It’s a story familiar to those in any modern industry. Employees chug along happily, performing their everyday tasks for years, and then, in what seems like a flash, technology takes a leap forward, leaving those workers without jobs and skilled in a trade that’s no longer in demand. Or at least, that’s the fear.
However, when it comes to construction, it looks like technology is going to have to try a little harder to leave workers without a place to go in the morning.
“For one thing, we’re not building widgets,” said David Burns, director of field service operations for national general contractor McCarthy Building Companies. The nature of construction projects doesn’t lend itself to the kind of repetitive, manufacturing-type processes that can readily incorporate worker-replacing technology, he added.
Building methods are also constantly evolving, making the construction industry a moving target for those who wish to introduce any kind of automation. An exception to that rule, Burns said, is the rising popularity of prefabrication and modular building: “That approach to construction is going to change the way work happens, moving some scopes of work into a factory setting or into an onsite manufacturing setup.”
1. Construction technology can be unnerving for workers
The worry on behalf of workers in that case is not so much losing their jobs, but how those jobs might change—which seems to be the industry-wide attitude.
But even the famous brick-laying robot adds little in the way of overall speed because workers need to be on hand to feed it bricks, and others need to reposition and reprogram it as it does its job, says Brian Turmail, senior executive director of public affairs for the Associated General Contractors of America.
In addition, each new construction project brings a new set of individuals and companies together—many with their own priorities and agendas—creating entirely new relationships that are hard to replicate from job to job, a requirement if there is ever to be a reasonable expectation of replacing workers with technology.
In fact, the closest most project stakeholders have come to working as a unit is under the integrated project delivery (IPD) method, where project designers and the general contractor—even possibly major subcontractors and suppliers—enter one contract together and make decisions regarding finances, schedule and risk as a team. However, IPD is still an industry outlier.
2. Construction Technology isn’t the Boogeyman
There’s no palpable fear among construction workers that some technology will come along and hand them their pink slips. But there is a real concern around efficiency, said Turmail. That’s where technology can save the day. In a time when skilled workers are becoming harder to find, construction companies are looking to technology, from construction management software to equipment innovations, to increase jobsite productivity.
“If you could produce more product at a higher quality using the same number of workers, you could improve operations, differentiate yourself from the competition and get more work,” Burns said.
For example, during a test trial in the field on one of McCarthy’s projects, an exoskeleton developer demonstrated how a mechanical arm could help workers effortlessly maintain 50- and 60-pound loads, a potentially life-changing tool for workers who, as years go by, can sustain a significant amount of wear and tear on their bodies. It’s also a boon for short-staffed employers.
The same goes for a new generation of power tools. Some are controllable by smartphone, while others are redesigned to reduce stress on workers’ bodies and can even shut down if they sense contact with flesh. Geofencing tracking capabilities also minimize the downtime required to locate misplaced or stolen equipment.
Burns said devices that manage digital blueprints are “tried and true solutions,” particularly on projects with a multitude of design changes impacting trade coordination. “If you don’t have a safe, fast effective way to control information being presented to guys in the field, you’re going to run into a lot of issues.”
3. Building Information Modeling can save the day
The real gain in productivity, however, is thanks to the technological powerhouse of building information modeling (BIM). “There’s no denying that building information modeling and, in particular, virtual model coordination adds huge benefits to a project,” Burns said.
If companies can build the structure virtually and onboard trades before even one shovel hits the dirt, this gives contractors and designers the chance to identify constructability and coordination issues, resulting in a more efficient, safer job site.
The good news is that the cost of all these high-tech helpers are becoming more affordable, a trend that Burns said will help “democratize” construction technologies for a broader set of construction users.
According to Turmail, however, many people in the construction industry don’t appreciate just how much technology has already benefited productivity. Common processes, he said, have been redesigned so companies, as well as workers, don’t have those “whoops” moments. “Technology doesn’t have to be threatening to employees,” he said.
More on Construction Technology?
Are you a construction manager who works closely with construction technology? How have you found it’s helped—or hurt—your projects? Do you agree that construction technology is nothing to fear, or is there more to the story? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
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