When Star Trek™ debuted 50 years ago, who would have thought the technology employed on the Starship Enterprise would one day be used on construction jobsites.
Crew members carried a communicator, which looked much like yesterday’s flip phones. The Combadge was a wearable communication device, and Lt. Uhura wore a wireless Bluetooth-like earpiece. When Captain Kirk asked a question or gave a command, the computer responded remarkably like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa. The Replicator produced food, tools and other objects, much like today’s 3-D printers.
The ship was a model of operational efficiency many construction firms strive to achieve.
According to the December 2016 issue of FMI Quarterly, “New technological advancements, combined with demographic shifts in the workforce and owners’ demands for cheaper, faster and better projects, are resulting in heightened pressure for engineering and construction companies to continuously improve and advance. Technologies such as augmented reality, 3-D printing and scanning, building information modeling (BIM), virtual design and construction (VDC), prefabrication and even unmanned drones are helping engineering and construction companies work smarter, boost productivity and improve collaboration across project teams.” The challenges, according to FMI, are finding, developing and retaining the right talent.
The Catch 22 is that in order to maximize efficiency by implementing new technologies, contractors need capable office and field workers. But ABC Chief Economist Anirban Basu warns “Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that construction job openings stand at a 10-year high,” with the labor shortage encompassing office, field and craft positions. The U.S. Census Bureau found that hiring of young workers in the construction industry declined after the housing boom and hiring of workers less than 45 years old fell from 73 percent in 2000 to 63 percent in 2011.
So what is a construction executive to do? Fortunately, On Center Software Inc. President Angelo Castelli thinks the current workforce is ready for technology. “People who grew up with technology are taking over management and running companies, and are comfortable using and adopting technology,” he says.
Adds Stacey Witt, executive vice president of marketing for LoadSpring Solutions Inc., “As younger people enter the construction workforce, the industry will need to adopt technology faster as these new team members demand it. That means IT departments will become more critical to project success.”
What technologies will make it easier to keep and attract construction talent in 2017? While mobile phones and tablets are common today, they may be used only for calling the office and navigation. That will change in 2017. Wearables will provide an enhanced level of safety and efficiency. Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) will be a game changer as field staff use dashboards to file reports, monitor workflow and communicate project information. Managers will learn to interpret and manage large amounts of data. The myriad of software needed to run a construction business will be further integrated.
Data Evaluation and Integration
“The ability of project teams and executives to quickly access real-time data will result in faster business decisions that leads to more profitability—crucial in a market with low profit margins,” Witt says.
“The truly revolutionary advancement for 2017 will be more efficient and effective evaluation, sharing and utilizing information from big data,” adds James Coyle, vice president of business development for Event 1 Software Inc. “A revolutionary technology now available in the business intelligence (BI) arena is Domo, which synthesizes information from seemingly non-related sources (such as Fitbit and a 3-D map of a jobsite) in useful ways for greater safety and efficiency on the jobsite, while instantly sharing useful metrics with the home office.”
Despite the many advantages of capturing jobsite data, it isn’t easy. “The current barrier to using and managing data is the fear of adoption and making everyone’s jobs more difficult,” says Bud Sims, director of construction and mining for Teletrac Navman. “Managers need the vision to identify the business requirements and research the best supplier for the services needed. It takes effort and leadership to introduce and train a workforce on the benefits of working to documented standards. Once in place, it takes a strong manager to continually show the performance value of knowledgeable reporting and counseling. The payoff in accepting and implementing this technology is higher levels of efficiency, work completed on time, greater cost control and a safer work environment.”
Witt agrees: “Companies that data mine disparate applications will enable their teams to make better decisions quickly.”
John Oman, president of Oman Systems, cautions, “As companies struggle with increased levels of data coming in from field operations, a well-designed system must be able to work with any number of other systems and be flexible enough to customize the integration for each specific client’s implementation.”
Sharing the silos of data from disparate systems is a challenge. Although integration tools have improved, the continual release of new software technologies and features in individual systems makes integration difficult to maintain, according to John Rosch, senior account executive at Explorer Software. “Long-term integration of systems will primarily occur through enterprise systems acquiring complementary software applications and integrating their functions with their core offerings,” he says.
