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Social Value Creation Report Work Style

The technology that holds the key to resolving labor shortages
Unraveling the issues that construction sites face

In developed countries, a plethora of urban renewal projects are being launched, while in growing countries, urbanization is accelerating as a consequence of economic growth. Amid these developments, various problems relating to work performed in the field—including construction and maintenance inspections—are once again under the spotlight. In developed countries, declining birthrates and aging societies have caused problems of labor shortage. In turn, these issues have made it harder to maintain the continuity of specialized skills among workers. Another vexing problem is the increased burden of maintenance work required to maintain essential infrastructure, such as roads and sewage systems.

Meanwhile, the current reality in growing countries is that there is a lack of knowledge concerning the maintenance and operation of structures and the infrastructure that has been developed, and insufficient safety measures instituted as part of work in the field has led to frequent accidents. Around the world, it is imperative to resolve these issues and to bring about a transformation of the way fieldwork is done. Potential solutions in the form of technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) have been receiving considerable notice. There are considerable expectations that applying these technologies will transform fieldwork that has until now been primarily performed by hand, and will be able to deliver new styles of work that balance safety and security with efficiency. NEC will make maximum use of the cutting-edge technologies that it has researched and developed through the accumulation of large amounts of technical expertise and knowledge to organically connect people with things, people with machines, and people with data using ICT. It will provide new styles of work in various fields. This report discusses cutting-edge initiatives that revolutionize work performed in the field.

Construction site labor shortages manifesting as problems around the world

Urbanization is proceeding rapidly around the world, particularly in growing countries. This has resulted in issues of labor shortages to meet construction demand. It is predicted that the human population will be increasingly concentrated in urban areas. In 2050, it is estimated that the urban population will have expanded to 6.3 billion, or 1.8 times the current number. This situation gives rise to the possibility that it will eventually become impossible to meet the construction demand that will result from urbanization.

According to a report by the International Labour Organization (ILO), there was significant global growth in unemployment in the construction industry following the 2008 global economic crisis. Even the subsequent base trend of recovery that was obtained since then has not sufficiently compensated for the initial loss of skilled workers, and will likely take many years for a complete recovery.

Furthermore, in Japan, low birth rate and the aging population are further accelerating problems of labor shortages. The March 2015 report, "A Long-Term Vision for the Construction Industry," released by the Japan Federation of Construction Contractors predicts that, of the 34.3 million skilled laborers (around 70% of all workers in the construction industry), 12.8 million elderly workers will leave their jobs over the next 10 years.
The federation estimates that between 32.8 and 35 million skilled laborers will be required in 2025. It has established targets under which productivity must be raised and laborsaving measures instituted for around 350 thousand, or 10%, of those skilled workers. The report goes on to note that there will be a significant issue in the future, when it is anticipated that there will be a severe labor shortage, and an additional 900 thousand skilled workers will need to be found. This would primarily be accomplished through skill transfers to the younger generation.

Meanwhile, in growing countries, it has been revealed that not only are there issues of labor shortages, but safety and health measures have yet to become mature. The rate of accidental death among construction workers is typically three to four times that of other industries. The risk is even greater in growing countries, with some data indicating that rates there can be predicted to eventually reach three to six times those in developed countries. The vast majority of these accidents can be prevented. However, mechanisms for monitoring and implementing safety and health measures in growing countries are still weak, and at this stage, it is unlikely that companies engaged in construction will thoroughly comply with such measures of their own accord. As a result, the ILO and other government and private-sector organizations around the world are cooperating to recommend and promote good practices through survey research, training, the creation of education tools such as movies and teaching materials, and other means.

The advance of aging among construction industry workers

A future in which construction sites are about to be reborn as cutting-edge ICT Factories

The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism is promoting the i-onstruction initiative to resolve issues of labor shortages in construction sites. This initiative aims to create appealing construction sites by using means such as full utilization of ICT to improve productivity and safety in construction sites, raise wage levels, and deliver other benefits.

In public works, for instance, there is a process consisting of the following steps: surveying, drafting of design and construction plans, construction, and then inspections. With i-onstruction, the use of ICT during each step is intended to deliver great productivity improvements and reductions in construction times. Specifically, the use of drones allows surveying to be conducted quickly, and the differences between the three-dimensional surveying data obtained and the design drawings are used to automatically calculate the volumes of earth to be cut away or filled in. Even during the actual construction, it will be possible to work efficiently even with a small team of workers by using three-dimensional design data to automatically control heavy construction machinery. There should also be labor-savings during inspections, because the use of surveying data collected and analyzed using drones can drastically cut the amount of paperwork and items requiring inspection.

