Scheduling: Contech’s Innovation Outcast

The construction technology segment is white hot. Since 1999, more than $4.1B USD has been invested in contech globally. But some segments within it are much higher profile than others.

The construction technology segment is white hot. Since 2015, more than $6B USD has been invested in contech globally. And we’re seeing high value exits for contech start-ups. For example, Autodesk purchased PlanGrid for $875M. And Trimble bought Viewpoint for $1.2B. But while the contech market as a whole is attracting significant attention, some segments within it are much higher profile than others. Robotics companies, for example, are in the spotlight, with creations that do everything from hanging drywall to laying bricks. So, too, are the drone companies, whose whizzy creatures zip around job sites like critters from Isaac Asimov stories. And then, there are those contech segments that are decidedly unsexy. Scheduling, a subset of preconstruction, is one of those sectors and has received little attention -- until recently. Innovation in the category has been slim, and many general contractors -- including global players -- continue to limp along using products like P6, or even Excel. I would argue, however, that a high-value segment that has been long-ignored represents a substantial opportunity. Scheduling, in short, is ripe for change. And companies that can solve the intractable puzzle that is scheduling could win big.

So why has scheduling been passed over by technology innovators? One reason is the perceived difficulties in changing customer behavior in this segment. Primavera was first introduced in 1983. Excel was launched in 1985. And in the decades since then, both products have gained strong followings amongst schedulers. Moreover, scheduling is not an area within construction that is attracting the industry’s “new kids.” Many of today’s schedulers are in their fifties and sixties, and they’re comfortable with the tools they’ve known for years. Start-ups look at this target customer and shy away, concerned about their ability to shift customer behavior.

The even bigger reason for which startups have neglected scheduling in favor of other construction segments is that solving scheduling challenges is extraordinarily difficult. The number of variables in play for even a relatively simple construction project is intense. How many cranes should I use? When will my lumber arrive? How quickly will my concrete cure? Then, consider the projects that would be of interest to a large general contractor, like an airport, a bridge, or a sixty story office tower. The number of parameters involved are mind-bending. To be able to quickly and adeptly manipulate this many variables takes powerful artificial intelligence. Like surfers eying fifty foot winter waves off Oahu’s north shore, many start-ups confronted with such a challenge simply head to another beach.

“Like surfers eying fifty foot winter waves off Oahu’s north shore, many start-ups confronted with such a challenge simply head to another beach.”

But the potential rewards for companies that could help clients to develop more efficient schedules are tantalizing. ALICE Technologies was the first to enter these waters, creating a category. Others will follow. By using ALICE’s AI-powered optimization platform to create and experiment with scheduling choices, a major general contractor recently saved over $20 million on a large infrastructure project. In an industry in which the average project is 20% late and 80% over budget, do you think that contractors will invest in technology that enables them to hit their promised delivery dates? To use their equipment and crews more effectively? To use materials more efficiently? Of course they will. The payback period for contractors using such solutions is short, and the upside substantial. Adapting AI for scheduling requires contractors not only to learn new tools, but also to modify how they work. Change management is required, and as a result, it will be the more innovative contractors that make this shift first. But given the savings that AI-powered scheduling can bring, a gradual global migration to this new way of approaching the discipline is inevitable.

Innovation is bubbling within other areas of preconstruction. Parafin, for example, is using generative design to help their clients with site selection, for example. IrisVR is using virtual reality to enable teams to run design reviews with anyone, anywhere. Scheduling hasn’t seen this same level of entrepreneurial attention -- until now. With AI, contractors can now create millions of scheduling options for a project within an afternoon and then select the scheduling path that best suits their business goals. Cracking the code that makes this possible is no easy matter. But the same computing power that is enabling heavy equipment to operate autonomously and drones to interpret the data they are gathering on job sites is now available to solve the fiendishly difficult challenges of construction scheduling. Prepare for disruption.  

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