Tech Talk: Embracing New Realities

AEC firms want to make client projects successful as they design, engineer, build and maintain the planet’s critical infrastructure. Doing so efficiently requires determining just what roles technology can play as we stand on the threshold of a worldwide digital transformation.

We are all familiar with the story of Goldilocks and the three bears. Jim Swanski, director of construction digital transformation and delivery at Burns & McDonnell, often finds himself comparing technology in the architecture, engineering and construction space to the fable.

For AEC firms to be successful, it is crucial to look at how technology affects skilled laborers in the field, prepares workers for dangerous job sites, impacts manufacturers when speed to market is critical, and enhances the end-user experience, such as when passengers are traveling. Swanski believes firms can invest too much, too little or just the right amount in technology to improve all of these and other processes. The problem is many companies lose their way trying to find the right balance.

“If you’re only betting and innovating on the sure things, you’re taking zero risks and you’re not going to mature your business and be impactful in any fundamental way,” Swanski says. “You’ll just make incremental improvements. On the other hand, if you make too many big bets that don’t pay off, you can cripple your company financially. If you’re going to do it right, your investment in innovation must have some level of healthy risk tolerance to propel your company forward.”

The introduction of technologically driven marvels — like automated equipment, robots, advanced modeling software, biometrics, 3D printing, reality capture, artificial intelligence, and virtual and augmented reality — illustrates that the construction sector is inventive enough to adapt emerging technologies in productive ways.

The demand for on-site technology exploded over the last two years because of the pandemic and an increased need for social distancing and reduced ability to travel. And while software apps, mobile devices and virtual reality technology were a big part of this explosion and continue to be used broadly across the construction industry, advanced technology involving processes like automation and AI are taking longer to adopt.

Technology can help make the workplace safer, improve productivity, enhance collaboration and make operations more efficient. So, to not fully embrace it — where it makes sense — seems foolhardy and can make companies less competitive.

As we move forward during this era of digital transformation, what exactly is happening in the realm of technology on-site, off-site and in the air?

Changing On-Site Construction With Technology

High productivity is a necessity for construction firms’ long-term survival, and the adoption of contech — construction technology used for work done in the construction industry — is one way to remain highly competitive.

“Our business is changing,” says Scott Hendrickson, associate technology and innovation consultant
at Burns & McDonnell.

“We must do more with less,” he says. “It’s critical to move faster and simplify processes, allowing people in the field to work smarter and stay safe. Tech gives skilled laborers working on sites new opportunities for engagement and allows them to broaden and upgrade their skills, making them more valuable to employers, clients and the global economy.”

The chart below illustrates which technologies companies are leveraging to help improve their effectiveness and profitability.

Evolving Along Two Paths

Path One

When it comes to using technology in the field on construction sites, tech is evolving along two paths. The first path can be loosely described as the digital experience for project management collaboration tools. There are numerous applications that deliver efficiency, cost savings and a better-quality experience for how projects are designed, managed and built.

For example, there are numerous software tools that help with value engineering, scheduling, cost estimates and bids. More helpful and used more frequently now, since the pandemic, are data platforms that take 3D models and merge them with schedule timelines to look at constructability, construction schedules, sequencing and other logistics, all before a construction crew ever sets foot on a job site. As time goes on, these platforms are getting more sophisticated.

Path Two

The second path for technology involves the physical tools and equipment used on-site, making tasks safer and more efficient. This includes wearables, robotics, remote-controlled equipment and automated equipment that uses some form of AI.

Industrywide, reality capture technologies are showing real promise. Equipment like unmanned aerial vehicles or 3D scanners that capture and create digital representations of physical assets are booming. Firms are flying drones over project sites and creating point-cloud images or utilizing laser scanners to create digital twins of actual assets. Technology also exists that enables drones to fly over a 5,000-acre solar project site, for example, and in minutes create a progress report on how much work has been done and what’s left to do.

To help improve safety on-site, reduce production costs and increase productivity and efficiency, firms — including Burns & McDonnell — are using high-tech robotics systems. One such system is the Ekso Evo Exoskeleton, a wearable device, which can reduce the impact of the weight of materials on the human body.

Additionally, there’s a tremendous amount of investment in tools that focus on automating some of the more mundane, repeatable on-site construction tasks. There are semi-autonomous solutions for laying and tying rebar and remotely placing driving piles. Skid steers are being programmed to pick up and move materials automatically, and backhoes are being programmed to dig trenches and perform other tasks.

