How Technology Is Reshaping Construction
By Kendall Jones
What do a pickup truck, a nail gun, a portable circular saw, a cement mixer truck, and a modern hydraulic excavator all have in common? The obvious answer is that they are all tools and equipment commonly found on construction sites today. Another correct answer would be that they are all pieces of technology that didn’t exist a hundred years ago.
Imagine what the jobsite would be like today without technology. Without power tools, we’d be hand cutting boards and drilling holes. Without heavy equipment, laborers would be excavating sites and digging trenches with shovels and pickaxes. Without elevators, buildings would only be a few stories tall.
The point is, technological advancements have always driven construction forward, so it’s odd that so many companies are slow to adopt new tech. We’re able to build stronger, taller, and more energy efficient structures. Technology has made construction sites safer and workers more efficient. It has allowed us to increase productivity, improve collaboration, and tackle more complex projects.
Today, new technologies in construction are being developed at a breakneck pace. What seemed like future tech ten, twenty years ago—like connected equipment and tools, telematics, mobile apps, autonomous heavy equipment, drones, robots, augmented and virtual reality, and 3D printed buildings—are here and being deployed and used on jobsites across the world.
And, while construction firms continue to underinvest in technology, venture capitalists are betting big on the future of construction tech. A report from James Long LaSalle, Inc., released earlier this year, shows that venture capital firms invested $1.05 billion in global contech startups during the first half of 2018. That’s a nearly thirty percent increase over the amount invested for all of 2017. Since 2009, investors have closed 478 funding deals totaling $4.34 billion.
Here’s a look at some of the major areas where technology is impacting and improving the construction industry.
According to research from McKinsey and Company, construction productivity has remained flat for decades. The traditional design-bid-build method makes construction disjointed and siloed. Every construction site is different, presenting its own unique set of challenges and risks. This makes it difficult to streamline processes and increase productivity the way industries like manufacturing and retail have been able to do.
Software and Mobile Apps
Today, there are software and mobile solutions to help manage every aspect of a construction project. From preconstruction to scheduling, from project management and field reporting to managing your back office, there’s a software solution out there to help streamline your processes and improve productivity. Most software solutions are cloud-based, allowing changes and updates to documents, schedules, and other management tools to be made in real time, facilitating better communication and collaboration.
Mobile technology allows for real-time data collection and transmission between the jobsite and project managers in the back office. Cloud-based solutions enable on-site employees to submit timecards, expense reports, requests for information (RFIs), work records, and other verified documentation. This can save hundreds of hours per year in data entry and automatically organizes critical files—no more shuffling through files looking for old reports.
More and more software providers are forming strategic partnerships to allow you to seamlessly integrate your data with your other software solutions, making it easier than ever to run your business.
Offsite construction is typically used on projects with repetitive floorplans or layouts in their design, such as apartment buildings, hotels, hospitals, dormitories, prisons, and schools. Offsite is performed in a controlled environment and it works similar to an auto manufacturing plant. At each station, workers have all the tools and materials to consistently perform their task, whether that be constructing a wall frame or installing electrical wiring. This assembly plant method of construction reduces waste and allows workers to be more productive.
Offsite construction typically comes in two forms: modular and prefabricated. With modular construction, entire rooms can be built complete with MEP, finishes, and fixtures already installed. They can be rooms as small as bathrooms or modules can be fitted together onsite to create larger spaces like apartment units. The modular units are transported to the construction site and then inserted and attached to the structural frame.
With prefabricated construction, building components are built offsite and then assembled or installed once they have been transported to the construction site. Prefabricated building components cover everything from framing, internal and external wall panels, door and window assemblies, floor systems, and multi-trade racks, which are panels with all the ductwork, wiring, and plumbing packaged together.
AI and Machine Learning
Construction firms are now using data to make better decisions, increase productivity, improve jobsite safety, and reduce risks. With artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning systems, firms can turn the mountains of data they have collected over the years on projects to predict future outcomes on projects and gain a competitive advantage when estimating and bidding on construction projects.
AI can improve worker productivity by reducing the amount of time wasted moving about the construction site to retrieve tools, materials, and equipment to perform certain tasks. Workers are tracked throughout the day using smartphones or wearables.