Bassem Hamdy, Procore’s executive vice president of marketing and enterprise strategy, thinks 2017 will be the year of wearables. “Worker health is probably the most important metric to track, given there is such a labor shortage and insurance is so high.”
Coyle adds: “Wearable technologies, such as a Fitbit or the iWatch, and virtual reality, such as Google Glass and Sony’s PlayStation 4 Virtual Reality simulation Project Morpheus, will become inherently useful on construction jobsites in 2017. Wearable technology will be modular so contractors can assemble the attributes they need, reconfiguring as needed. They will be affordable and durable like Sony’s VR glasses; and with technologies like Magic Leap, virtual reality technology will become more transparent. Technologies such as the military’s Helmet Electronics and Display System-Upgradeable Protection (HEaDS-UP) can be differentiated for construction site relevance.”
JBKnowledge’s 2016 Construction Technology Report found that nearly 80 percent of its respondents considered mobile apps to be “important” or “very important.”
“Smart devices, tablets and mobile phones will continue to help jobsite personnel work smarter and more efficiently by delivering the critical information gathered in the planning and design phases to those who execute that data in the field,” says Stacy Scopano, senior strategist building construction, Autodesk, Inc. “Imagine drones, the Internet of Things (IoT) and sensors on the project site working with connected equipment. These ‘frontier technologies’ will become more common throughout 2017 and improve the day to day experience on the jobsite.”
“Mobile applications are designed to be smart, useful and easy to use. If someone can use social media, they can navigate most mobile apps. If they know how to use an app, they will be able to use an enterprise-class application to gain greater efficiencies and optimized processes,” according to Oliver Ritchie, vice president of product strategy for CMiC. “
Jenny Malcolm, content marketing specialist for GPS Insight, sees business software developers advancing their mobile applications as another trend for 2017. “While mobile apps increase convenience, they should include key features to sustain their value. With telematics, for example, it’s crucial to ensure the mobile application includes advanced functionality like ‘closest to’ features, ability to send directions to the next job, communication with drivers and bread crumb trails to see where drivers have been.”
Enterprise Resource Planning
ERP software integrates applications used for business and project management, such as estimating, accounting and scheduling. “The convergence of three separate but related technologies—cloud computing, smart mobility and next-generation software—is the biggest technology trend to watch in 2017. Advances in all three give the industry the tools needed to make the concept of a collaborative work environment into a reality,” says Dexter + Chaney President and CEO Norbert Orth.
“Advancing jobsite connectivity through cloud-based and browser-based ERP, which provides access virtually anywhere and with any approved device, will translate into improvements in information flow, fewer mistakes, decreased delays and improved cash flow,” says Mike Bihlmeier, president of Computer Guidance Corporation. “Access to real-time, accurate information helps project stakeholders make smarter decisions and leads to proactively managed projects and improved financial performance,”
Adds Foundation Software CEO and Chairman Fred Ode: “In technology today, it’s integrate or perish. Overall, the construction ERP market is consolidating, which for a lot of companies means big acquisitions and buyouts that bring platforms under one roof and merge several industries together. Developers for the construction market will continue evolving and partnering to create better integration of best-of-breed applications. For a contractor, that means better, clearer and more flexible choices for the business.”
None of this can happen without contractors embracing the cloud. “Cloud computing has become the platform of preference for software applications. Mobile computing has exploded, with well over half of all processing taking place on mobile devices,” Orth says. “Cloud-enabled and mobile friendly, the industry’s next generation of software will help contractors realize two important things: a more streamlined and timely flow of information between the office and the jobsite, and the delivery of more powerful information tools into the hands of the folks who need them in the field.”
Contractors traditionally update their hardware every few years. But as Ritchie notes, “The hardware space is being overtaken by virtualization. Instead of purchasing new hardware every five years, digital officers are looking for cloud solutions that optimize their IT systems and allow them to run enterprise-class products. Even the smallest firms can compete on the technology front using cloud solutions and those that lack pure cloud solutions will be left behind.”
The Right Skillset
As technologies improve, what skills are needed to implement them on the jobsite? For management, Sims thinks it’s critical to have a true understanding of the work to be done and the ability to document measurements of success, discipline to analyze workflow and ability to use available data to follow progress. “Computer skills are valuable, but having automated reports and dashboards that highlight areas of poor performance are the best possible tools. Managers must learn how to access, analyze and manage data so jobs will run smoothly and efficiently,” he says.
