In this month's "Trailblazers" interview, we speak with Dr. Mani Golparvar, technology and innovation leader at Reconstruct. Mani talks with us about his career background—including his passion for construction management and AI—as well as how new technology and an increased investment in research and development will positively impact E&C innovation.
Mani also discusses the remarkable improvements in technology readiness and how entrepreneurship is bridging the gap between the construction industry and academia.
Dr. Burcin Kaplanoglu, executive director, innovation officer at Oracle Construction and Engineering, leads the discussion.
MG: I wear two hats. In one role, I am COO and co-founder of Reconstruct, an early-stage company that offers a visual, three-dimensional command center for managing construction projects. The second role I play is Associate Professor of Civil Engineering, Computer Science and Technology Entrepreneurship at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.
My primary research interests lie at the intersection of construction project controls, building information modeling, and artificial intelligence.
Given my background in construction and technology research and development at Reconstruct, I lead and help with some of the day-to-day administration and operation aspects of the business, ranging from strategic planning, partnerships, and customer success management to technology and product development.
My career has interestingly evolved on both sides of construction and technology development and applications. In my teenage years, I was fascinated by the construction of civil infrastructure systems—particularly bridges and tunnels—as well as computer programming and software development.
Early experience in project delivery
I started my professional career in the oil and gas industry with project controls and developed construction animations—now called 4D (3D + schedule) building information models—to communicate work in progress to owners.
Later on, I moved into designing and constructing civil and infrastructure projects before eventually working my way into the commercial building sector at Turner Construction.
At Turner, I was focused in part on improving the process for capturing daily progress reports from subcontractors. I learned that inconsistencies in daily construction reporting can expose construction management and general contractor companies to a variety of risks.
Unfortunately, subcontractors frequently fell behind with their paper-based submissions. Our superintendents chased subcontractors for information that was generally insufficient to complete a useful and actionable daily construction report.
BIM and scheduling
Around this time, people had just started using 2-3 mega pixel consumer grade cameras. The applications of building information modeling (BIM) for pre-construction cost estimation and constructability reviews was just emerging.
I was intrigued with the potential of how comparing images and videos to BIM connected to schedule could help visually document and measure work in progress. I was especially interested in how we could potentially address the pain points in daily construction reporting.
The interface of construction management and computer vision
My PhD dissertation and academic research at both the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Virginia Tech focused on the interface of construction management and computer vision. Reconstruct’s visual 3D command center for construction projects emerged from this work.
Reconstruct was a prototype that we developed with Dr. Derek Hoiem—my computer science colleague at the University of Illinois and CTO of Reconstruct—as well as a talented group of civil engineering and computer science students.
We piloted the prototype at one of the largest stadium projects in the country led by Turner Construction. Turner gave us an award and we received similar recognition from the World Economic Forum.
These recognitions—together with industry interest in using our prototype—gave us an opportunity to explore funding Reconstruct—including assembling a business-driven team lead by CEO Zak MacRunnels.
MG: The E&C culture has dramatically changed over the past 10 years. After 2008, we've seen a change in the generation of people who are working at construction sites.
Technology readiness has dramatically improved, especially in terms of how we model, simulate, and share project data, as well as how we capture information from job sites, including using the Internet of Things (IoT).
Companies are witnessing a change in this generation because technologies have improved, and the price point is also lower. That’s where the opportunities are emerging.
Increased research and development investment
The good news: over the past five to six years, numerous companies have decided to invest in establishing central research and development or innovation divisions.
Companies want to ensure there is an internal process that can measure how new technologies fit into their processes and workflows and assess value. It’s the return on investment that matters at the end of the day.
These technology assessments offer an opportunity for companies to either map them into existing processes or standardize new processes across their projects. However, the real challenge is that—similar to tech companies and university research teams—the innovation teams are not directly involved in construction projects.
Innovation teams must introduce new ideas and concepts to their project teams and get buy-in. Hence, for some companies the process of adopting and adapting technology may become a two-step process as opposed to a direct process.
Due to dramatic improvements in technology, there's a lot of funding and startups. The concepts of digitizing job sites and industrialization have also matured.
In a short period of time we’ve seen digital transformation not only in terms of how we’re adopting technology but also in terms of business intelligence.
BK: You’re in a unique position as both an academic as well as the founder of a startup. How can an academic organization help foster a culture of innovation in the industry?
MG: It’s an exciting time to be in academia. There’s an opportunity to bridge the gap in terms of what the industry wants—processes and products that work—versus what academics typically work on: theories, methods, and software/hardware prototypes.
Translating research into processes and products
My mission in academia is to devise problem-driven research and explore scientific solutions to problems that matter. I work with startups and advanced technology companies to translate the research into processes and products that the industry can ultimately use. This process is easy to explain but is very difficult to implement.
At universities, we receive funding from numerous national and local agencies—including the National Science Foundation, which has funded most of my work—to drive research that contributes to the body of knowledge in construction.
We use this as an opportunity to develop scientific concepts that are typically transformed into prototypes. We work closely with the construction industry and listen to what their biggest pain points are that we need to focus on.
Transforming software prototypes into products
The academic research typically stops at publications and developing prototypes. Because of this, we don't go the extra mile of transforming that prototype into a product or process that a construction company can use.
Universities traditionally don’t support the transition of prototypes into a product or process. However, now that startups are adding excitement to our academic research, university leadership at our campuses are beginning to support this transition.
At the University of Illinois, our leadership recognized this opportunity early on. I was selected in the first cohort of faculty entrepreneurship fellows at the University of Illinois College of Engineering to transform our software prototype into products that can add value to the construction industry.
A prototype is great because it proves the concept and value. But construction companies should really interact with products because they have the potential to scale and be standardized across projects.
There must be a viable business case when assessing and testing a new solution before that opportunity can sustain and grow across your organization.
Entrepreneurship: Bridging the gap between the industry and academia
In my opinion, startups are the best way to bridge between what the industry and academia both want. Numerous academic colleagues are interested in transforming their research into industry solutions through startups.
But this means that somebody must fund it, and these transitions come at a cost that's driven by venture capital firms.
In the next few years, academia—particularly in construction informatics—will focus more on educating our students about how to develop internal entrepreneurial skill sets. This instruction will include new ideas on machine learning, artificial intelligence, etc., and how this technology can address pain points in the industry.
Interested students can gain a better understanding of industry pain points through conventional construction engineering and management education. They can also grasp new opportunities through data driven courses.
Students will be well-equipped to establish business models with an academic background in entrepreneurship. They can transform ideas and concepts from the classroom and research lab into new industry-grade solutions.
Indeed, this is the right time and space for innovation and entrepreneurship in construction.
Explore innovation in action at the Oracle Construction and Engineering Innovation Lab, a simulated worksite with integrated technologies, including Reconstruct.