Sensors installed on materials and equipment track how everything else is moving about the construction site. Once enough data sets are collected, AI can analyze how workers move about and interact with the site to come up with solutions to reorganize the placement of tools and materials to make them more accessible to workers and reduce downtime.
Robots and artificial intelligence (AI) are also being used to monitor jobsite progress with real-time, actionable data to improve jobsite productivity. Autonomous drones and rovers are equipped with high-definition cameras and LiDAR to photograph and scan the construction site each day with pinpoint accuracy. AI then uses those scans to compare against your BIM models, 3D drawings, construction schedule, and estimates to inspect the quality of the work performed and to determine how much progress has been made each day.
Deep-learning algorithms are then used to identify and report errors in work performed. This can be anything from the excavation and site work to the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems. The AI can recognize a building component based on its shape, size, and location, even if only a portion of the component is visible.
By classifying and measuring quantities installed, these systems can tell you how much work was done each day, which it can then compare against your construction schedule and then alert you if your project is falling behind. The AI also detects deviations between installed components and onsite work with models so you can quickly identify errors and avoid costly rework.
Safety and Training
As technology adoption continues to ramp up in the construction industry, one area getting a lot of attention is improving safety. Of the 4,963 worker deaths in 2016, 991 were in construction. Worker safety should be the number one priority of every construction company and technology solutions are making it easier to properly train and monitor workers to prevent accidents and reduce the rate of serious injuries and worker deaths.
Augmented and Virtual Reality
Safety training and equipment operator training are two areas where virtual reality (VR) could have a strong impact on the construction industry. With VR, workers could get exposure to environments such as confined spaces or working at height in a safe, controlled environment.
VR simulators have been used for years to train soldiers, pilots, and surgeons and could be used in the same way to train workers on everything from operating cranes and excavators to doing welding and masonry work.
Augmented reality (AR) is another technology that can greatly improve safety on the construction site. Whether it’s allowing for a more detailed safety plan to be developed or providing training on heavy equipment using actual equipment on real sites with augmented hazards, there are a number of ways that AR can be deployed on the jobsite.
Workers could walk to a specific area of a jobsite and have a safety checklist, specific to the task at hand, pop up on a display integrated into a smart hard hat or safety goggles to make sure they have the proper personal protective equipment on and are performing their tasks safely. Safety managers and trainers could monitor exactly what the workers are seeing and walk them through tasks as they work.
Wearables are being used to monitor workers and their environment to make jobsites safer. Wearable tech in construction is being embedded into apparel and personal protective equipment (PPE) already common on construction sites, such as hard hats, gloves, safety vests and work boots.
Construction wearables are being outfitted with biometrics and environmental sensors, GPS and location trackers, Wi-Fi, voltage detectors, and other sensors to monitor workers’ movements, repetitive motions, posture, and slips and falls. Geofencing allows site or safety supervisors to establish restricted or hazardous areas that will alert workers with a combination of alarms and lights that they have entered an area that is off limits.
Smart clothing, or e-textiles, that can monitor vital signs like respiration rate, skin temperature, and heart rate will also make their way to the construction site. These wearables will be able to monitor a worker’s posture, track movements, determine if they are suffering from fatigue, and whether they are intoxicated or under the influence of narcotics. Keeping a watchful eye on workers can help predict an accident before it occurs.
Site sensors that can be deployed across a construction site to monitor things like temperature, noise levels, dust particulates, and volatile organic compounds to help limit exposure to workers.
The sensors are mounted throughout the construction site and can alert workers immediately when they are at risk from permissible exposure levels being reached. Data from the sensors are collected and can be analyzed to mitigate exposure levels and keep workers safe and stay compliant with OSHA regulations.
As a result of the housing crash and the Great Recession, over 2.3 million workers left the construction industry through layoffs, early retirement, or to pursue careers in other industries. While job growth in the industry has been strong the past few years, there are still areas of the country feeling the pinch of a skilled labor shortage.
Demand for workers in construction is expected to grow significantly through the next decade. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects construction employment growth to be eleven percent from 2016 through 2026. Younger workers, who lack the skills and experience of their veteran peers, can benefit from the technology being deployed on jobsites today.
Drones are being used on jobsites in a number of ways. Drones can be used to quickly conduct jobsite inspections and identify potential hazards each day. They can also be used to monitor workers throughout the day to ensure everyone is working safely. Drones are being used to take photos as work progresses to create as-built models of jobsites to keep everyone informed of the changing work conditions each day.
