Reliance on artificial intelligence for complex construction tasks is not as farfetched as one might think with all the talk of robots and job automation. But human workers aren't going away anytime soon, so AI adoption spreads, as with most new technologies, with tools that help workers do their job better, faster and more efficiently.
Stanford University startup Alice Technologies’ AI assistant, dubbed ALICE, lets humans do what they do best —analyze, communicate and ask questions — while taking on the more tedious number-crunching that’s involved in creating a construction schedule.
It starts with a human scheduler, who draws from his or her experience and collaborates with stakeholders such as the project owner, superintendent, subcontractors, architects and engineers to spell out the scope of the project for the tool in a “rule set.”
“What tasks do I need to do to complete this project? How many resources do I have available? What calendars are they on? These are the kind of rules we assign to the construction project,” Alice Technologies founder and CEO Rene Morkos told Construction Dive.
Alice applies these rules as a “recipe” to generate millions of scheduling scenarios within minutes, calculations which would take a person decades to complete, according to the company. It then charts the best dozen or so options — each with its own 4D model (3D model integrated with scheduling data) and Gantt chart — along a time-cost curve for stakeholders to review and choose from.
In a pilot project for Mortenson Construction, the assistant presented 22 strategies for building a structure, including "wedding cake," "towered" and "floor by floor" methods. In the end, the system shortened the project's schedule by 84 days, according to a presentation by Morkos and Rick Khan, Mortenson’s senior director of innovation, that was hosted by Building Design + Construction.
Making changes easy
ALICE is a parametric system, which means the rule set can be tweaked at any point when a curveball is thrown at the project. Brandon Young, vice president of marketing at Alice Technologies, said ALICE can respond to changes to materials, structural components and client timelines as soon as those new elements are described.
“If the client comes back and says we’d like to shave 50 days off our schedule and ALICE hasn’t already generated options for that, you can go back in and see what happens if you add more crews,” he said. “The general contractor could go back to the owner with a new, revised schedule, generated in 10 minutes with ALICE.”
ALICE, Young said, has the ability to automatically solve problems as they arise and re-sequence tasks within the selected schedule with minimal impact to project cost or timeline.
“Oftentimes, ALICE will come back with an almost identical schedule duration because it was able to solve those critical items that were basically pushing your project out,” he said.
If framing on a project is taking 30% longer than expected, for example, “ALICE will usually fix most of that issue in a single re-sequencing run,” according to Young, “or recommend to you that you might want to add a few more framing crews. It’s much more expensive to have your whole construction process pushed out 120 days than it is to add a framing crew that might cost you $10,000.”
Finding crews to fill in like this can be a significant challenge for contractors during the current labor shortages. ALICE can make up some of the difference, Young said, by making the best use of available crews. While crew utilization rates range between 40% to 60% on a standard project, ALICE can direct crews who have completed one task toward the next priority area in order to minimize downtime and expedite the construction process, he said.