While many industries have jumped into advanced technologies like cloud computing and artificial intelligence, the construction industry has remained on the sidelines.
Bucking trends toward automation, construction firms still rely on labor and heavy equipment, with only marginal advances in technology.
The industry has benefited from an abundance of experienced and qualified labor. Trucks and machines on the job site require skilled operators. And laborers on the ground perform critical work like laying block, pouring cement, framing and finishing buildings.
But observers say the construction industry soon may see an influx of technology. Labor is growing scarce, and experienced construction workers are difficult to hire and retain. Labor carries rising salaries, workers comp and health insurance. As a result, firms are considering automated solutions, such as robotics and driverless vehicles.
Technology also brings the promise of greater safety and efficiency at the job site. Firms appreciate the enhanced tools to monitor and control resources – such as fuel, operator time, and machine parts. This has the potential for lowering costs and bidding competitively for projects.
These seven technologies are among the top prospects to drive innovation in construction:
Leading the way in construction technology is drones – also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Drones are used today for surveying building sites and surrounding property. They are becoming more common on construction sites, as they are more efficient than human surveyors and less expensive than airplanes.
Advanced capabilities like high-definition photography and infrared sensing have created new uses for drones. For example, drones can help evaluate a building’s thermal mass by identifying hot and cold spots. Other common uses are land surveying, drainage and topography, and checking breaks for fire prevention.
Tasks that are repetitive, predictable and easily learned – performed today by manual labor – may in the future be assigned to robots. According to reports, robots already can tie rebar and lay bricks at more than twice the speed of their human co-workers.
Robots on the job site will require an investment in technology and training. But as labor becomes scarce and more expensive, the value of robots will prove compelling to construction firms. And robots don’t need health insurance or worker’s comp – or take sick days or lunch breaks.
While driverless cars and trucks are featured in the news, automated construction vehicles have surpassed them in actual use. Already, automated trucks are used on highway construction sites. And in the near future we will see driverless bulldozers, graders and excavators. Benefits include reduced labor costs, greater efficiency and – as the technology improves – greater precision. Operators of graders and skid loaders today use automation to control the angle of the blade to ensure level surfacing of a parking lot and optimum crowning for a road.
Wearable devices on the job site are more advanced than Fitbit and other health and fitness trackers. Wearables now are available that track where workers are on the job site, alert them in real time of potential hazards, and identify when someone has tripped, slipped, or fallen, so help can be sent quickly.
Many applications are safety oriented, as firms try to reduce their exposure to workers comp and health insurance claims. Other applications include safety vests and hard hats with pull-down visors to enable communication.
Virtual reality (VR) is an immersive experience that enables the user to interact with a “virtual world” by means of a special viewer. VR is popular in gaming and corporate training (e.g., flight training) – with more business applications emerging.
VR has spawned augmented reality (AR), a more useful and data-rich experience, with many potential uses in construction. While the VR environment is internally generated, AR layers data and information over the actual, live environment. Using AR, workers can walk through a construction site and see real-time details on site preparation, materials requirements and project status.
3D printing already is used as a quick and cost-effective way to generate prototypes. These are tested and refined before committing to large-scale production. However, 3D printing technology increasingly is used to create production-quality custom products.
3D printers are being used to produce building components or even entire buildings. This combination of technology uses concrete, extruded concrete, and plastics to "print" components and buildings of all kinds and is quickly being adopted on a wider scale.
Internet of Things
Internet of Things (IoT) refers to any device enabled with a live connection to the internet or proprietary networks that collect and share information. For construction applications, IoT can enable remote operation of equipment, monitoring of vehicle location and maintenance, real-time productivity and resource consumption, tracking of tools and equipment, and logging of equipment use.
This data is useful in operating equipment at maximum efficiency and real-time tracking of labor and technology. The data captured from IoT-enabled machines also can be used by manufacturers to assist with maintenance.