Times change, but there will always be more work. The question is: How do we want to do it?
In construction, “the hard way” is a well-worn path. Thanks to new technologies, though, there are smarter ways to get the job done. Still, the industry as a whole has been slow on the uptake, and productivity has suffered in recent years as a result. A 2019 survey by KPMG International reveals that 20% of engineering and construction professionals have fallen woefully behind the technological curve, while 60% are only in the early stages of exploring the latest advances.
Adaptation sometimes requires a steep learning curve, but the potential benefits of boldly embracing change are manifold—from increased productivity to the streamlining of how critical information is shared. According to the Boston Consulting Group, a full-scale pivot to digital tech would save the construction industry an estimated $1.7 trillion dollars a year. Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum urges a shift towards more eco-friendly materials and sustainable building practices.
The future is being built with new processes and interconnected tools that grow more sophisticated every day. Startups have sprouted up overnight, offering solutions to simplify how work on jobsites gets done—from productivity software to game-changing prefab building processes. And venture capital firms are lining up. TechCrunch reports funding grew by 324% in 2018, to nearly $3.1 billion from $731 million in 2017. What’s more, a report from JLL illustrates how global venture capital has been active in construction technology and on an upswing since 2009.
All too often, we fall back on familiar methods, even when there are better options within reach. Now more than ever, though, we can choose to do things differently. Demystifying the trends that are shaping the industry will go a long way toward making work on tomorrow’s jobsites simpler, safer, and above all—smarter.
Advances in technology have consistently made construction work easier and more efficient, from the arrival of the electric hand drill in 1895, to the first Hole Shooter in the 1920s and the revolution of lithium-ion in 2008. “Smart tool” tech is the next evolutionary leap, promising to make power tools easier to track and manage by connecting them to the idiomatic “Internet of Things.”
Even a single missing or stolen tool can be costly to replace, and completely destroy a foreman’s ability to execute the daily plan. Digital platforms—already available on computers and mobile devices—are tackling this seemingly impossible issue head-on. State-of-the-art software can now empower project managers to seamlessly organize an online inventory and track the physical locations and status of their tools, either via built-in sensors or external Bluetooth trackers. Features like “geofencing” can also send alerts at the precise moment a tool strays from the job site.
In addition to potential cost savings, “smart tools” can increase productivity by letting you remotely customize power tool settings like torque and speed, or more efficiently monitor progress toward needed maintenance—all with only a few swipes on your phone.
If “smart tool” tech promises to dramatically improve the tools of the trade, then augmented reality is poised to transform the entire industry.
Unlike the computer-generated environments of virtual reality, augmented reality—often abbreviated to AR— involves the projection of data and computer generated visuals into the physical world, either via mobile device or headsets like the Autodesk. From the drawing board to the construction site, the applications of this emerging technology are limited only by imagination.
Building Information Modeling (BIM) lets a contractor manage projects from start to finish from clash detection to identifying safety hazards.
Augmented reality can also streamline project inspections—a typically time consuming manual process that can tie up multiple personnel—by placing a host of virtual visualization and measurement tools into the hands of an individual worker. As a training tool, AR lets workers interact with virtual equipment and hazardous situations, opening up a hands-on, yet safe space in which to learn from mistakes. Augmented reality can also improve a worker’s ability to plan next steps, communicate with fellow teammates, and make project adjustments in real-time.
Then there’s automation: a trend that promises to disrupt as well as improve every industry it touches. These advances will help to work better alongside the trades. Amid a shortage of skilled labor, highly-efficient semi-autonomous robots are already beginning to appear on construction sites. The fraught relationship between laborer and machine can, however, remain collaborative, as with lift-assist devices like the MULE, which significantly increases productivity while still working in tandem with a human operator.
Automation can take many forms, from artificially intelligent systems to site-inspecting drones. Though full realization is still on the far horizon, make no mistake: automation is almost certain to profoundly shape the future of construction in ways we have yet to even imagine.
Just as smartwatches and fitness bracelets are now commonplace in daily life, so too will wearable technology become the norm on construction sites.
Practical implications are being deployed with workers’ safety in mind, too. Workers strapped into exoskeletal harnesses will be able to lift hundreds of pounds with ease. Apart from greatly boosting their strength, stamina, and effectiveness, ergonomically designed exosuits will also protect workers from back injuries and muscle strain. With these health benefits in mind, several auto-manufacturers including Toyota and Ford have already put thousands of exosuits to work augmenting the performance of employees on the assembly line. Leaders in the construction industry would be wise to follow their lead.
Speaking of improving safety, small wearables with built-in gyroscopes like the Spot-r Clip can alert supervisors the moment a worker falls. These same devices can be assigned to specific employees, helping project managers keep track of who’s on-site, and where. Others, like Scan Link’s RFID detection system will notify heavy machinery operators when a fellow worker is nearby, further helping to reduce the likelihood of accidental workplace injuries.
Whether it’s a hardhat that detects fatigue or smart work boots that send data into the cloud, expect to see more wearable technology on the job site in years to come.
Challenges and Solutions
Even with a map in hand, navigating the technological tides can be a daunting proposition.
While investing early in innovative solutions to new and old problems alike is certainly an advisable course, industry leaders contending with reality must take a measured approach to overhauling time-tested ways of getting the job done. For nearly every facet of the construction process, there exists a dizzying array of state-of-the art gadgetry that would greatly improve its function. None are cheap, and figuring out how to seamlessly integrate a variety of potentially disjointed systems may itself prove to be a formidable undertaking. Deciding which, when, and how best to apply each of these new technologies should, therefore, be a matter of careful consideration.
Thankfully, some of the latest advances are easy to use and already available for free online. As for charting a way forward, you may be able to accomplish that with little more than pen and paper. KPMG recommends that construction companies should prepare for what’s to come by following three simple steps, as laid out in the consulting firm’s 2019 survey on “future readiness.”
First, take stock of your company’s current technological capabilities. Second, determine how you compare to your peers in the industry. Third, create a strategic plan of priorities based on your findings. Not exactly a revelation, but it’s a start.
Times are changing and we have to adapt. Though each one is disruptive in its own way, nearly every technological leap from the cordless power drill to the 3D printer has made our jobs easier and safer. The way forward may be hard at times, but that’s nothing new in this line of work.
We just have to be smart about it.
About the author
Andy Lambert has 15+ years’ leadership experience in construction technology. As group program manager for the One-Key team, he is responsible for leading the development of new features and partnerships within our platform.