The use of technology has transformed the landscape of every industry and construction is no exception. While the industry hasn’t always been quick to adopt new technology, those days are changing and changing fast. Many contractors are starting to realize the time and cost efficiencies are worth the investment.
Technology has become an integral part of construction from tablets in the field to drones in the sky. In the near future, the use of technology in construction will be as commonplace as a hard hat and the biggest driver of change in the industry over the next few years.
One question we should ask ourselves every time we try to implement new technology: “Will this make workers’ lives easier?” If technology isn’t good for the front line, then it probably isn’t going to be good for the bottom line. Change for change’s sake doesn’t make sense.
Project complexity is one factor driving the need for the sharing of real-time project information between the office and the field. Estimators and project managers are always looking to improve their speed and efficiency. Moving from paper to digital is viewed as a key way to improve productivity and rely less on paper blueprints, designs, orders and punch lists. Technology has made construction sites safer and workers more efficient. It has allowed for increased productivity, improved collaboration and the ability to tackle more-complex projects.
Here’s a look at a few of the positive impacts technology is making in the construction industry:
Smartphones and mobile apps have made communication and collaboration on projects easier. Instead of driving to the office for impromptu meetings, firms can use mobile technology to facilitate a meeting of the minds that leads to definitive conclusions without interrupting the day’s work.
Having jobsites that are disconnected causes communication delays among the job site, trailer, design office and engineering that can be costly and aggravating. In short, a disconnected jobsite can quickly burn up profits.
Fortunately, jobsite connectivity is catching up to becoming easier and easier to achieve. With a connected jobsite, everyone on the site has access to up-to-the-minute drawings and documents and holds the ability to file RFIs and issues in the palm of their hands. Likewise, everyone in the trailer and design and engineering has immediate access to everything that is happening on the job site.
Communication around RFIs and issues is reduced from days or weeks to mere hours or minutes. Mistakes due to miscommunication are nearly eliminated. And change orders and rework are significantly reduced.
Being able to communicate in real time ensures that any issues on the job site get resolved quickly and effectively and that every stakeholder can have a say. Integrated solutions that sync in real time allow different stakeholders to add notes, change drawings and respond to RFIs instantly and then share that information with everyone involved with the project at the same time.
Building Information Modeling (BIM) is a process that incorporates digital representations of buildings in 3D models to facilitate better collaboration among all stakeholders on a project. This can lead to better design and construction of buildings.
Changes to the BIM model occur in real time, so any changes or updates to the model are instantly communicated to all team members when they access the model. Everyone is working with the most up-to-date information at all times. Because the schedule can be simulated, a visual representation of the construction process allows team members to plan out each phase of construction.
The type of immersive visualization made possible by virtual realty (VR) paired with BIM will lead to better collaboration and communication. Virtual reality will also lead to greater acceptance and implementation of BIM. Most virtual reality applications being developed for the AEC industry are using BIM models as the basis to create virtual environments.
While prefabrication is hardly a new innovation in itself, new technologies are making the benefits of prefabrication easier to access and changing the way the construction integrates prefab into the process. Off-site construction is typically used on projects with repetitive floorplans or layouts in their design such as apartment buildings, hotels, hospitals, dormitories, prisons, and schools. Prefabrication is performed in a controlled environment, making it safer and job sites less congested. Prefabrication works similar to an auto manufacturing plant. At each station, workers have all the tools and materials to consistently perform their task, whether that be constructing a wall frame or installing electrical wiring. This assembly plant method of construction reduces waste and allows workers to be more productive.
Off-site construction typically comes in two forms: modular and prefabricated. With modular construction, entire rooms can be built complete with MEP, finishes and fixtures already installed. They can be rooms as small as bathrooms or modules can be fitted together on-site to create larger spaces like apartment units. The modular units are transported to the construction site and then inserted and attached to the structural frame.
With prefabricated construction, building components are built off-site and then assembled or installed once they have been transported to the construction site. Prefabricated building components cover everything from framing, internal and external wall panels, underground duct banks, floor boxes, door and window assemblies, floor systems and multi-trade racks, which are panels with all the ductwork, wiring and plumbing packaged together.
The possible functions completed by drones in the future will be significant. Drones won’t just be used for taking pictures but have additional functions.
Drones can also be used for maintenance. An important application of drones in construction is related to detecting leaks using thermal imaging and providing aerial imaging to assess a building’s performance.
For builders, an aerial view made possible with a drone allows them to better develop work plans, track progress and monitor and check for problems along the way. Drones are, after all, cheaper than flying manned aircraft. Other uses include mapping a construction site, building surveys, construction site inspections, etc.
Today, new technologies in construction are being developed at a breakneck pace. What seemed like future tech 10 or 20 years ago — like connected equipment and tools, mobile apps, autonomous heavy equipment, drones, robots, augmented and virtual reality and 3D printed buildings — are here and being deployed and used on job sites across the world.
Kyle Whitham is a project manager in the Salt Lake City office of Wilson Electric, a design/build electrical contractor that specializes in new construction and renovation projects for both public and private sectors.