Drones are also being used to tackle more dangerous jobs, like bridge and building inspections. This won’t eliminate the need for workers, but it will mean that workers will need to be trained on how to use the technology to perform these tasks.
Current robots are good at doing simple, repetitive tasks, which is why we are seeing things like bricklaying robots or rebar tying robots. Once set up, these robots can work continuously to complete tasks faster than human workers without needing to take breaks or go home for a good night’s sleep. Robots don’t get tired from lifting bricks, applying mortar and setting them in place, or constantly bending over to tie rebar.
In both of these examples, humans are still needed to perform some of the work. Both still require workers to set up the robots and get them started. For the bricklaying robot, a mason is needed to oversee the work, ensure bricks are correctly placed and clean up the mortar after they’ve been set. The rebar tying robot still needs humans to correctly place and space the rebar before it gets set in motion.
Instead of replacing workers, most construction robots are there to aid and augment a worker’s performance, enabling them to be more productive.
Autonomous Heavy Equipment
Autonomous heavy equipment, using similar technology as for self-driving cars, is currently being used on jobsites to perform excavation, grading, and sitework. This type of technology allows operators to be completely removed from the machine, enabling companies to do the same amount of work with fewer workers.
These machines use sensors, drones, and GPS to navigate the construction site and conduct sitework based on 3D models of the terrain to accurately excavate and grade the site. Augmented GPS, a combination of onsite base stations and satellites, can be used to geofence the site and allow autonomous equipment to move around the site with precision accuracy.
The benefits of adopting technology like drones, robots, and autonomous or self-controlled equipment are twofold. First, within the next decade, workers entering the workforce have grown up using tablets and smartphones their entire life, so operating these machines will be second nature to them. Second, younger workers, regardless of what field they go into, are going to expect to be using technology to perform their jobs.
As we mentioned earlier, a major issue in construction projects today is a highly fragmented industry. With workers, engineers, and equipment distributed around a jobsite, plus offsite stakeholders, including project managers and the customer, it can be hard to get everyone on the same page when a decision needs to be made.
Smartphones and mobile apps have made communication and collaboration on projects easier. Instead of driving to the office for impromptu meetings, firms can use mobile technology to facilitate a meeting of the minds that leads to definitive conclusions without interrupting the day’s work.
Being able to communicate in real time ensures that any issues on the jobsite get resolved quickly and effectively and that every stakeholder can have a say. Integrated solutions that sync in real time allow different stakeholder to add notes, change drawings, and respond to RFIs instantly, and then share that information with everyone involved with the project at the same time.
Building Information Modeling (BIM) is a process that incorporates digital representations of buildings in 3D models to facilitate better collaboration among all stakeholders on a project. This can lead to better design and construction of buildings.
Changes to the BIM model occur in real time, so any changes or updates to the model are instantly communicated to all team members when they access the model. Everyone is working with the most up-to-date information at all times. Because the schedule can be simulated, a visual representation of the construction process allows team members to plan out each phase of construction.
The type of immersive visualization made possible by VR paired with BIM will lead to better collaboration and communication. Virtual reality will also lead to greater acceptance and implementation of BIM. Most virtual reality applications being developed for the AEC industry are using BIM models as the basis to create virtual environments.
With AR, a project manager or contractor could walk through a construction site and easily view an overlay of a BIM model on top of as-built construction and compare the two. At the same time, they could be accessing checklists completing a daily report using a heads-up display. The project manager could instantly take photos or record the augmented reality walkthrough and send it back to the design team for clarification as issues arise.
Construction firms are starting to come around on tech adoption. Companies that are researching and implementing technology are reaping the rewards with increased productivity, better collaboration, and projects completed on time and under budget—resulting in higher profit margins.
It might be a tough pill to swallow, but we’ve gotten to the point where firms that aren’t investing in new technologies and solutions are no longer staying competitive with those that are strategically adopting and implementing tech solutions. Construction firms that continue to refuse to innovate are destined to die.
Interested in learning how technology can improve your preconstruction process? Get started with your free demo here.
Kendall Jones is the editor-in-chief of the ConstructConnect blog. He contributes with frequent updates on local, regional, and national construction news and insights. Read his work in the ConstructConnect blog.
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