Technology is having an increasing impact on our work lives, including in construction. As you might expect, more iPads and mobile devices are being used on the job site, but there are a number of other emerging technologies that are being adapted to construction work in previously unforeseen ways. Some of these technologies could improve work efficiency and others could improve worker safety, but they all have to overcome a number of challenges before they become practical.
“Virtual reality (VR) is making headway in various industrial applications and offers possibilities for use in construction”
I had the privilege recently of hosting an informal CIO Summit at our company headquarters, bringing together technology executives from leading construction and contracting companies to discuss some of the technological challenges that face our industry today. We all shared our thoughts about how we would implement and support emerging technologies such as biometrics, wearable mobile devices, augmented reality, the Internet of Things (IoT), and what current technology can be adapted to improve safety and productivity. Here are just a few of the technology trends that will likely have a direct impact on construction:
Smart safety devices
Safety on the job is always a primary concern, and new mobile and wearable technology offers tremendous potential to improve on-the-job safety.
For example, wearable equipment with real-time communications can be used to detect exposure to toxic gases or chemicals. Safety vests can have sensors built in to provide feedback about the job site and worker conditions. A wrist band or cuff can be wired to monitor the worker’s health, issuing alerts when the vest detects an environmental hazard or dangerous change in pulse or skin temperature. Virginia Tech already is experimenting with safety vests for highway workers that can detect the approach of a fast-moving object, such as a car, and that can automatically adjust alarm volume to accommodate the ambient noise on a job site.
Using on-the-job sensors in a vest or helmet can help you track a worker’s activity through the work day, monitor for safety issues, and even map activity to an individual’s health records. The current challenge with this type of technology is real-time communications. It’s one thing to track one worker in real time, but when you have 300 electricians working on the same job site, gathering and processing safety telemetry for all of them in real time becomes a significant challenge.
There also has been discussion of developing a safety exoskeleton; a wearable mobile machine for workers on the job. I can see the need for a light weight steel skeleton for specific applications, such as holding a heavy drill or to reduce weight load, but I doubt we will see protective exoskeletons in wide use any time soon, mostly because of the cost and the electronic controls and connectivity required.
Augmented reality and 3D modeling
Virtual reality (VR) is making headway in various industrial applications and offers possibilities for use in construction. For example, using virtual or augmented reality (AR) in a controlled environment to model a construction site is a great application for the technology. This kind of technique can be used in tandem with the latest building information modeling (BIM) software to provide a three-dimensional rendering to identify potential issues that may not show up on a blueprint. Identifying these types of problems prior to installation could result in tremendous savings.
Using AR on the job site itself seems less likely, since the environment is continually changing. To be able to apply AR technology at the construction location requires being able to track real-time changes, such as a dropped beam or a low-hanging duct. That kind of real-time simulation demands a tremendous amount of computer processing power and connectivity bandwidth, and it’s still fraught with safety concerns and potential inaccuracies.
Some construction professionals also are experimenting with 3D printing technology for parts and components. 3D printing is still cost-prohibitive for most construction applications, not to mention that you can’t guarantee the quality or safety specifications on 3D-printed parts. However, there may be a role for 3D printing in component or part modeling, but that has yet to be proven to be practical or cost-effective.
Drones are starting to make their way onto construction sites. When properly licensed and used, drones can be a valuable construction tool. For example, drones can be used to inspect hard-to-access locations, such as on a high rise or where it’s too dangerous for human inspectors. There will be some application for drone technology in construction, but first it will require a close look at costs versus returns in light of potential liability and licensing fees.
Like it or not, it has been noted that recently employees have started to bring their own flying drones from home to get a bird’s eye view of a job site, but these kinds of maverick activities pose tremendous risk. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires that drones be registered, and if a drone is involved in an accident or hurts someone, the FAA makes it clear that all parties involved could be held responsible, including the contractor.
Adapting Technology to Construction
It seems unlikely that the construction industry will be innovators in some of these areas, although we certainly may be early adopters. New wearable safety technology and exoskeletons will likely be developed for other industries, such as oil and gas, and then adapted for construction. As third parties create new technologies with potential applications, they will make their way to the construction market as long as they demonstrate ROI.
We also will see the emergence of new jobs as well. IT managers will be needed on-site to set up and manage computer networks that connect the construction team and these new IoT technologies with the corporate datacenter. For some of jobs, such as a construction site in downtown Los Angeles, you can connect to the local infrastructure with intelligent router boxes. Other jobs, such as solar arrays installed in remote locations, may require a satellite feed or other means of communications.
Whatever new technologies are adapted for construction, they will have to have a positive impact on the bottom line. Some technologies present potential liabilities as well as benefits and may not prove cost-effective, while others, such as smart safety vests may be implemented sooner since safety is always a primary concern.