From tablets to artificial intelligence
What technologies make sense for your construction site?
From 3D models, tablets and 360-degree cameras to artificial intelligence programs and robots armed with lasers, the construction site is moving further into the digital age.
The booming and highly competitive construction market is spurring developers to create more powerful, varied and user-friendly software packages and field tools. Those products aim to boost efficiency, reduce errors, improve safety and ease labor shortages.
But deciphering what technologies make sense for your company’s operations can be a daunting exercise. To help with that task, we asked some BC&E members to tell us about the technologies they see delivering the best results and how to successfully integrate them into your daily work.
Among all the productivity gains generated by new technologies, “the biggest and lowest hanging fruit is document management and control,” said Jessica Miller, Director of Commercial Sales for CADD Microsystems.
Laptops, tablets and mobile phones have been construction tools for years, but their capabilities keep growing. New products, such as the Autodesk BIM 360 platform and Autodesk Construction Cloud, aim to provide every partner in a project – from owners and designers to subcontractors’ field staff – with easy access to accurate, current, thorough information that is essential to their work. At the same time, improved interfaces make it easier for more people to access “a single source of truth” about project designs, punch lists, scheduling, procurement and more, Miller said.
Wohlsen Construction manages project data through iPads on nearly every construction site. After the company field-tested the technology through small pilot projects, growing numbers of Wohlsen staff began to embrace the digital systems and propose new applications, such as computerizing additional forms and tracking, said Ed McCauley, Vice President of Operational Excellence.
Gradual implementation and flexibility have been key to that successful implementation among staff and subcontractors, McCauley said.
“Relying on subcontractors to have these types of tools is not necessarily the right move,” he said. “But we benefit when they have the most up-to-date information.” So Wohlsen began stocking iPads which subcontractors can sign out and use on-site. It also maintains abilities to print paper plans and documents on-site when needed.
The sheer speed and complexity of construction today demands additional, intelligent technology, says Dave Hatwell, President of Aegis Project Controls. “Owners want projects faster, buildings are more complicated and the requirements of building codes are infinitely complex.The typical project manager, foreman or superintendent has to be a genius in order to juggle all the pieces of that puzzle.”
Creating and managing a project schedule alone is hugely complex.
“The average schedule is comprised of roughly 20,000 data points from installing a piece of ceiling tile to procuring an air handling unit,” he said.
Products, such as Oracle’s Primavera, can create schedules on top of BIM plans and produce “huge efficiency gains,” Hatwell said. Add-on technology enables field staff to simply walk the site daily, capture progress on their mobile phones and upload that information. The scheduling program, with modest human intervention, can then update the schedule and complete that update roughly 75 percent faster than through traditional methods.
The technology can generate one-sheets that tell individual field staff what they need to do that day or week. It also provides visualization options. “A foreman can review their list of work for the week and see that work on a 3D model or 2D graphic,” Hatwell said.
On some job sites (primarily in New York City and the Washington, D.C. market), a very different technology is helping project managers track and fine-tune staffing. Trimble’s CrewSight scans workers’ badges as they arrive and depart each day. The system can automatically track hours and staffing levels, check licensing, verify compliance with safety training or drug testing, control site access, improve safety and communicate with workers on-site. Combined with Bluetooth technology on-site, the system can produce additional benefits. By establishing zones throughout a site, the technology could highlight inefficiencies, such as prolonged elevator wait times to move workers to upper floors of a high-rise project, and help project managers improve scheduling.
Laser scanning equipment, such as robotic Total Stations, are streamlining multiple facets of construction.
“The time that it used to take to manually survey a building was astronomical and the margin of error was pretty significant,” said Steven Montgomery, CEO and General Manager of BuildingPoint NorthEast. “With 3D spatial scanning, you can scan upwards of 50,000 or 60,000 square feet a day. Not only do you collect imagery, but you capture massive amounts of data. You can measure off that data and use it throughout the design and construction phases.”
The technology, which requires about a day of training to cover basic functions, has become popular among sitework, concrete, HVAC and other contractors. Montgomery points to the example of an electrical contractor that was struggling to place 40 hangers a day on a site. With 3D scanning equipment, the company more than quadrupled that production.
One of the most ubiquitous technologies, digital photography, has generated opportunities, problems and new solutions in construction over the past decade. Documenting work progress, punch list items and other project details with digital images became standard practice. But the process of collecting those images frequently triggered calls from superintendents who were struggling to export photos from cameras or cell phones, and it inevitably led to a tedious process of trying to properly identify and catalogue all those images.
“So 360 camera software for construction sites has been a godsend for us,” McCauley said.
A single 360 image can completely and efficiently capture construction progress within a room, and the software can geo-locate that room within a building. That precision delivers major benefits when crews later need to locate MEP equipment or other hidden items.
In a recent company blog post, KCI Technologies noted that 360 imagery has also become a highly effective way of documenting conditions, monitoring contractor work and calculating quantities of supplies on very large sites, such as transportation projects.
Although it’s more often associated with high-tech industries, AI and machine learning are already impacting construction technologies. Smartvid.io and other products use AI computer vision to analyze images and videos in order to identify and tag objects within them.
“To me, this is a phenomenal advancement,” McCauley said.
Smartvid.io, for example, offers a Safety Suite which flags site conditions or behaviors that could violate safety standards or heighten safety risks.
Other digital products for the construction industry employ different types of AI. Pype, for example, enables a user to upload project specifications.
The software analyzes that information; extracts product data, submittal requirements and other details; then provides the user with an interface to easily access the specific information they need. Ultimately, it liberates project staff from the tedious and time-consuming act of data entry and “allows them to focus on developing deep knowledge of the project details,” McCauley said.
Fortunately, technology adoption has become easier.
Smart phones “have really conditioned people’s tolerance for technology.
People want to pick up a device, tap a few things and have something happen. If it takes more than that, then it feels too cumbersome,” Montgomery said.
Increasingly, technology developers are striving to meet that ease-of-use standard.
When it comes to choosing which technology to adopt in your company, Montgomery suggests, “Pick that area of your business that is causing you the most pain, that is keeping you up at night, and slowly digest that technology for that particular area.”