Wearable devices—from exoskeletons that give workers nearly superhuman strength, to smartglasses and hardhats that provide technicians with spy-like visualization powers—are driving safety, productivity and decision-making on today’s construction jobsites.
Wearables can relay a worker’s vital signs on a remote jobsite, signal if a worker falls, or enable an injured worker to call for help. Many devices can snap and send jobsite images in an instant. And some can even integrate all of this data into BIM workflows, taking 3-D capabilities up a notch to the 4-D of time and process.
Ultimately, the technology enables workers to work faster, longer and more efficiently, and contractors are closely watching evolving trends. Many admit they’re just waiting to see how it all plays out—and of course hoping prices will come down when wearables hit the mainstream.
“Wearable technology, once the domain of professional athletes and sports physiotherapists, is now being used in construction to make data-driven decisions and assess on a micro-level the way workers are moving every day,” says Andrew Ronchi, CEO of dorsaVi, an Australian-based biotechnology company. “Safety managers are paying more attention to methods for reducing injury and costs while improving productivity, the safety culture and education of workers.”
Wearables can be categorized a few different ways. “Wearables interact with the user’s senses; they record data by interacting with biology,” says James Benham, CEO of JBKnowledge. “There are ‘visual’ wearables (smartglasses), ‘tactile’ that augment the sense of touch (exoskeletons), and ‘sensing’ that sense the world around the user and track movement and steps (smart vests and hardhats).”
Perhaps the most accessible for small- to medium-sized contractors are smartglasses, with several types of devices now on the market or in development. With Google Glass, wearers simply roll their eyes upward and to the right to see projections on a tiny screen. The device records pictures and videos, responds to voice commands and incorporates FieldLens so it functions like a real-time newsfeed on what’s happening on a construction site. MS Hololens is a wearable, self-contained computer with a see-through, holographic display and advanced sensors that map the physical environment. MagicLeap operates with a photonic lightfield chip that tricks the brain into thinking images imposed over what is on the screen are real.
The Meta 2 AR Headset uses neuroscience to drive its design guidelines. Digital content is displayed as a dynamic layer over actual physical surroundings. Users make natural hand gestures to touch, grab and move digital objects intuitively, and can create and share digital content with others.
These devices are appealing for a contractor like Lee Company in Franklin, Tenn., which is facing a skilled labor shortage in its plumbing, electrical and HVAC service groups. To retain its skilled senior technicians as well as attract new technicians, the company began testing smartglasses in the summer of 2014. Today, 300 devices are in use by Lee’s technicians, who provide service in the residential, commercial and facility management channels.
Nashville-based XOEye, founded in 2013, analyzed Lee Company’s workflow and developed a strategy for deployment, training and adoption of its software platform that integrates with smartglasses manufactured by Vuzix.
Lee Company CEO Richard Perko says workers, for the most part, are embracing the technology. “We have some early adopters in our pilot group who have been using the technology for almost two years, but most of our technicians have been using the platform since January. Before requiring them to adopt the new workflows, we gave them the glasses and told them to just play around with them and get used to them. That took some of the pressure off of learning something new.
“Then we worked on the training and workflows that came along with this new change, such as how to contact the triage center if they encountered a problem they were not familiar with,” Perko says. Lee Company’s technicians use the smartglasses to quickly address and communicate about problems on the jobsite. When a field technician wants guidance or needs to report a problem, he contacts the triage center at headquarters by clicking a button on the device’s display. He then enables hands-free video so the triage technician sees what the onsite technician sees and can advise on how to solve the problem. With another click, the onsite technician can upload a service ticket, watch a training video or create a training video of his own.
Perko is enthusiastic about the benefits and is confident the smartglasses will produce even greater ROI in the long term. “There definitely has been an increase in applicants as the word has gotten out about our use of smartglasses. Applicants want to be part of this evolution in our industry. Our clients love the level of service and documentation—something our industry has not provided until now. We have the ability to educate our customers in a new way and give them the documentation they need to make smart buying decisions. Today, trust is about transparency, and we are building new levels of trust with our customers.
“Although there will be more ROI data in the next few months, the smartglasses have made current technicians more effective,” he adds. “By saving each technician just two hours per month, the glasses pay for themselves.”
XOEye CEO Aaron Salow agrees: “Companies can handle more service calls, offer better support to field technicians, retain experienced personnel who wanted to retire from the physical demands of onsite work and provide better customer service. Plus, there are cost savings of not having to send a second person to a jobsite to resolve a problem.”
XOEye is working with half a dozen construction companies and another dozen are evaluating the smartglasses. For $150 to $200 per month per device, XOEye provides the Vuzix glasses, service, two VISION software user licenses and training.
Following its successful adoption of smartglasses, Lee Company is researching the possibilities of augmented reality, which allows an engineer, construction manager or tradesmen to see an overlay of the building plans in real time and space.
In addition, the company has adopted handheld ultrasound technology that can help predict equipment failures, and it is investigating safety vests that offer site mapping, and personal safety sensors and smart hardhats, once the cost becomes feasible.
“Wearable technologies for construction are exciting, but the technology needs to move faster. The construction industry needs to moves forward and engage the new generation of potential construction workers,” Perko says.
