Slowly but surely, these technologies are beginning to move construction into the future.
The construction industry isn't as full of tech-shy workers, project managers and superintendents as it once was. One reason for the shift is that contractors need the latest technology to help boost productivity, especially as projects become more and more complex and skilled labor becomes harder and harder to come by.
Productivity growth has been notoriously slow in the construction industry, but embracing the right technology “can be a catalyst for doing things a better way,” said Chris Hummel, chief marketing officer for United Rentals, in a recent webinar titled “Adapt Before You Fail.”
Here are five technologies that are poised to disrupt — or are already disrupting — the construction industry.
1. Robotic arms
Once the stuff of science fiction movies, robotic arms are popping up on construction sites to transform tasks that require heavy or sustained lifting from thoroughly exhausting to practically painless. Hummel pointed to the zeroG arm, which makes tools weighing up to 10 pounds or 36 pounds (depending on the model) effectively weightless to the wearer.
"The ability to take the weight off the shoulders of the individual who’s holding the tool speeds up productivity, speeds up their ability to do their job, prevents accidents [and] allows them to derive more benefit out of it," said Hummel. "It’s a win for everybody for a relatively straightforward but fascinating innovation."
Exoskeletons are partial-body or full-body suits that make strenuous and repetitive tasks easier for workers in the same way a robotic arm does, except that the legs, torso, neck and other body parts subject to injury are also protected and strengthened. Some exoskeletons are hydraulic powered, like the RISE Robotics Exosuit. Others, like the EksoVest from Ekso Bionics, derive their power from a system of counterweights.
Drones give contractors and developers a bird's eye view of their projects, and camera- and video-equipped models can easily document progress. Project managers can use drones to identify potential safety hazards, and developers have found them helpful for surveying property. Drones are also being used to capture jobsite images that are entered into building information modeling (BIM), augmented reality and virtual reality systems so project stakeholders can get a rich, full representation, although that requires extra training on the part of drone operators.
"Drones," Hummel said, "are, as instruments, actually becoming relatively straightforward and simple and very cost effective. But the level of sophistication in terms of both how to use them and what to use them for — that’s getting more and more complex."
4. 3-D printing
The built environment probably stands to see the most change courtesy of 3-D printing technology, though its adoption by general contractors is probably the furthest away.
Some 3-D printing methods use a printer fitted inside another structure, like a gantry crane or other framework, which creates size constraints. Freeform 3-D printers like the C-Fab, manufactured by Branch Technology in Chattanooga, Tennessee, break free of those constraints. This technology could be used to create entire structures or just a few elements of them. 3-D printers also can be programmed to produce intricate designs in less time and with more consistency.
5. Wearable tech
Construction site wearables range from air-conditioned vests to slip-and-fall monitors that clip on to a belt to augmented reality helmets, all of which are intended to increase safety and/or productivity. GAO's RFID tags can track employees’ movements on the job, which eliminates the need for paper tracking of hours and can help locate employees in an emergency.
Many of these wearable devices are internet-enabled and connect wirelessly to the cloud, where collected data is stored.
Looking to tomorrow
Not every piece of technology makes sense for every contractor or every project. But if you’re not actively considering how technology could help you do things faster, cheaper, easier or safer, consider this:
“If you and your team aren’t really ready for this, if you don’t have the right tools, if you don’t understand the things that are available to you, then it’s possible your competition might,” said Hummel.
Of course, some gadgets, such as certain wearables and basic drones, are relatively affordable, while other tech innovations come with a massive price tag.
“Some of these things provide a very quick payback, but some are investments that take a long time — large machinery, big technology equipment, those sorts of things. It’s part of why companies like United Rentals help soften that blow by spreading it out over multiple customers and providing the service there.”
By continuing to embrace tech breakthroughs, the construction industry could finally begin to move the needle on productivity and position itself to be better able to weather economic downturns and other challenges.