How Technology is Changing the Face of the Construction Industry

Every Job is a STEAM Job is our series looking at why kids will need tech literacy and coding skills to succeed in their future careers, no matter where those careers take them. Previously, we looked at how technology is changing archaeologistsset designersteachersfashion designersarchitects, journalistssmall business owners, and the professionals protecting our national parks.

The past few decades have dramatically changed the field of construction. Something as simple as making a brick one of the first activities humans learned when they left their hunter-gatherer ways is being scrutinized for technological and developmental improvements.

From simple materials investment to Internet of Things connectivity, technology is changing the construction industry faster than some people can adapt. Here’s why the next generation of construction workers need tech literacy and how the field uses STEAM to improve its efficiency.

Technological Materials Investment and Development

Technology starts with materials. When construction teams look to change how work is done, they look at what resources are needed to complete the job.

For example, South Bay Construction reports that 20 percent of all U.S. energy use goes toward powering commercial buildings. This has lead more developers to create green buildings that save money while reducing environmental impact.

“Developing these buildings requires a whole-building design approach where the construction team designs and builds all the elements so that they work together,” the South Bay team writes. “This innovative approach to building, along with corresponding energy-efficient materials and technologies, can produce buildings that are up to 70 percent more efficient than the average commercial building.”

While consumers might think about smart thermostat technology or solar panels when they think about “green tech,” the technological development actually starts with materials investment.

Cigarette Butts Conduct Energy in Bricks and Pavement

Scientists and environmentalists are currently working with construction companies to develop new technology that also reduces existing societal problems. Kate Horowitz recently reported on the use of cigarette butts in brick making and pavement creation by engineers at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.

Researchers found that changing a brick’s composition to just one percent cigarette waste reduced the energy needed to fire it by 58 percent. In pavement studies, the addition of cigarette butts also reduced the amount of heat conducted, meaning the material would keep cities cooler. Considering Australians smoke between 25 and 30 billion cigarettes per year, there’s a huge opportunity to reduce the cost of making building materials while reducing the number of butts going to landfills or ending up as litter.

Paint and Reflective Chemicals Also Reduce Energy Consumption

Additionally, the science of heat and color has led paint developers to rethink their chemicals and colors for more energy-efficient results. Many home improvement companies already carry cooling and insulating paint meant to maintain internal temperatures, but this science is also expanding into the outdoor and public sectors.

Jed Kim at Marketplace recently reported that Los Angeles is testing cooler pavement options by painting reflective covers on city roads. By reflecting more heat than they absorb, the roads and surrounding areas are cooler. This, in theory, will also lower the air conditioning costs of surrounding homes. Today’s scientific innovations are tomorrow’s industry standards.

Self-Healing Concrete Reduces Repair Needs

Mrinal Gokhale at MSI Data explains that “self-healing concrete” developed by scientists in the Netherlands is currently being tested across the United States and Australia.

By using chemicals similar to those found in human bones, concrete infrastructures can “heal” themselves by resealing after a break, in much the same way as human bones fuse together again after a fracture. This technology could be invaluable in earthquake-prone regions where a concrete crack tends to grow and often means the whole structure is unstable.

3D Printing Reduces Materials Needed and Assembly Cost

Hallie Busta, editor at Construction Dive, writes that some companies are experimenting with 3D printing to create buildings and large structures that are just as stable as their manually constructed counterparts. However, she sees 3D more as a tool than a replacement for traditional home and office creation.

“From rapid prototyping and model making to fabricating custom components for application, additive manufacturing is making a subtle but sure impact on construction,” Busta writes. “The addition of 3-D printing capabilities to projects is requiring a greater degree of tech savvy among the project team.”

Industry experts predict hiring changes as construction companies look for employees with familiarity in technology.

Tapping into the Internet of Things is a great way to improve the efficiency of existing buildings, but technology developed today can make future buildings last longer while minimizing their environmental impact.

Wearable Technology and Smartphone Use

Along with technology use at a production and developmental level, the average construction worker’s day-to-day activities are becoming increasingly connected.

Tyler Riddell at eSUB Construction Software explains that smartphones at the worksite are becoming a necessity. Apps combine tools that most workers have to carry with them throughout the day. The smartphone is a communication tool, but it’s also a calculator, timer, and to-do list.

Of course, these features barely scratch the surface. Mobile devices also serve to sync construction plans and share project documents. Without technology, communication and management is harder, which means work takes longer and companies can’t make as much money throughout the year.

The construction industry provides an additional market for smartphone developers who want to break into specialty niches. Mobile devices need to be protected and have specifics unique to construction. For example, Brian Gallagher at O’Neal Inc has found that simple cases or waterproof covers typically won’t suffice.

“Heavy-duty devices made specifically for field work feature rugged construction, screens that are better lit for viewing in bright daylight or poor weather conditions, and industry-specific components such as barcode scanners and radio-frequency identification readers,” he writes.

