According to an ONS 2021 report, the average productivity levels in the construction industry have remained consistently below the UK average, with growth slowing in recent years. One of several reasons for this sluggish growth is lower digital transformation within the sector compared to other areas of the UK economy.
This has led several analysts and industry experts to hail 5G and Private Networks as a potential game-changer for the market. 5G Private Network’s low latency and high bandwidth unlock opportunities for increased productivity, enhanced health and safety, and digital new ways of working. This blog will highlight the key challenges facing the sector and suggest ways in which 5G Private Networks may provide an answer, identify key success stories, and highlight how Network Slicing may revolutionise connectivity and communication within construction.
Getting connectivity has always been a challenge on construction sites, with tight timeframes and potentially remote locations making the task even harder. Many companies are currently reliant on public cellular or Low Orbit Satellites (LEO) for their connectivity; however, this can be expensive and unreliable. Private Networks paired with various backhaul options may once and for all crack this connectivity challenge. In addition to providing connectivity, analysts and construction sector specialists have also identified several other key challenges facing the industry 1) Managing Safety, 2) Managing & Communicating with People and 3) Controlling and Tracking Equipment. 5G Private Networks can solve the underlying connectivity conundrum, while also help to solve all three of the additional challenges outlined above. Below I will deep dive into how;
Getting Connectivity to Site – As discussed, getting reliable and timely connectivity can be a challenge, especially in remote locations. By augmenting a 5G Private Network with various backhaul options, construction sites can quickly gain access to low latency, and high bandwidth connectivity, without the need for sole reliance on the public cellular network or expensive satellites. Moreover, given recent advancements in Private Network technology, it has never been easier to move and redeploy Private Networks to new sites, providing construction companies with the flexibility to respond to challenges and competing demands.
Managing Safety - The low latency, high bandwidth capabilities of 5G support real-time augmented & virtual reality applications targeted at improving employee awareness and understanding. By utilising Remote Worker technologies, construction workers can stay aware of their surroundings whilst easily receiving remote guidance from other employees. Wireless cameras with built-in artificial intelligence and machine learning can monitor high-risk work activity and quickly alert any unsafe situations. Furthermore, 5G connectivity unlocks the potential of teleoperated and autonomous vehicles, reducing the need for direct human involvement within dangerous locations. Whilst body-worn cameras equipped with real-time streaming allow secure video communication with all employees, reducing the risk of accidents.
Managing and Communicating with People – 5G connectivity enables secure, mission-critical communication through push-to-talk and voice & data communication. By leveraging a Private Network, the construction sector no longer needs to worry about connectivity black spots or Wi-Fi dead zones, as Private Networks provide reliable, consistent, high-quality connectivity. Beyond voice and data connectivity, 5G Private Networks can and are revolutionising the way we think about communication within construction. The low latency and high bandwidth enable new technologies such as bone conduction (hearing through the bones of the skull) and AR/VR. Such technologies enhance the way in which employees can communicate on-site, whilst improving worker safety by improving their situational awareness e.g., by hearing communication via bone conduction, the employee can continue to hear their surroundings via their ear canals.
Controlling and Managing Equipment – Through leveraging 5G Private Network connectivity, sensors can support site managers track equipment and people across the site, helping to monitor stock levels and machinery usage. Beyond tracking assets, 5G connectivity paired with AI and sensors can predict equipment maintenance, ensuring projects are not delayed by critical equipment breaking. While digital twins can map provide a virtual map of a construction site, helping to correctly position equipment and people for the greatest efficiency.
Increasing productivity and the bottom line – Through the use cases discussed above, and significant opportunities for co-bots (robots that assist humans in non-value add, dull and dangerous tasks) it’s clear to see that 5G Private networks can reduce some of the inefficiencies within construction activity. A whitepaper by EMS on the topic found that two-thirds of the CAPEX and OPEX benefits of Private Networks relate to some form of ‘reducing’ in terms of cost, downtime, delays, or fines, with enhanced health and safety being a key factor. Separate from the ‘hyped’ drones, autonomous guided vehicles, and robots, 5G Private Networks bring short-term productivity, safety, and logistic benefits which all positively impact the financial viability of construction projects.
Real-world examples of 5G & Private Networks in action within the Construction sector
Despite the clear benefits highlighted above, 5G and Private Networks uptake within Construction has been muted compared to other sectors such as Manufacturing and Utilities. A visionary Australian construction company deployed 5G connectivity, powering several onsite innovations including Holographic building visualisation, video streaming, and a suite of IoT sensors. This case study highlights how 5G can and has been used to drive value within the sector.
Moving to a UK case study, in 2022 a well-known civil engineering company deployed the first 5G standalone Private Network on a construction site located on the Shetland Islands. The Private Network spanned the challenging terrain of the 55,176 square meter site providing connectivity and enabling drones, augmented reality, AI, and IoT use cases. The 5G Private Network improved site strategy, enhanced site management decision making, and increased collaboration.
Network Slicing and its benefits within Construction
To date, commercial deployments of 5G Private Networks have been dedicated, on-site deployments separate from the public cellular network. However, 5G and emerging technology are beginning to change this, opening the door to Network Slicing. Network Slicing enables Enterprise customers to flexibly purchase different service levels of the Public Network, ensuring reliable, low-latency connectivity. Network Slicing and its more flexible pricing may open the power of Enterprise-level 5G to Construction sites around the country, ensuring the benefits outlined above are not limited to larger-size construction projects. Whilst Network Slicing is still an emerging technology and many analysts wait with bated breath about how it will be used, the Construction sector is a clear candidate for its adoption.
In conclusion, 5G and 5G Private Networks are a potential game-changer for the Construction segment. Despite muted uptake to date, Private Networks offer a part solution to many of the challenges the sector is currently facing, providing connectivity, improving health and safety, managing equipment, and increasing productivity via ultra-low latency connectivity and emerging use cases.