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
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.
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.