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By John Biggs
December 17, 2018
A clearer picture is emerging of the types of technologies that are rising to the top in construction. Much of today’s most talked about and sought after construction technologies are centered around helping the industry contend with ongoing challenges around labor, productivity, safety, and profitability. It’s technology that helps companies do more with less, while continuing to meet increasing demand.
Other popular tech is focused on helping companies streamline everything from contracts to communication, and revolutionizing collaboration. In no particular order, we’ve compiled a list of seven technologies that have shown themselves to be a big part of the changing industry, and we expect to see a lot more of in 2019 and beyond.
Ask a construction worker their biggest fear about the technological future of construction and there’s a good chance they’ll tell you it’s being replaced by a machine. When you look at robotic systems like the SAM100 bricklaying robot and the Kewazo scaffolding robot, it’s not hard to see the root of that fear. However, much of the robotics technology being developed is actually designed to help human workers be more efficient and take some of the strain away from repetitive labor tasks.
Take the MULE (Material Unit Lift Enhancer) from Construction Robotics, the same company that makes the SAM100. The MULE enables workers to effortlessly move material weighing up to 135 pounds. The Guardian GT by Sarcos is a dual-armed robot controlled that can lift up to 1,000 pounds with ease and precision, reacting in real time to the arm movements of its human operator. Sarcos has a full-body suit in development, the Guardian XO, which is straight out of the film Aliens, and at the risk of sounding over the top, essentially turns its wearers into a flightless Iron Man.
When the dust settles on the fate of construction’s technological future, some jobs are likely to be replaced by robots. But others will emerge, and with so much of the robotics tech centered around enhancing, rather than replacing human workers, industry soothsayers clearly believe there’s still a place for us humble carbon-based life forms in construction.
2. Autonomous Machinery
Adjacent to the realm of construction robots is autonomous machinery. We’ve seen major companies from Komatsu to Caterpillar roll out lines of autonomous or semi-autonomous trucks, dozers and loaders that can perform site prep before human workers arrive on site or help clean up debris from demolition projects or mining operations. Last year, Komatsu unveiled its iMC (intelligent Machine Control) system for excavators, featuring an advanced 3D machine control and guidance system. Again, a lot of the technology is about making the job easier for humans, not replacing them.
“We are seeing less experienced operators now capable of performing as if they had been operating the equipment for years. Expert operators can greatly enhance their younger colleagues’ efficiency and productivity through the combination of their own experience and technology,” Aaron Marsh, Komatsu’s National Technology Solution Expert Manager told Jobsite ANZ.
“In short, this means the operator is guiding the machine while the machine operates to its maximum ability — not the operator,” he said.
Watch for more autonomous machinery to arrive on job sites going forward, particularly in mining and demolition.
Perhaps best known as the technology behind digital currencies like Bitcoin, Blockchain actually has some surprising applications for the construction industry that are finally being given a serious look. One use in particular is smart contracts, which leverages Blockchain’s distributed ledger system to create a permanent, digital record of every transaction, materials order, and the status of every task to be completed in a unified environment accessible to anybody on the project.
This makes working with multiple various subcontractors a lot easier than keeping track of deadlines and agreements with pen and paper, as much of the process happens automatically without human intervention. A piece of the job is completed, proof is provided and the promised payment is automatically released to the contractor. No need for escrow or costly attorney middlemen.
This frees companies up to spend less time worrying about the nuts and bolts of contracts and spend more time on, well, actual nuts and bolts.
4. Cloud-Based Construction Software
Cloud-based applications have dramatically changed construction. Cloud knocks down walls, borders and other physical boundaries, enabling every project principal to be in the same place at the same time, virtually speaking. The cloud has thrown open the door to information access, ushering in a renaissance of collaboration and communication for the industry.
Thanks to cloud solutions, like Procore, all relevant project data can be easily accessed by any worker from anywhere using a smartphone, tablet or other mobile device. And since it’s all connected, updates made from anywhere are automatically made across the board, ensuring all plans, RFIs and other key documents are always up to date. Keeping everyone in sync and always with real-time information reduces the chance of miscommunication and with it the potential for costly rework.
5. Virtual & Augmented Reality
Virtual and Augmented Reality are finding footholds in construction, predominantly around improving safety through better training and making more information available to workers in the field. Virtual Reality training programs are a safe way for trainees to learn the ropes of operating heavy machinery without the associated risks to life and limb from allowing an inexperienced operator behind the controls. The technology has improved to the point where it can create a simulated environment that realistically approximates real world conditions, including realistic physics.
Augmented Reality is giving builders, planners and architects a whole new view of projects, allowing them to not only see photorealistic simulations of how finished projects will look, but interact with lifelike digital models and make changes on the fly. Using a smartphone, tablet or even smart-glasses, the models are laid over the user’s real vision, adding another dimension of information to the physical world and seamlessly melding the two together. This allows designers to be more experimental, visualizing what their ideas would look like in a simulated environment, rather than devoting actual time and resources to creating them in the real world. As architectural visions for the future become more complex and bold, expect AR to become an indispensable tool for the construction space.
6. Building Information Modeling
When talking about the most indispensable technologies in C&E today, the discussion will likely include Building Information Modeling, or BIM, which has really come into its own in recent years as one of the most prevalent construction technology innovations today. BIM utilizes interactive smart 3D models that accurately represent existing structures, systems and building characteristics. Those models are then shared among project principals at all levels, providing a virtual sandbox to, for example, simulate how changes to form or function would manifest in the real world, without swinging a single hammer.
Key to its comparably widespread adoption is how BIM streamlines collaboration. With all stakeholders working from a single virtual model, it becomes much easier to keep everybody on the same page. Changes made by any user are made universally and in real time, instantly viewable by everyone else with access.
BIM can improve efficiency in a number of ways, reduce errors, speed up the approvals process, and even give valuable insight into potential future maintenance issues for a finished project before ground is even broken. Its versatility is probably why BIM is used for so many different types of projects, including building construction, road or rail systems, utilities, bridges and more.
With their diminutive size, relatively low maintenance and upkeep costs, ease of implementation and versatility, it’s perhaps no wonder that drones have flown their way into mainstream use in construction, seeing a 239% year-over-year jump in adoption industrywide, according to DroneDeploy. Recently, we’ve seen their capabilities expand from simple aerial photography to tackle everything from surveying to security to creating extremely precise 3D models, all at a fraction of the cost and time it would take for teams of human workers to do the same.
Attracting younger workers is something construction companies are grappling with, and one way that’s often suggested as a draw to the industry is more technology. Seeing “Drone Pilot” on a help wanted ad is a pretty enticing prospect any way you slice it.
Drone technology has emerged in construction as a method of data collection, and companies are using the aircraft's unique perspective to track job progress by comparing images and data sets captured over time, monitor materials and equipment locations and ensure worker safety. With the gathered data automatically uploaded to a secure server or cloud storage, it’s always accessible from anywhere.
The worldwide demand for construction has never been greater. Construction’s ongoing challenges will only expand with this demand and make it tougher for businesses to grow and be profitable. Businesses that adopt the newest technologies will be positioned for success, those companies that don’t could find themselves struggling.
If you liked this article, here are a few eBooks and webinars that you may enjoy:
Keeping Your Technology Up to Date
Bringing Tech to the Field
Leveraging Virtual Reality for Construction Execution
Building information modeling
Cloud-Based Construction Software
Project Management Software
Getting On Board With Construction Technology Initiatives
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