A computer program named ALICE can analyze millions of possible schedules in minutes.
Artificial intelligence is finding a role in virtually every major industry, and for good reason: It’s good at solving really hard problems that limit productivity and efficiency. AI is being put to use in construction to monitor jobsite conditions and progress and spot unsafe behavior, for instance. But there’s perhaps no better example of a really hard construction problem than scheduling. And a startup called Alice Technologies has stepped up to reinvent how construction projects are scheduled.
Construction scheduling is overdue for disruption. Project managers tend to design projects using the critical path method (CPM), the same approach that has been taught and used since World War II. There might be a million ways to approach a project, but typically, managers seriously consider only one or two because there are simply too many variables to properly evaluate.
Given the challenges of mapping critical paths for even a small construction project, schedulers tend to design a workflow that relies on habits learned from past projects rather than build a custom schedule that leans into unique aspects of the current build. Is it the fastest way? The most efficient? The most cost effective? The answer to all those questions is likely to be “no.”
Since it’s too difficult to build an optimized schedule by hand, Alice Technologies created an AI program, called ALICE, that leverages artificial intelligence to do it automatically.
To understand its advantages, think of Dr. Strange in “Avengers: Infinity War.” He stepped outside time and observed 14,000,605 versions of the battle against the evil Thanos, making small changes in each one to see which would result in a win. Like a computerized Dr. Strange, ALICE can explore millions of ways to complete the same project with different manpower, resources and scheduling and find the approach that works best.
“ALICE can simulate a construction project 5 to 10 million times in under about 10 minutes,” said Brandon Young, VP of marketing at Alice Technologies. Young said ALICE can build a construction schedule that’s on average 16 percent faster than one created by hand, which on a large project can mean shaving months off the schedule and saving 14.7 percent on labor costs.
“ALICE can simulate a construction project 5 to 10 million times in under about 10 minutes.”
ALICE creates a detailed schedule that considers every aspect of the project and combines a 3-D model of the project with a Gantt-style execution chart, including all associated costs. That schedule can be a game-changer.
Said Young, “On a typical jobsite, if you ask the superintendent, ‘What are you going to do when you get to the third floor,’ if they're being honest, they'll say, ‘We're still working on the first floor, we haven't thought about the third floor yet.’ What you usually get is minimal planning and a hard focus on execution when they get to jobsite.” With ALICE, the best path to success is mapped out.
One of ALICE’s greatest advantages according to Young is its ability to let project managers ask “what if” questions. “You can ask something like, ‘What if we had two tower cranes instead of one. Would the cost of second tower crane be offset by speed at which we could execute? Would it unblock a lot of the bottlenecks?’” Schedulers have always had these kinds of questions in the past but lacked the tools to do a deep analysis.
The future of construction scheduling promises to be more exciting than Gantt charts and BIM models have any right to be. With the help of technology, project managers can look forward to creating actionable, detailed plans that resolve age-old inefficiencies in the construction process. They can explore ways to work that were simply impossible in the past. With the help of AI, even the hardest logistical problems can be resolved in hours, not months.
Dave Johnson is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who has been writing about all aspects of business and technology since before there was an internet.