Perspective

Where the Tech are We?

The construction industry is flooded with new technologies, and despite the benefits that could be realized, adoption is slow.

Since the Industrial Revolution, the construction industry has seen a multitude of new technologies. Things as common as updated material manufacturing techniques, power tools and diesel-driven equipment were once catalysts for rethinking the traditional. Today, however, a new wave of technology is struggling to reach its full potential.

Over the last several decades, the implementation of new technology solutions to advance the construction industry has stagnated as compared to other industries. This is odd since the construction industry dwarfs most other industries in size and stands to gain a great deal in efficiency and quality through the integration of technologies into the planning, design and building phases of projects.

According to the JB Knowledge’s 2018 Construction Technology Report, there are various reasons for this lag in advancement. The study pinpoints a shortage of support staff and budget as well as employee hesitancy and a lack of knowledge and maturity of technology available. On top of this, companies must be disciplined when it comes to choosing the right technology, careful not to fall for the latest fad in the absence of clearly defined business cases to justify the spend.

The industry needs to focus on improving efficiency with tools that don’t just collect data for data’s sake.

Chad Kirby
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Today’s Improvements

Selecting viable technology solutions from the flood of products available on the market can be difficult, as many claim to provide better efficiency on the job site. These products place a heavy focus on collecting data from various aspects of the construction process — from the number and movements of workers on-site to the utilization of personal protective equipment (PPE) — with the idea that the data can then be used to inform better processes. But the true value of data is only realized when it is collected properly and with purpose.

“Watching dots on a screen doesn’t offer much in the way of improved efficiency,” Kirby says. “Tracking workers might offer some incremental improvement in safety, but the industry needs to focus on improving efficiency with tools that don’t just collect data for data’s sake.”

Kirby also points out that there are many new project management processes being implemented at the front end of projects. By adjusting existing methods of project delivery and focusing on startup and turnover phases, these new approaches offer bigger impacts and successful end results.

Software is constantly evolving to help improve those project management processes. Effective construction management tools use a simple, intuitive interface and are accessible from mobile devices or a desktop. They offer streamlined solutions for sharing information between people on a job site, creating more efficient processes for requests for information and better change management. Most importantly, these tools cut down on the number of spreadsheets needed to track information, tying all project data into one system.

Another area that is seeing improvements is in the potential of combining technologies that already exist.

“Retrofitting heavy equipment with different technology that is readily available is not only effective but also costs very little,” Kirby says.

“Take 360-degree cameras, which already are being utilized on high-end cars to improve safety. It’s a technology that has proven its effectiveness. Adding these cameras to heavy equipment has the potential to greatly improve job site safety and is now seeing widespread adoption.”

Automation is another technology being utilized alongside existing tools. In a fabrication shop environment, such as for orbital welding and material handling, automation is easier to manage than in the field, increasing the overall value of prefabrication. In another example, one major construction equipment provider has recently tested skid loaders retrofitted with self-driving technology adapted from self-driving cars to move materials from the laydown area to installation crews in the field.

Tomorrow’s Advancements

“The development of technology is not a linear scale,” says Woods Denny, manager of technology innovation at Burns & McDonnell. “Instead, it’s more of an exponential scale, and we’re on the inflection point in the construction space. I believe things are really going to start getting crazy active in the next five years.”

The construction industry can expect to see a huge influx of technologies during that time. In safety, tracking workers on a job site and video monitoring will take existing processes to the next level. Triax, SmartVid.io and their successors are examples of tools that will offer construction teams new ways to improve workflows by monitoring the number and location of workers on a job and identifying trades and PPE with artificial intelligence.

Denny has been testing a Triax safety monitor, wearing it at work.

“If I were to fall off a platform or if there was an emergency, I can press a button to notify the system,” he says. “Each unit is monitored throughout a site by a wireless mesh network, so something as simple as common worker movements can be tracked.”

A big push also is being made to develop tools that assist in materials management. The handling of materials to and on a job site is one of the biggest areas that could benefit from these improvements. RFID scanning for managing materials already is offering the ability to track when materials are being shipped, when they arrive on-site and where they are located in the laydown area, but scanning technology in general continues to offer new applications and opportunities.

The industry also can expect to see more use of 3D printing for a variety of needs, and the implementation of 5G bandwidth for the use of remote-controlled and automated equipment. This eventually will set the stage for fully robotic construction.

“There’s some work to be done with these technologies,” Denny says. “Substrates, materials and equipment have to get more affordable for 3D printing. Cars, or possibly the shipping industry, will likely be first to automation, followed by construction. But there’s no reason why we can’t get there.”

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Substrates, materials and equipment have to get more affordable for 3D printing.

Woods Denny
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Confronting the Future

Over the past decade, the industry has worked to clearly define each part of a project and the responsibilities of those performing the work. This has increased the potential for lack of project cohesiveness by allowing team members to focus solely on their own roles and technology tools.

“The concern is that we are creating specialties within projects,” Kirby says. “This can be an effective way to divide work, but this division is also a potential pitfall. Technologically speaking, this division creates the perceived need for multiple pieces of technology, diluting the end goal while requiring greater spend on additional solutions.”

While costs will remain a hindrance to technology adoption, the greater challenge to overcome might be accounting for the IT foundation required to connect and run the mix of new technologies.

“You can sign up for many of these products or services today, but you need the hardware, network and storage solutions to make the most of them,” Denny says. “New network connectivity opportunities on job sites could be an answer, as they are becoming cost-effective and feasible for lots of different applications.”

More than anything, the rise of data management will continue to improve efficiency and quality in the construction industry. But until there is a reliable solution with a solid business case to support it, the industry must continue to be aware of the issues associated with untested products while still looking ahead at potential future technologies.

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