Additionally, there have been active efforts aimed at practical implementation of automatic control of heavy construction machinery. As an example that has already been implemented, 3D data for the existing terrain and completion drawing can be input into heavy construction machinery with embedded ICT. The height, angles, and positions of blades and other equipment mounted on the front of the heavy machinery are thus controlled automatically, and workers level the ground automatically, simply by advancing the heavy machinery. Even under conditions in which labor shortages have become severe and it is difficult to transfer skills, utilization of ICT should allow less-experienced workers to continue working in construction.

Furthermore, technological innovations—such as sensor technologies that have rapidly advanced, wireless technologies, and cloud technologies—are currently helping to compensate for various issues in fieldwork. If these technologies are further developed and overall optimization of construction processes are achieved, then it is not hard to imagine that there could be dramatic increases in productivity. Construction sites are about to be reborn as cutting-edge ICT factories.

Earthmoving workflows that fully utilize ICT

ICT and robotics—changing fieldwork

Labor shortages in fieldwork constitute an issue that fundamentally affects the maintenance of infrastructure essential to our daily lives including roads, sewers, and railways. Because structures and facilities deteriorate with the passage of time, they will no longer be able to perform their original functions if left alone. The aging of infrastructures is advancing particularly in developed countries because they were built much earlier. Ballooning cost burdens and labor shortages have become significant issues. The growing countries where infrastructure developments are now actively being pursued will face similar problems in the future. Among the businesses that operate this infrastructure, discussions are underway about how to make maintenance work more efficient and advanced through the utilization of ICT.

For example, NEXCO East*, which is engaged in management and repairs of various types of expressways, has announced the "Smart Maintenance Highway Initiative" to build new systems for maintenance. The company is fully engaged to deliver this vision by 2020. As part of this initiative, damage to bridge girders, cracks, and other issues will be discovered early through inspections utilizing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). In addition, methods such as making inspection records mobile through the use of smartphones are under discussion.

EAST JAPAN RAILWAY COMPANY is also engaged in research and development related to a smart maintenance initiative employing ICT in maintenance work. Specifically, JR-East is working to deliver preventative maintenance tailored to each particular track by performing big data analytics on massive volumes of collected inspection data, as well as to implement asset management and expert systems based on data.

As is evident from these initiatives, the utilization of ICT is unavoidable if work style transformation for fieldwork, including infrastructure maintenance, is to be achieved. Another essential key to resolving the issues discussed earlier is the use of robotics. In 2014, the Japanese government established the Robot Revolution Realization Council which compiled the Japan's Robot Strategy, a five-year plan. This plan settled on a plan to utilize robots in 20% of crucial, but aging infrastructure. If the plan is implemented, infrastructure maintenance is performed will be fundamentally transformed.

Proportion of infrastructure that has lasted at least 50 years since construction
  • *
    East Nippon Expressway Company Limited

What are the cloud systems that construction sites need?

Amid the acceleration of the use of ICT in fieldwork that has been highlighted earlier in this document, the Obayashi Corporation, NEC, and GRAPHISOFT partnered to complete "Smart BIM Cloud," a next-generation BIM cloud service.

Building information modeling (BIM) refers to solutions that utilize three-dimensional digital models of buildings with added data concerning attributes such as cost and management throughout the entire lifecycle of buildings, from design to construction, maintenance, and management. These solutions are already widely used in Europe and North America. Meanwhile, in Japan, the Obayashi Corporation has implemented BIM in around one-half of its design and construction projects, and there are an increasing number of other examples of the solution being adopted.

Next-generation BIM clouds are designed to allow threedimensional digital models created using BIM to be checked anywhere and anytime from tablet devices. Because the latest building models can be shared throughout the entire courses of projects, customers and those working on projects can easily learn more about the site, and all involved can smoothly reach agreement about decisions by rapidly expressing their intentions. Furthermore, because various data relating to buildings— including those concerning the design process, procurement, and various simulations—are centrally managed in databases, productive, high-quality work and smooth progress through work schedules are possible when workers utilize these data in the construction process.

The infrastructure that is required for actually implementing BIM is built as a cloud service, and this allows all those involved to have efficient access to vast amounts of building data, anywhere and anytime. Soon it will be possible to have new site management and processes that are unconstrained by time and location, as project members—including suppliers, customers, and construction offices—will be able to share building data using the cloud.