Bihlmeier believes “Employees will need to effectively navigate multiple types of devices and equipment, leveraging a variety of business applications and software tools to mine data, share information, and present data for on-demand decision-making and forecasting. Some employees will need experience managing drones, using 3-D and 4-D technologies, and operating robots, self-operated machines and vehicles. Advanced computer skills will be required for BIM, project planning and project design software solutions, while there will be additional roles available in the office for business intelligence and financial analytics.”
While next-generation software is designed for use on many types of devices and has simpler and intuitive interfaces, Orth says “the level of training and experience required to use applications in this new environment is considerably less than it was in the past. With newer interfaces such as heads-up augmented reality displays entering the mix, the need for specific skills and training to access and use information is going the way of complicated client-server software systems.”
Resistance Is Futile
“Traditional ways of doing things and non-open architectures are definitely barriers to using these technologies. There is a requirement for more integration across the whole project life cycle given the growing importance of BIM and cost management,” says COINS group chief executive officer Robert Brown. “By combining information from BIM, such as material and maintenance cost, and integrating that closely with the cost management of a project, contractors can see profitability of a section of a building in a model and see how changes will impact it.”
The cost factor aside, why aren’t more contractors using the technologies currently available? Hamdy believes the only barrier is people’s adaptability. “With Wifi and cellular coverage everywhere, there are no more excuses,” he says. “Management needs to evolve beyond ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’ because relationships aren’t going to win the next job any longer. Don’t let construction startups take business away because managers and field personnel are opposed to change.”
Brown feels that “the barriers to adoption are mainly availability and integration of the technology that already exists. The advantages are clearly improved service levels at a reduced cost as technology continues to compress the time required to undertake field and office based tasks.”
On the Horizon
Beyond 2017, the overarching vision is a more automated construction site. “For surveying, drones will be replaced by real-time satellite images with remarkable zoom resolution and optional overlays. Various types of 3-D printers will be found on jobsites, printing tools and equipment, repair parts, building materials and even full-sized structures,” Bihlmeier says. “Driverless vehicle technologies will operate 24 hours a day. Smart helmets with 4-D augmented reality and a head-up display will help workers avoid hazards, carry out tasks, and ultimately replace smartphones and tablets. Robots will work alongside the construction workforce, operated by computers, other robots, software solutions and humans. Data from all of these activities will be collected automatically, translated into key performance indicators (KPIs) and dashboard widgets, and pushed in real-time to users via cloud-based ERP solutions.”
Adds Castelli: “Advancements in technology are creating limitless possibilities for construction workforces. In the very near future, field workers will wear modified hard hats with built-in cameras and FaceTime technology to augment reality with virtual models. The result will be collaboration and real-time communication between the jobsite and office to plan work for the crew, to compare work in place and to see clash detection. He also foresees a future that will bring a real-life scale hologram from the jobsite to a room where offsite personnel can walk through the jobsite in real time in actual scale.
Hamdy envisions mechanized construction sites. “Logistics and systems will allow just-in-time delivery so there isn’t $300 million worth of equipment and materials just sitting there. Our on-demand economy will leak into jobsites and provide services, equipment and materials on demand. In the end, better mechanization, better workflow and better coordination will all flow from the trailer so that the construction site becomes like a factory floor.”
Scopano predicts that “in 2017, software will still be king. The traditional base of construction technology users is going to continue to expand to the field workforce: the crews and the laborers on the jobsite. This expansion will be driven in part by the proliferation of apps and smart devices in the field, a trend that has rapidly exploded and will continue,” he says.
With project information coming from multiple stakeholders on a project, the ability to share information and build a collaborative exchange of information into standard operating procedure will materialize. “With this will come the expectation that everyone’s software applications will play nicely together,” Orth says. “Cloud computing-related technologies, such as web services, will play a large role in fulfilling this expectation, enabling faster, easier integration between applications.”
Malcolm adds that contractors will “look for more integration options in the upcoming years. This will be accomplished when software providers form partnerships and offer an open API so data can stream to and from their platform. For example, working together to help customers accomplish fleet management initiatives more efficiently is the goal of integration and these partnerships.”