsmen with problem-solving through the app: difficult cases and the way they were handled should be documented in the app so that colleagues can learn from them. Previously, Shon led a larger team of software engineers at Google. The third founder, Johan Tibell, worked for 15 years at the US technology giant.

Costly Mistakes in Construction

Colin Jaeger, head of the fire protection systems planning and product development office AM Contract Factory, distributes the app and fire protection systems to processors on construction sites. He sees significant potential in the app to avoid errors. This is because work on construction sites is prone to mistakes. "Errors make up about 5 percent of construction costs," says Jaeger. It is not always easy to charge the additional costs to the client.

Stefano Jud, project manager for fire protection at Jada Insulations, which installs the Fireshield fire protection system from AM Contract Factory in buildings, sees the tool as an opportunity to work much more efficiently. The company has to, for example, create reports for fire protection authorities. Previously, Zacheriagis and his colleagues usually filled out the reports with a delay – often only getting to them on weekends – and passed them on to an employee who electronically recorded all the information in the system. "Now it's much simpler, faster and more reliable," says Jud. Additionally, he always knows exactly what tasks have been completed and what work is still pending.

50 to 80 Calls Per Day

Jud's job as a project manager is less hectic today. He used to make 50 to 80 phone calls per day. Every employee reported to him when he had completed a task and there was a need for coordination with other trades (such as electricians) and with the construction manager. Today he manages 30 to 50 calls daily. There are fewer inquiries necessary and the need for coordination has decreased, says Jud. He estimates the efficiency gain resulting from better organization at around 10 percent. This aligns with the industry-wide figures from Benetics.

For Jaeger, the calculation is simple: labor costs account for 60 percent, material costs for 40 percent. "If we work 10 percent more efficiently, we have 6 percent more margin," says the managing director. This is a significant increase for an industry that achieves margins between 5 and 10 percent.

From Foremen to Craftsmen

Will Jada Insulations reduce jobs because construction projects can be implemented with fewer employees? "No," says Jud. Previously, there were many coordination problems on the construction site. The foremen had to do a lot of checking, monitoring and ensuring that everything ran smoothly. Now they have more time to fulfill their duties as craftsmen.

Construction sites are strictly hierarchical, often characterized by a rough tone and conflicts arise quickly. Jaeger has noticed that there are fewer misunderstandings and frictions since craftsmen started working with the app. The construction workers know exactly what they have to do and how to tackle the work. "They are now more autonomous in their work planning and receive fewer reprimands from the foreman," says Jaeger.

Construction Workers Bear the Brunt

Many technology companies offer solutions that start with the work of general contractors, project managers and foremen. Benetics, however, focuses on construction workers. "On construction sites, everyone passes the pressure down the line and at the end of the chain are the construction workers who have to bear the brunt," says Metzler. Nowadays, this cannot be in the interest of conscientious project managers and managers.

With Benetics, he aims to contribute to changing the way work is done on construction sites, making construction workers work more responsibly, gain more appreciation, contribute their expertise more strongly and have their voices heard. This will make collaboration more efficient overall. This is also an advantage for construction companies desperately looking for craftsmen: "Companies that manage to reduce costs at the foreman and project manager levels can raise wages for construction workers."

AI Revolutionizes the Construction Industry

In the construction industry, one of the least technologized sectors of the economy, the spread of AI-based applications is leaving its mark. AI is used, for example, to optimize the consumption of building materials, reduce energy consumption and improve quality control and project planning. Drones monitor construction sites, or specialized robots lay foundations.

Implenia, the largest construction group in Switzerland, sees application possibilities for AI wherever large amounts of data need to be analyzed – from project planning to analyzing existing infrastructure. In some large, complex infrastructure projects, the construction group uses AI-based software from the American corporation Alice Technologies. The software allows hundreds of different scenarios to be simulated, thereby optimizing scheduling and work processes. Experienced employees are needed to carry out these simulations, the construction group says.

In addition, Implenia is advancing other AI projects. Initial results from pilot projects show that AI applications can plan projects more accurately, save time and better coordinate interfaces. However, data protection must be kept in mind with all applications.

Two Worlds Collide

The construction industry has experienced a long period of stagnant or declining productivity. The market environment is likely to become even more challenging in the future, as construction becomes more complex and regulation in the industry increases. Construction companies need to become faster and cheaper.

Consequently, more and more technology companies are entering the market, offering solutions to simplify and make processes more efficient. Here, two worlds collide: on one side, the traditional, mostly locally anchored construction sector; on the other, the startup industry driven by new technologies.

The Benetics CEO Sold His First Company to Zalando

But why did the three entrepreneurs decide to enter the construction industry as a market? They wanted to develop a product that has an impact in the real world. Metzler himself gained early work experience on construction sites. He worked there during his studies as an electrician. While still studying mechanical engineering at ETH Zurich, he founded the software company Fision. He brought on board young graduates from ETH and EPFL and developed a 3-D body scanning app with them.

Users capture their body measurements and can see whether the clothing items offered in the online shop fit them. The product attracted great interest from many companies – and three years ago, Metzler decided to sell his company to Zalando and continue developing it within the group. Meanwhile, the product is integrated into the online shop as a "Body Measurement" feature.

As Complex as Necessary, as Simple as Possible

Metzler himself remained at Zalando until spring 2022, then he saw the next business opportunity and founded Benetics. The company now employs twelve people, including some ETH graduates.

The developers are so enthusiastic that he sometimes has to slow them down, Metzler says. "We don't do everything that is technically possible, but we want to solve the problems for our customers as simply as possible." Penetrating complex interrelationships and turning technical possibilities into sensible and everyday applications is what drives the Benetics CEO.

Uberization of the Construction Industry?

The startup's customer base has already expanded. It now also offers technical solutions for property managers to reduce their coordination efforts. The founders have big plans for the future. It's not just about more efficient organization of work processes, but also about managing customer data that reflects the life cycle of construction projects from planning to construction to operation. Companies save costs because they can refer back to earlier data for renovations or repairs, for instance.

The Benetics CEO sees further business opportunities and aims to tackle the big problems in the industry: "I'm thinking, for example, of the proper remuneration of employees and digital tools to increase transparency and combat corruption," says Metzler. The AI-powered app serves as a basis for developing further applications along the entire value chain.

While Metzler does not expect platforms to dominate the construction sector – analogous to Uber in the taxi industry – due to the complexity of construction work, which takes place in teams and the high regulatory density, he does anticipate a fundamental transformation of the industry. Fewer staff will be needed for coordination and organizationally, construction managers and workers will come closer together.

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