By Jason Krankota
Construction has been one of the slowest industries to adopt technology. That’s partly cultural: folks in the industry like to solve problems with their own ingenuity. Many firms are still family owned, and there’s still a lot of reverence for tradition. Finally, this is an industry with thin margins, where the first funding priorities are equipment and personnel.
But, it’s also partly because there hasn’t been a lot of technology built to meet the needs of the industry. Before smart phones, it was hard to bring technology to the field. Even then, you had to have a good Wi-Fi connection, which wasn’t consistently available or an expensive data plan. And, a lot of early field-capture technology was based on someone having to manually input data into a device. That was a non-starter; having superintendents manually entering data didn’t really provide much in the way of productivity gains, and made for many unhappy superintendents.
Now all that is changing. Founders are aging out of the industry, creating an opportunity for younger generations to apply technology with less resistance. Project owners are requiring the use of different technologies as a condition of funding. And, there are an increasing number of great solutions specifically designed for the industry. Connectivity and computing power have increased dramatically, making mobile applications a lot more reliable, robust, and user-friendly. Cameras, drones, GPS, and radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology are making it easy to capture data without human intervention.
As more technology comes into play, the industry is finally waking up to the impact it can have on bottom line profitability. Here are some of the technology opportunities construction companies should have on their radar:
1. Augmented and Virtual Reality
Whether it’s on a computer screen or through a headset, AR and VR are taking the output of Building Information Modeling (BIM) software and creating virtual models of a structure that subcontractors can walk through before it's even built. This allows collaboration and identifying potential issues in a virtual environment.
For example, an electrical contractor could walk through the schematic of what the mechanical contractor would have built, and say, "Okay, I see that there's going to be a standpipe here, so we'll run our conduit right next to it." That leads to less rework and fewer scheduling delays. AR can also be used to help train workers in a more effective and cost-efficient manner.
2. Artificial Intelligence
AI could potentially have a big impact on the industry, but probably not for quite a few years. One immediate application is job-site safety. There are already rudimentary tools that can analyze video from job-site cameras and spot hazards. They can also determine from workers’ movements whether or not they’re accessing a scaffold or carrying materials up a flight of stairs correctly.
Eventually AI could be used to help improve project scheduling by learning from data from past projects, and flagging issues that could lead to delays. It could analyze the performance of buildings over time and offer material recommendations. But AI needs relevant data to learn from, so the industry needs to digitize first.
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This article originally appeared in the bimonthly Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, Sept/Oct 2020 issue, Vol. 9, No. 5.