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Construction sector will be completely overhauled by digitalization

Tuesday, 21 June 2022
The construction sector is on the brink of a major change. There is a huge housing shortage in the Netherlands and infrastructure needs maintenance on a massive scale. To solve these kinds of problems, disruptive changes are needed.

Innovations that go far off the beaten track, that is what 4TU.Bouw, one of the nine Centers of the 4TU.Federation, is dedicated to. The four technical universities and fourteen universities of applied sciences in the Netherlands are working together on a long-term vision and an action plan for (fundamental) research in the construction sector. Clever minds are shining their light on the future of the construction sector, each from their own background and perspective.

Digital twin

For example, Bram Ton, researcher at Saxion University of Applied Sciences, is working on a digital twin of the railways in the Netherlands. "If any maintenance is required on the tracks, then someone first has to go and see what the situation is and which materials are needed. Only then can those materials be sorted out and a mechanic will then go to replace or repair the part in question," he elaborates. "That's an inefficient process. By being able to have a map of all the railway lines via a digital twin, you will immediately know what the situation is at a particular location and the problem can be fixed right away." Ton is now working on a laser system and data storage to map out all of the railway lines.

Ihsan Bal, a researcher at the Hanse University of Applied Sciences in Groningen, is working on another engineering project. He wants to use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to recognize incipient cracks in buildings earlier than the human eye can see them. "We have more and more old buildings all over the world. It is important to keep a close eye on these buildings," he maintains. "Cracks develop over a long period of time, so the progression of a crack is sometimes difficult for the human eye to spot. With AI, we can analyze photos to see where a crack is located. This also lets us compare cracks over a longer period of time and intervene earlier if the safety of a building is deteriorating."

Digital transition

These innovations - and the people who are now sticking their necks out to take the first steps in the development process - are defining our future. After all, "we only have thirty years left to meet the sustainability goals" is the collective sense of urgency and pressure felt by the scientists and students. Professor André Dorée (University of Twente) observes, "That sense of urgency causes you to budge from a certain viewpoint, but that doesn't necessarily mean you'll actually arrive at the place you want to be. That takes vision, an intrinsic motivation to really change something."

That motivation is definitely present. 4TU.Bouw brings experts together, both scientists and students, on various themes in so-called Domain Advancement Teams (DAT). This type of collaboration is absolutely crucial in order to bring about real change. It is important that all layers of research and education work together, from vocational education to academic education. One of the important themes is digitalization, a seminal aspect where progress and improvements in the construction sector are concerned.

“We are going through a transition in terms of digitalization in the built environment," states Christian Struck, lecturer in Sustainable Building Technology at the Saxion Universities of Applied Sciences, at the beginning of the first face-to-face meeting of the DAT Digitalization. Innovation Origins was present in Enschede where the first event from 4TU.Bouw was hosted by the University of Twente (UT) and the Saxion Universities of Applied Sciences.

Playing with computers

When it comes to digitalization in construction, the first proverbial pile has been driven into the ground; a start has been made. After all, as André Dorée, head of the Construction Management & Engineering Department , says, "The change is not coming from what we know, but from what we do." An interesting statement for a scientist. The key message from the first meeting of the digitalization development team: Go ahead and do it. "Play with computers, that's where it all starts," Max Hendriks, scientific director of 4TU.Bouw, adds with a smile.

A new pond

A lot more additional research is needed before any such technologies can really be used in practice and on a grand scale. The researchers' current envisioned products and services will not all make it to the market. Whatever the case, any knowledge and experience that is gained will always be preserved. In the future, that could serve as a building block for the next generation of researchers. All these scientists and students together create a pool of fundamental and applied research that can be drawn from over the coming decades for innovation in construction.

A broad-based collaboration is vital in order to bring about change. Innovation goes beyond research. Companies, from the design stage to implementation as well as governments also play important roles in this regard. The way to knowledge institutions must be cleared for them. Universities, universities of applied sciences and vocational training schools must work together, and scientists and students need each other to achieve the best results.

Practical tools

Several practical studies were also presented during the first meeting of the digitalization development team. Ramon ter Huurne, for one, is working on a tool to prevent damage to underground infrastructure when work is being carried out, such as cables and sewers. Currently, a small hole is often dug first at the site of the work to see what is in the ground. "That is very labor intensive and doesn’t give the full picture," says Léon Olde Scholtenhuis, who gave the presentation on behalf of Ter Huurne. There is a solution for that now. A radar that can see exactly what cables and pipes are lying underground. Only now the question is: When should you use which method? "That's why Ramon went into the field and, together with the people who actually have to use it, developed a tool that can help you decide when and which method - manual excavation or using the radar - is the most efficient and accurate."

Ellen van den Bersselaar is doing research for her master's thesis on the efficiency of different tools so that information about a construction project can be made easier and more manageable; in this case transformer stations. "Now, when information is transferred to the next stage and to the next group of professionals who will work with it, pieces of information are always lost. That’s a waste of time and money. You basically want information to keep expanding and nothing to be lost during the process," she explains. 


Some studies were still quite hypothetical, while others were extremely practical. "That's also the beauty of events like this," Christian Struck points out. During the event, researchers had the opportunity to share their projects with others in an open and easily accessible way. This in turn generates new ideas because other researchers look at things in a different way. For example, one of the researchers was given the practical tip to save his data in a different file format so that it would be easier to analyze in the future. Also, a special bicycle was lent out to collect data for a research project. 

In any case, Léon Olde Scholtenhuis, assistant professor at the University of Twente and co-organizer of the event, thought it was very successful. " I think it would be fantastic if we could organize an annual conference like this to share the progress of our research, plans and ideas. That would definitely benefit innovation."


Photos by: ByLaura Photography