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BIM and construction machines: What are their capabilities?

Machines are taking over. We don’t know whether the era of the Terminators will come soon or not. What we know for sure is that construction machines are quickly implementing BIM technologies. This article will expand on what these BIM construction machines are capable of.

Much more than site GPS

There is a fierce competition in the construction industry, particularly in the UK. Machine manufacturers are investing large amounts of money to develop innovative, cutting-edge technologies. With everybody in the engineering sector talking about BIM, it was inevitable that machine manufacturers would listen and act accordingly.

Excavators and dumpers have been using GPS for some years now. However, new applications are starting to emerge and being tested on site. Up until recently, BIM models were used merely within office environments. But the most innovative minds have discovered that they may well be as useful on site, if not more so.

Construction machines with integrated BIM models

Some of the most cutting-edge excavators are now capable of inputting the 3D models into an integrated computer in their cabin. Thanks to this tool, operators have access to BIM models in real time. Some of these computers are even connected to the cloud so that operators can be certain they are looking at the latest 3D models. What’s even better, they can see the position of their construction machine within the model.

The onboard monitors provide a lot of information to operators, including fuel consumption and productivity. With the addition of BIM, they can also help operators to carry out their work more efficiently. One of the main advantages of including 3D models in the monitors is the enormous potential to minimise mistakes and abortive work. We all know how somewhat chaotic things can become on site, especially when information management is still a major challenge. Ensuring construction machine operators are looking at the 3D model of what needs to be constructed will help them better understand the tasks ahead. It can also keep a digital, cloud-based record of the work done, including volumes, distances, etc.

Unmanned machines are the now, not the future

But installing an intelligent monitor inside the machine’s cabin is not the end of the innovation race. Some of the top thinkers are already developing unmanned BIM construction machines. In order to maximise safety and minimise errors, it seems that the key could be to remove the human factor all together. Caterpillar, Volvo and JCB are some of the manufacturers at the forefront of this technologies.

For example, JCB, in collaboration with HORIBA MIRA, recently completed a project to develop 3 unmanned machines. These BIM construction machines can do autonomous remote mapping, surveying and construction operations. The project, known as the Intelligent Autonomous Digital Construction Machine project, started in 2015. With support from Innovate UK, they developed an All-Terrain Vehicle, an excavator and a skid steer track loader. To enable BIM capabilities, the three BIM machines were equipped with cameras, 3D LiDAR and GPS.

In April 2019, Highways England announced that they were using a self-driving 25-tonne dumper on the A14 improvements project. The dumper would be a trial to understand how unmanned BIM construction machines can help in reducing cost and programme whilst improving safety. And the truth is that safety plays a critical role in the development of unmanned machines. There are still nowadays many incidents related to construction machines, for example falling from height or tipping over. By removing the operator, you eliminate the risk to the operator automatically.

The future of BIM construction machines

And this seems to be just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to smart BIM construction machines. Manufacturers are already talking about the future possibilities of bringing BIM closer to construction machines and operations on site. In fact, many of the BIM implementation savings on a project materialise during the construction phase. Some of the future capabilities that experts are researching now include efficiencies such as connecting these machines together. Thanks to inter-connected BIM construction machines, it would be possible to reduce downtime, one of the most expensive costs associated with machine works.

Smart machines will be able to ‘speak’ to each other, knowing when one is running out of work and communicating between themselves to determine where to go next. Also, new capabilities will enable reduced maintenance costs. For example, machines will know when part replacements need to be ordered at just the right time, but not too early.

Have you already seen smart machines on any of your projects? If so, let us know your experience in the comments below!


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