Further, there are a variety of field solutions that focus on safety and involve on-site monitoring. Wearables, like those offered by companies such as WakeCap, provide information that keeps workers safe, checks for site choke points and increased risks, and monitors site productivity while respecting individual privacy. The technology uses integrated sensors and wireless network technology to provide an in-depth understanding of on-site activity. Applications that can monitor the vital signs of employees involved in strenuous activities are also being utilized in the field to see that they are not overexerting themselves to a dangerous level.

“There is a lot going on in terms of technology, and the truth is, all organizations struggle with how and when to adopt it,” Hendrickson says. “Incorporating advanced tech into workflows takes careful planning and thoughtful consideration about where the greatest client benefits can be realized over both the short and long term.”

U.S. contech funding increased to $2.1 billion by mid-2022, an uptick of more than 100% from the previous year, according to Construction Dive’s analysis of Crunchbase data. This infusion of investment and the demand for broader and faster tech implementation is due in large part to the challenges that arose during the pandemic. 

“While the investments in contech are exciting, we can’t lose sight of the impacts to our customers and to our people,” Swanski says. “On the customer value side, organizations are increasingly adopting generative design to reduce the cost and weight of materials, while speeding up the design optimization process.”

He believes generative design can optimize commercial floor space for seating, open space, restrooms, conference room placement and more. This in turn has impacts on the people side, freeing up time spent on aesthetic design changes to focus on bigger picture issues such as constructability and supply chain concerns.

Hendrickson agrees and notes whenever investments in tech are made, they must add value for the client. He thinks it’s important to evaluate how proven the technology is and whether it allows a team to leverage something it is already doing, including modifying a system that may already be in use.

“In light of all the technological innovations being made, we should all look ahead with excitement and anticipation, because ready or not, technical evolution is inevitable,” Hendrickson says.

Training in an Immersive World

Corporations spend a significant amount of money on training in the United States, according to Statista.  Yet, based on memory experiments, after just 24 hours individuals forget more than 70% of what they take in. That is why conducting training in an exciting, memorable, highly stimulating virtual reality environment can be a game-changer.

Many firms that work with critical infrastructure find they can increase training engagement by using 3D visualization platforms like virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR). These interactive technologies immerse trainees in real-world experiences and help them feel more engaged with subject matter. Both VR and AR are particularly effective because they address all three types of learning — visual, auditory and kinesthetic. These technologies allow firms to simulate doing work in the real world without the danger. By introducing gamification to the mix, learning is made even more interesting, and retention is often higher.

“Training is like drinking from a waterfall,” says Charlie Cox, who leads VR training development for the Transmission & Distribution Group at Burns & McDonnell. “Employees are introduced to so much information and it is hard to remember it all. It’s expensive to hire and train new workers. In the world of construction, particularly in sectors like power transmission and distribution, training is highly specific and complicated. It can also be dangerous. VR and AR makes learning safer and helps make complicated learning easier to understand.”

Cox attributes VR training popularity to not only increased knowledge retention, but also time and cost savings for businesses. Take, for example, the Burns & McDonnell Substation Experience, created in partnership with a global energy company. It’s a VR hands-on experience in which training time is reduced but more effective. The training transports trainees virtually into electrical substations where they are introduced to drawings and definitions, exposed to images of real environments they’ll work in, and instructed to go through the motions needed to complete various tasks.

Currently, the Substation Experience training exists for just substations, but plans call for expanding VR and AR training to overhead circuits, underground transmission lines, control houses and more. Being able to take the danger out of learning is a great benefit of this form of training. Trainees can get in many more repetitions than they do while training in real-world environments, and they can do it safely within a virtual copy of any physical job site.

“The investment is worth it,” Cox says. “You can train four times as fast and be more effective by simply replacing two hours of traditional training with 30 minutes of VR instruction. Depending on the size of your company and the amount of investment, that can result in significant savings.”

Cox doesn’t advise that companies throw out all of their existing training in favor of VR or AR. He instead suggests selecting courses that make the most sense to be virtual; courses that involve a lot of visual and hands-on elements. Consider what can be done as a tour or what training involves a lot of equipment that must be clearly defined, handled in a very precise manner or managed in a specific order.

“Real-world, hands-on training isn’t going away,” Cox says. “As best as they can, employers must use all resources at their disposal to prepare their employees for on-site work so that everyone returns home safely at the end of the workday.”

