The construction industry has historically lagged most industries when it comes to productivity, which costs companies revenue and growth opportunities. A key component to boosting productivity is maximizing worker output, something technology has had a significant impact on as the industry has slowly moved into adopting technology.
Still, skepticism of technology still persists in construction, and part of the continued lack of tech adoption could be due to a lack of cohesive, industry-wide standards around how technology is tested and implemented. Part of the challenge in establishing better standards is the fragmentation of Construction. According to The Economist, fewer than 5% of construction employees work for a company with more than 10,000 workers. That means the vast majority of industry professionals work for small- or medium-sized firms, many of which have their own vocabularies and their own sets of standards.
Product testing standards ensure an acceptable level of performance before it reaches the market, but even those fundamentals are missing from many new pieces of technology.
“Lacking a commonly accepted set of terms and definitions places the responsibility squarely on early adopters to learn how to navigate between developer’s descriptions, claims, and marketing materials,” noted a recent article in Forbes in explaining the slow uptake of wearable exoskeleton technology in construction.
“But it doesn’t end there. Without standards, how wearables for the workplace are evaluated and how the evaluation is described is also chaotic,” they wrote.
This can be said about nearly any phase of a new product or technology’s adoption. Product testing standards ensure an acceptable level of performance before it reaches the market, but even those fundamentals are missing from many new pieces of technology.
“With a lack of standards in both terminology and test methodology, it is extremely difficult to pool device performance test data together. The test environment, ambient conditions, selected tasks, user, duration, measurement methodology (when and how data is recorded), etc… could all have a significant effect on the test conclusions,” Forbes writes.
“Without any standards, combining data for the same product family becomes challenging.”
Construction is also inherently complex. The sheer variety of scope and scale of projects under its purview, from simple road projects to building bridges and boring tunnels underground, make unified standards difficult to establish. As a result, adopting new technology carries more risk than it would in an environment where testing and usage guidelines were clearly laid out.
“Introducing new technology can be more difficult in the construction industry than in other industries. Innovation barriers such as diverse standards, industry fragmentation, business cycles, risk aversion, and other factors can create an inhospitable climate for innovations… Due to such impediments, firms are naturally reluctant to try a new technology, especially if it amounts to putting the entire company on the line,” Fedor Novikov, co-founder and CEO of Asmbld wrote in a Medium post, citing the authors of a nearly 30-year study on Construction productivity trends.
Exoskeletons and other wearable construction technology has the ability to give construction workers near superhuman strength, reducing the risk of injury while significantly improving their productivity. Furthermore, the cost of some of the simpler systems starts at only a few thousand dollars. It would seem like a no-brainer to implement this technology, yet a lack of standards is holding up its widespread adoption.
It would seem like a no-brainer to implement this technology, yet a lack of standards is holding up its widespread adoption.
Lacking these standards, the burden falls to the companies who have been early adopters to test the systems out, devise the best practices and common terminology, and evaluate their success, all without a universally agreed-upon standard. In such a fragmented industry, companies’ individual standards can vary wildly, limiting the usefulness of the learnings on a wider scale.
“Standards hold the promise of aggregating the combined knowledge of the entire exoskeleton industry. High-level guides can be housed in publicly available data vaults while standards can contain more detailed information,” Forbes writes.
Though applied specifically to wearables, the same could be said about almost any technology. A fragmented standards environment lacking consistency hampers the adoption of technology in construction because nobody wants to be the Guinea pig. It can be risky to invest the capital and training required for what is essentially a beta test. Without a broad, industry-wide consensus around a new technology, the likelihood of its uptake increasing plummets.