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The Future—and Limitations—of Emerging Technology in Construction

In 2015, more than 2,000 construction professionals responded to a survey on the technology solutions, strategies and resources they’re implementing on projects.

Amid their survey responses, published in JBKnowledge’s 2015 Construction Technology Report, was telling insight into their approach to adopting emerging technologies.

According to the report, nearly 65 percent of builders say on a scale of 1 to 10—with 10 being “Very Comfortable” with new technology—that they are at least an 8. While this is a self-diagnosis, it is still encouraging. The average comfort level of builders, no matter their role, is 7.8. That average drops to 7.4 for builders that do not perform an IT role, while those that do perform an IT role claim an 8.4 average comfort level.

When asked if they could get any technology approved to start using tomorrow, construction professionals gave responses ranging from the overwhelmed “I don’t need anything else to implement this year,” to the daring ”Automatic ‘smart’ drone that operates on its own and inputs own data,” to the practical “Seamless remote access with full functionality and zero connectivity/speed issues.” The answers ranged from indifferent to overzealous. This revealed that no matter how comfortable builders claim they feel with new technology, the prospect of taking on another technology solution tomorrow doesn’t inspire excitement for all. Most builders are still sorting through all of the software they use today that doesn’t integrate.

Though in the minority, some adventurous builders are setting aside budget and resources to research, develop and adopt emerging technologies. According to the JBKnowledge report, the likelihood of having a department dedicated to R&D increased as the size of the construction company increased. A construction company with more than 1,000 employees or $500 million in revenue is more likely than not to have R&D. Those with a R&D department are almost 50 percent more likely to be experimenting with emerging technologies. Among those experimenting, drones and 3-D scanners are most likely to be seen on jobsites today, and wearables are the least likely.

Fig 1 Which Technologies Co Experimenting

As the most widely used emerging technology, companies are employing a variety of drones to capture data for aerial imaging, topographical mapping, video recording and much more. The DJI Phantom’s latest drone has ground sensing technology to allow for use indoors, where GPS cannot be referenced, and Kespry commercial drones allow users to measure perimeter, volume, cut and fill sizes of stockpiles. Parrot drones are one of the most affordable options because they capture less dynamic data, but still produce HD photo and video for jobsite progress tracking and surveillance.

Next year, companies will be using more sustainable drone systems like Skycatch that don’t need pilots and can even change out their batteries autonomously. Developing technology also will allow drones to connect with workers and machinery to power and monitor the jobsite through monitoring stockpiles, directing earthmovers, tracking productivity and much more. Drones also will become tools for more than just data capture and transmission, with load-bearing capacity to haul equipment, move materials and transport tools. The real question isn’t if drones will continue to grow in use, but rather how will they be regulated. Builders should bookmark knowbeforeyoufly.org and keep a close eye on FAA regulations that will impact drone adoption and usage, especially because commercial drone use must be licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Why are 3-D printers, augmented reality, virtual reality and wearable devices seeing less promising adoption rates? JBKnowledge’s survey respondents were asked to identify the most limiting factors in their companies adopting new technology and budget was the most common answer, followed closely by lack of staff to support the technology. In fact according to the report, IT budgets in construction companies average only 1 percent of corporate revenue. A recent Gartner report confirms that construction allocates the least amount of revenue (1 percent) for technology out of 19 industries.

Fig 2 Limiting Factor in Adopting

So where will emerging technology stand in 2016 at construction companies? With minimal budget, most companies don’t yet have the bandwidth for tinkering with potential technology solutions. But with aging millennials, and builders claiming a decently high comfort level with new technology, budgets could be prodded to follow suit. As technology continues to advance, and competition along with it, companies will need to take a more proactive approach to emerging technology.

“Although in a minority, some companies are actually investing in R&D departments and have turned their technology departments into revenue generators,” saysJBKnowledge CEO James Benham. “But I dream of how many more could accomplish this in the next decade if we can pull together as an industry and reprioritize our investment. Two questions I like to ask the contractors we work with are:

  1. How are you contributing to your company’s tech innovation?
  2. How can you as an individual create a culture of research, development and tinkering that proves tech advancement can create ROI and not just expenses?”

Visit the JBKnowledge website to learn more about the fourth annual Construction Technology Report, published in partnership with the Construction Financial Management Association, Texas A&M’s Construction Science Department and HCSS Construction software.

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