Technology Charts a New Course at Airports

Air travelers expect the creature comforts they have in other walks of life to be available when they arrive at airports. To the extent these comforts are available, passengers are more satisfied, and increased satisfaction can lead to an increase in nonaeronautical revenue. In fact, according to Airports Council International, an increase of 1% in global passenger satisfaction, as defined by the Airport Service Quality (ASQ) Survey, generates on average 1.5% growth in income from nonaviation-related commercial activity like retail, restaurants and other sources.

In 2021, more than 1.64 million air travelers passed through U.S. airports daily, based on Federal Aviation Administration data. The challenge for airport operators is to minimize the anxiety, stress and queues passengers must wait in while traveling. It’s also important to minimize anxiety about parking and ground transportation, finding gates, connecting to flights, checking bags, and getting to and through security checkpoints.

One way to alleviate air travel angst and get passengers in the air with less stress is through technology.

“To make air travel more enjoyable and less stressful, one of the most impactful technologies is the use of biometrics and facial recognition,” says Stu Garrett, an aviation technology consultant at Burns & McDonnell. “When travelers walk through a space, their face could tell every computer system or camera observing them a wealth of information that aids in personalizing the travel experience.”

According to Garrett, the ultimate goal is to automate airport check-in by adding cameras to every kiosk to enable biometrics to distribute boarding passes, check bags and manage other tasks for travelers. Balancing convenience against privacy is a challenge, like it is in so many aspects of life. But the broad-based use of a paperless, high-tech checking, screening and boarding process is in the near future.

Garrett would know. The aviation team at Burns & McDonnell wrote the technical specifications that are being used to procure biometric self-boarding gates at Los Angeles International Airport’s Midfield Satellite Concourse. The specs essentially utilize turnstiles — like those at subway stations — to let travelers board aircraft after their faces are scanned and recognized. The technology is already being used at some terminals at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

What is the next logical step? The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and aviation security regulators worldwide are seeking to turn the paper-based identification processes of today into a large-scale automated process. This will help address the challenges of rising security threats, increased passenger volumes, and limited staff and resources. Facial recognition technology can streamline the passenger experience, strengthen security and improve operational efficiency. Technology such as this is part of the federal government’s biometrics road map, which incorporates feedback gathered during more than 40 engagements with strategic aviation organizations, airlines, airports, government agencies and technology providers.

“The possibilities are endless regarding tech at airports,” Garrett says. “A big part of what architecture, engineering and construction professionals must do is urge clients to be patient. Everyone wants the flashy, whiz-bang thing they see on the news or at electronics shows. But that isn’t necessarily what society needs in real-time lockstep when it comes to air travel.”

Above all else, Garrett says airports must remain safe, acknowledging that there is just not enough risk appetite for every single shred of new consumer technology to show up at airports right away. But as technologies prove themselves, airports have demonstrated an ability to bring the best of tech onboard. Aviation tech specialists test, retest and double-check technology, staying on top of market trends with an eye toward futuristic solutions that will make each passenger’s experience easier.

In particular, one day soon technology will be used to avoid losing retail sales at airports. Technology will be able to determine under what circumstances airport retailers lose the business of certain customers because of, for example, long lines. When that happens, the next step might be to send that customer a coupon for a free item (like a meal or cup of coffee) to use the next time they are at the airport.

Taking this a step further, sophisticated technology will help travelers not only look at a mobile device and determine where the nearest restaurant is, but also determine if they can go to the restaurant and still make their flight, considering a variety of variables like gate distance, flight arrivals and delays, passenger volume, and the like.

Despite its promise, according to Garrett, the most complicated problems in airports involve human variables and can't be solved by technology alone.

“The psychology and sociology of human behavior is often nuanced and subtle,” Garrett says. “As consultants working in aviation, we constantly must contemplate how passengers navigate spaces. What was done while constructing yesterday’s airports won’t work for tomorrow’s airports. Technology should not be feared. It should instill a greater degree of confidence and trust in the travel journey by lowering anxiety and stress and restoring the joy that air travel has historically provided.”

Thought Leaders

Charlie Cox

Assistant Applications Specialist
Burns & McDonnell

Stu Garrett

Project Manager, Aviation & Federal
Burns & McDonnell

Scott Hendrickson

Associate Technology and Innovation Consultant
Burns & McDonnell

Jim Swanski, Prosci CCP

Director, Business Technologies
Burns & McDonnell