SAFETY VESTS AND BADGES, HELMETS AND HARDHATS
Everyday items such as safety vests, hardhats, badges, boots and watches are the next targets for smart technology that tracks worker conditions on the jobsite. Wireless sensor technologies, such as those manufactured by dorsaVi, measure human movement to give companies objective, easy-to-interpret data that can be turned into measureable results.
“The data, combined with hi-def video, pinpoints risk areas of repetitive movements that can lead to injuries,” says Ronchi, who cites an example of bricklayers at a British construction company who used wearables to reduce the risk of back injuries.
The results are compelling: The company saw an 85 percent reduction of time spent with workers’ backs bent more than 20 degrees, an 84 percent reduction in lower back muscle activation, a 70 percent reduction in repetition of higher risk movements and a 17 percent increase in productivity.
Location-enabled safety vests, such as those manufactured by Redpoint Positioning in Cambridge, Mass., can track the location of workers on a busy site and provide activity reports and sensor information, such as temperature, hours worked, distance walked or man-down alerts.
“Redpoint’s B3 wearable safety badge tracks crew locations in real time with 8-inch accuracy,” says Redpoint Positioning President and CEO Antti Korhonen. “Hazard zones are defined with a mobile app so if a worker enters a hazardous area, the wearable badge or flashing LED vest alerts the worker to the danger. The incident is recorded in the cloud-hosted database, and the appropriate supervisor is alerted of the zone violation.”
The Redpoint wireless safety system also can store a worker’s safety training certifications and control access to site locations or particular work areas based on credentials. And the B3 badge has a call button for requesting help in emergency situations; when pressed, it sends an alarm message to supervisors and nearby colleagues requesting aid at that location.
Live location information integrated with mobile apps enhances real-time visibility into jobsite operations, enabling activity analysis across an entire jobsite or within specific work areas. With this technology, supervisors can review the project history and traffic flow, and see how many crews were in a specific location, as well as when and what trades or subcontractors were present.
Smart wearables also can address challenges that arise based on a job’s climate or remote location. Workers in extremely hot climates will appreciate the Japanese-manufactured ZIPPKOOL personal cooling jackets and hardhat fans that create an artificial airflow surrounding the body to vaporize sweat. Jackets are made of a specially designed fabric combined with patented super-lightweight fans that allow up to 5 gallons of air to enter and circulate the jacket per second. The jackets are powered by a lithium-ion battery that runs for 24 hours without needing a charge.
Helmets such as the DAQRI Smart Helmet look like a traditional hardhat but feature a clear visor that can display 3-D visual overlays on the wearer’s field of view to increase efficiency, productivity and safety on the job.
DAQRI Vice President Matt Kammerait reports high interest from construction companies, with several engaged in pilot projects and collaborations. “Augmented work instructions, direct connection to remote experts and thermal vision are just a few examples of how a construction worker or contractor might leverage the Smart Helmet’s capabilities,” Kammerait says. “It meets ANSI 89.1 and 87.1 requirements, so it can replace existing hardhats and eye protection.”
Another trade-specific option is Miller Electric Manufacturing’s welding helmet, which has auto-darkening lenses that track arc-on time, which can be used to calculate efficiency or identify if additional training is needed.
Russ Angold cofounded Ekso Bionics in Richmond, Calif., in 2005 after his brother, a Navy Seal, was involved in a serious accident. Angold wanted to develop an exoskeleton for medical use and by 2012, Ekso Bionics released the Ekso GT, a wearable robotic exoskeleton that enables individuals to stand up and walk with a full weight-bearing, reciprocal gait in a clinical setting.
Ekso now has systems available through United Rentals that enable construction workers to wield heavy power tools with ease. Angold tells of a worker chipping concrete who finished a four-day job in one day with the device. The worker held the 30-pound rivet buster as if it weighed significantly less, and he could manage larger chunks of concrete.
Angold is excited about additional applications for construction given the industry’s aging workforce. “Ekso has been going to jobsites and watching how construction workers function and is looking at solutions,” he says. “We’ve noticed lots of shoulder movement and lifting tools or materials chest height or above. We should have additional construction applications with a focus on suits with arms adapted to specific tools by the end of year. There has been fantastic interest from the construction community. We want to keep workers healthy, happy and productive.”
While the technology may be too expensive for mainstream use now, costs should decrease with awareness and time. “You have to consider productivity gains of increased endurance, reduced stress and strain, protection and support against fatigue and injury, and the rising cost of injuries,” Angold says.
Another company worth watching is Rise Robotics, which is developing a strength-enhancing exoskeleton that could have construction applications. The company is close to production on is its Bacon Robotic Air Compressor, a quiet, cordless wearable air compressor that spreads loads over a larger area and can be used for painting, driving nails, inflating tires and powering lightweight air tools.
While many wearables are just now appearing on construction projects, others are getting ready to launch.
Benham predicts there will be a pervasive use of wearables on construction sites by 2020. “Companies will throw away their display monitors because of visual wearables that can project displays anywhere they want in their field of vision,” he says. “Apps will be more robust, and there will be a quantum leap in hardware once the companies producing wearables get past the design phase. In five to 10 years, workers’ compensation and health insurers will require workers to wear devices that manage stress, prevent heat stroke and reduce injuries.”