Companies either need to develop materials that make smartphones on worksites more practical, or dispense with smartphones and focus on wearables.

Wearable Tech Improves Workplace Safety

While smartphones are the go-to, wearable technology is growing in popularity within the construction field. Redpoint Positioning is just one company that has developed wearable tech for the construction industry. It created a GPS-enabled safety vest that tracks employee locations in order to keep them safe. A few of the features these vests have include:

  • Geofencing dangerous areas so job managers are alerted when employees enter them.
  • Alerting employees when entering a high risk workspace.
  • Ability to trigger equipment to slow or stop when employees enter high risk areas.

In an article for BuilderTrend, Tom Moverman writes that wearables like safety vests, hard hats, and glasses are easy to introduce because workers and companies need them anyway. Companies aren’t asking workers to wear something new and employees aren’t having to get used to additional apparel. If a construction company has a certain amount of turnover for safety equipment, it can start phasing out older safety gear and upgrading to the smart models for better tracking and analysis.

Additionally, some of these gadgets can pay for themselves in the form of insurance benefits and employee longevity.

“A vest with medical sensors can let insurance companies see how workers are doing their jobs, and then the insurance companies can alert the project supervisors to changes that can be made to improve worker health,” Moverman writes.

Wearable Motion Sensors Also Make Safety Reports Easier

Another great example of safety improvements in construction through technology is wearable motion sensors. Triax Technologies creates mini sensors that workers wear on their belts that record any potential injury or problematic movement.

“If someone slips, trips, or falls on site, this sends an automatic notification [to a site supervisor] that someone has hit the ground,” Pete Schermerhorn, COO at Triax, tells Insurance Business Magazine. “The system logs how high they fell, where they fell on site, and who else was in the geographic area – so that’s important information, obviously, from a claims perspective.”

While these gadgets increase the amount of safety equipment workers need to wear, they’re small and minimally invasive to the work process.

Technological Adoption Barriers to Entry

While more tools are being developed every year, the construction industry is still perceived as one of the least tech savvy fields in the world. Mines, rigs and other worksites aren’t exactly known for their Wi-Fi connectivity, and poor battery life along with bulky screen sizes can hold workers back instead of helping them. However, many industry experts are optimistic about future use.

“Each of those issues can, and most certainly will, be addressed as soon as the demands of workers are prioritized and insurance carriers play a bigger role in the process,” Laura Close writes at BOSS Magazine. “[Technology is] also likely to provide net savings for organizations as days lost are reduced and efficiency rates improve.”

Here are a few reasons construction sites aren’t using technology today, but are likely to adopt efficiency tools tomorrow.

Investment Costs

When asked why construction and development companies don’t invest in technology from improved materials to wearable technology the first answer is typically cost. The added expenses of new technology and tools don’t seem to outweigh the benefits. However, this is simply not true.

Strategic performance consultant Bernard Marr jokes that construction firms are actually accounting firms that happen to erect buildings.

“It’s an industry where 35% of costs are accounted for by material waste and remedial work,” he says. “So counting the cost of every screw could be the difference between delivering on budget and bankrupting an organization (or several organizations) financing a build.”

If companies can tap into big data and analytics to prevent employee injuries, wasted work time, and lost resources, they can increase their business successes significantly. All of these small improvements add up to major results.

Flexibility and Industry Standardization

The construction industry isn’t a one-size-fits-all space. Not only is every job different (from building an apartment building to a business center) but every company falls into niche specialties across building, infrastructure, materials development, stockpiling, mining, and drilling.

“The construction industry historically has been an IT laggard,” Philip Mullis, Chief Technologist UK&I Manufacturing, writes. “Many small companies working in widely dispersed locations and greatly variable site conditions make it difficult to develop systems to manage project operations effectively. It’s tough to develop standard tools for processes that defy standardization!”

The tools that are adopted throughout the industry will have to appeal to workers across all job sizes and types in order for managers to invest in them.

Lack of Data Experts

Data collection is only the first part of Big Data and the Internet of Things. Some industry experts believe the collection of data now will pave the way for the employment of data scientists in the future.

Computer scientist Graham Leslie at JBKnowledge writes that most industries are currently investing in data collection, but not in data analysis. This creates data lakes, where companies have endless piles of data but lack the resources to pull useful information from and take action on it.

“These firms are rushing to store as much data about their respective industries as possible, so when the data scientists become available, they have a store of data to begin extracting knowledge from,” Leslie says.

Incremental Adoption and Growth

There are some industry experts, however, who don’t believe the field of construction is as technologically-lacking as some may believe, including Alan Sage, CEO of Digabit, Inc.

“Don’t be misled — there are many companies actively using some form of machine-to-machine (M2M) communication, but they’re not raising a big fuss because why telegraph all your competitive advantages to your competitors?” he writes at For Construction Pros.

Sage believes the growth of intelligent machines and workplace technology is incremental. Changes are made slowly over years instead of months. This means that new technology for the construction workers of today will be the standard for the next generation of employees.

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