NEC is engaged in efforts to create Building IoT, which will combine IoT and AI technologies—with a nextgeneration cloud playing a central role. Because Building IoT delivers centralized management throughout building lifecycles, data related to the status of work and construction arising from all processes, from design and construction to maintenance and management, are consolidated in the cloud. The collected data will be analyzed using AI technologies, and the aim is to offer new services that support operations based on forecasts of site conditions that change from moment-to-moment.

Overview of NEC's building IoT solutions for construction and housing

NEC envisions IoT solutions for fieldwork

NEC is actively developing solutions that utilize the latest technologies—including IoT and augmented reality (AR)—to resolve the problem of labor shortages faced by field work sites and to increase productivity. "Wearable Remote Work Support Solutions" use smart glass to enable hands-free sharing of video and audio. Site managers can monitor multiple workers and send real-time instructions to individual employees. Using the beacons located throughout the site, managers can also monitor the locations of workers in real-time and give remote instructions based on their current locations. Increasing levels of visualization of the people, things, and events throughout sites allows managers to monitor conditions at the site in detail, anywhere and anytime.

With NEC's proprietary image recognition technology, machinery used in work can be differentiated with high precision. Machinery whose nature do not allow the installation of AR markers can be detected based on images and then the actual procedures for performing a task can be displayed using AR. This technology effectively supports new hires and less-experienced employees and also works to prevent missed work steps and mistakes.

IoT solutions for construction sites are also under development. Using the leading facial recognition technology in the world,* NEC delivers site entrance and exit management for employees. Face images previously stored in a database are rapidly matched with images taken by monitoring cameras, restricting access to the site by persons not in the database. One example of how this technology could be used would be to record only employees who have been confirmed to have enrolled in social insurance. Limiting access to the site would help to resolve the problem of employees not enrolled in social insurance that plagues construction sites.

NEC is also working on health management for individual employees. Using a wearables system taking the form of clothing that is worn daily underneath other clothing developed by Gunze through a technical partnership with NEC, data relating to employees engaged in work can be measured. These data include posture, as well as biometric data such as calories
expended and heart rate. Managers can efficiently manage the health of employees at any time and from anywhere, as the collected data are sent to the cloud via smartphones.

Through the use of IoT and AR, NEC provides site management and worker support that are not constrained by time and place, as well as more advanced safety and health management.

NEC solutions for revolutionizing fieldwork
  • *
    Ranked 1st in United States' NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) benchmark testing.

In search of smart sites where people and machines can divide roles

The active use of robotics and drones on the work site will be indispensable when thinking about future productivity improvements for fieldwork. If tasks requiring physical loads and experience that are now performed manually can be replaced with robots, then it will deliver workplace safety and security, improvements to work efficiency, and more effective use of human resources. It would also lead to work style transformation for fieldwork.

One example of an NEC initiative using robots involves maintenance and management work performed on sewage facilities. Within sewage pipes, surveys are conducted using video cameras or by sight after the flow of sewage has been blocked off and sludge and sediment have been removed. However, this method only permits 200 meters to be surveyed per day. Another issue is that it incurs costs for processing sludge and sediment. To resolve these issues, NEC developed the Sewer Management System. Using NEC's image analysis technology, surveys can be conducted without interrupting the flow of water in sewer pipes and without needing to perform cleaning.

NEC is also engaged in research to make inspections conducted as part of the maintenance and management of bridges, tunnels, and other infrastructure smart through the use of drones. The drones are equipped with hammers and microphones for hammering noise–detection, as well as cameras for close visual inspections and can be piloted to spots to be inspected by remote control. The inspector then records the collected sensor data as inspection results, allowing safe recording of any deformations of objects requiring inspection that are located in high places, such as those that might be found in bridges and tunnels.

Thus the transformation of fieldwork work styles through the use of ICT is just beginning. Eventually, ICT will control robots and machinery in real time, reducing work burdens on people and ensuring safety and security. Furthermore, new work and maintenance processes that are not possible with humans alone will arise when humans and robots work together, each used where they will be the most effective. Not only that, but this transformation will also assist in transferring skills and know-how from veteran employees to young employees. It will be possible to record skills and knowhow digitally for transfer to both humans and robots. NEC will support a variety of on-site work style transformations through the use of cutting-edge technologies.

While respecting the essential values pursued by society and by their customers, NEC wishes to work together with everyone and use the ICT to design new social values for the sake of a brighter world. If you have any questions concerning the contents of this report or NEC initiatives, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Hammering noise-detecting drones for bridges and tunnels

(February 28, 2020)

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