To thrive in today’s digital world, the construction industry must think differently and recognize transformative opportunities to create value through emerging technologies.
The construction industry, like so many others, is contemplating how to best integrate the latest technologies while redefining what it means to be “connected” on the jobsite. To understand this, we must start by looking at what’s driving technology across all personal and professional applications — wider integration of wireless communications (including both Wi-Fi and cellular), the next generation of cellular technology (5G) and Internet of Things (IoT) sensors. Futurists and industry visionaries are all saying the same thing, "5G and IoT will radically transform our lives."
Using this context, we can now take that same technology landscape and bring it down to the construction level. Recently, there’s been a big push to adopt jobsite technology — particularly drones and machine learning. Most of it requires sensors to communicate with other systems in the network, function properly, deliver accurate data and carry out their operations.
The opportunities created by this kind of technology will shape where the construction industry is going. Imagine having access to real-time insights tracking project schedules, milestones and budgets. As construction projects become increasingly connected, contractors will be able to harness the data available from sensor-rich construction sites and use it to perform big data analytics and machine learning — allowing them to analyze and optimize a construction jobsite.
This reality is a lot closer than you might think. Believe it or not, this sort of intel, enabled by connected jobsite technology, will be at our fingertips within the next three to five years.
We already know where the data will come from — sensors in the network. Connected power tools and equipment are the logical first step. Today, manufacturers have Bluetooth sensors built into all their power tools, allowing contractors to track whether these tools are at the jobsite or not. Further down the road (but not far), 5G (with its expanded capacity and support for low-power devices) will enable location-based tracking.
Milwaukee currently produces the Milwaukee TICK, which is nearly the same sensor found in Milwaukee’s connected power tools — only minus the power tool. These proximity-based sensors are about the size of a silver dollar and can be attached to tools, equipment and materials.
The value of the connected jobsite cannot be understated. In addition to real-time project status and budget updates, connected jobsites will greatly benefit overall safety and security. Much of this will involve location-based tracking, enabled by 5G. With this technology, managers will be able to keep better watch on the safety and well-being of their staff; everything from using wearable sensors equipped with accelerometers to detect falls, to quickly locate workers on a jobsite in the event of an evacuation or a natural disaster.
Milwaukee’s TICK technology is already used on jobsites to track high-value equipment and third-party rentals. One day soon, manufacturers will incorporate the same kind of wearable technology into personal protection equipment.
Location-based tracking and control also will play a significant role in materials movement. Using sensors in the network, workers will be able to pinpoint where materials are currently located — even down to the elevation of those materials, which could indicate whether they’ve been installed. What’s more, connected devices throughout the jobsite will enable fab shop-type mechanization — meaning mechanized tools that know where they are on the jobsite, where to move materials and how to handle specific, automated tasks.
The next step toward a connected future for the construction industry is interoperability, a critical component to coordination in all trades. Today, the general, mechanical, electrical and all other specialty contractors use different tool manufacturers and tracking systems, and each different manufacturer uses proprietary communications. Industry standards need to be interoperable, but the IoT structure needs to be interoperable and vendor/manufacturer agnostic as well.
If there is one thing we must emphasize to connected device vendors, it’s not to be proprietary. As an industry, we need to urge manufacturers to use open language that unites technologies, teams, companies, etc.
Efficiency and productivity
Of course, certain obstacles will need to be negotiated for the industry to realize these opportunities. Several factors currently constrain the rollout of connected technologies and, therefore, the efficiencies they can enable. To start, many decisionmakers are not willing to be early adopters when technology continues to evolve so fast. No one wants to buy the Betamax of connected tools; we all want to go straight to 4K streaming.
What’s more, conflicting perspectives, particularly between contractors and unions, will become a major roadblock. Sensor technology will eventually allow superintendents to identify productivity and performance metrics, allowing them to better monitor their employees and incentivize accordingly.
While contractors may want this jobsite performance data, every union is worried about what it could mean for their workers. Who owns the data? What can and can’t it be used for? The industry’s inability to find common ground on topics such as these is impeding its much-needed technological evolution.
But regardless of the roadblocks, the construction industry must recognize the overriding need to be more efficient. A report from management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., titled “Reinventing Construction: A Route to Higher Productivity,” says the industry’s productivity has trailed that of other sectors for decades. To unlock efficiency and improve the industry, key stakeholders need to focus on overall productivity and do what it takes to drive more value by eradicating waste from our construction processes.
There has never been more urgency for disruption and for bringing enhancements and innovation to jobsites and the industry as a whole. The opportunities are too large to ignore and the value of connected environments is becoming increasingly evident as demonstrated through examples set by other industries and by those construction projects that have already started to adopt and realize the value of connected technologies.
The tools and technology already exist. Now, somebody has to figure out how to make it standard procedure within today’s construction workflow.
This is the challenge we must face as an industry if we have any hope of dramatically increasing productivity and efficiency. Those who are resistant or unwilling to get online with the program will quickly find themselves disconnected.