Innovation Report: The Game Changers

We thought of giving you an endless list of innovations but settled on five.

Mark L. Johnson / December 2017

What could be more innovative than having IBM Watson, the question-answering computer and winner of “Jeopardy!”, build walls with your crews? If a framer put a stud in the wrong place, Watson would know it. He could signal the foreman. You’d have the best quality control system ever built.

    
But is Watson operational and ready for hire? Yes. Sort of.
    
The “poster boy” for artificial intelligence, Watson can process data about objects we use every day. He understands scenes, objects, faces, colors, food, even the style elements of architects like Antoni Gaudí. One day, likely, Watson will know one manufacturer’s cold-formed steel stud from another’s—but that requires the construction industry to create an image library of building components.
    
“We need that database to search available images of studs on the market,” says Bardia Jahangiri, virtual design and construction specialist at BakerTriangle Prefab. “Then we can figure out the exact stud that someone is holding on the shop floor.”
    
So, AI systems will be able to “see” and verify assembly constructs. We already have augmented reality headsets, such as the Microsoft HoloLens, to feed AI systems scenes from the job site. We just need the digital library to make it all work.
    
You had to expect in an article on innovation that we’d lead with the most grandiose idea. It grabs attention. At least this idea is not far-fetched and certainly not that far off.
    
“It’s exciting to know that a lot of companies are working in our space,” says Travis Vap, president of South Valley Drywall, Littleton, Colo.
    
Here are five innovations in play today—at work on the shop floors and job sites of several industry players.

1. Prefabricated Architectural Drywall
In his company’s fabrication shop, Bob Weber, the founder of Island Acoustics in Bohemia, N.Y., uses a Computer Numeric Control machine to cut, carve and mill specially shaped drywall assemblies.
    
“We call it architectural drywall,” Weber says.
    
The CNC machine creates shapes and forms efficiently, Weber says. What’s innovative is its use with drywall.
    
“We’ve been able to take a commodity product and mold it to achieve some amazing details,” Weber says.
    
An example is Island Acoustics’s work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, a regular customer of the firm. A recent exhibit featuring the Japanese fashion designer Rei Kawakubo used curvy drywall vignettes and niches to showcase her work.
    
Island Acoustics also used its CNC machine to fabricate the special geometric enclosures for “53W53,” the super-slender condominium being built next to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The high-rise’s exterior structural system forms a lattice with patterns that architects call diagrids. Each diagrid is unique, asymmetric and seemingly random, requiring that wallboard for the interiors be cut into triangles and trapezoids. The CNC machine scores and cuts each piece of board needed in the tower.

2. Design Visualization
David Keane, virtual design and construction specialist at Baker Drywall Prefab in Dallas, would rather build digital mockups than physical ones.
    
“GCs spend tens of thousands of dollars for mockups they may never use,” Keane says.
    
His preferred innovation tool? Design visualization using augmented reality headsets. BakerTriangle Prefab uses the headsets and special software to create mockup holograms. They’re not real mockups, but who said they need to be? An architect or general contractor can stop by BakerTriangle’s facility, don an augmented-reality headset and evaluate assembly options in a virtual way.
    
“This technology is completely developed and ready for use,” Keane says. “It’s different from just a rendering and more than just a model of a structure, because you can manipulate and interact with these holograms.”
    
For example, Keane can show an architect or GC some exterior wall panels and instantly switch out the exterior skins to show a variety of cladding options. He can change elements within the assembly, move studs and bracing around, and do it all on the fly.
    
The customer experiences full 3D visualization, not just a 2-D color rendering. The ability to interact with the visualizations is the game changer. It helps the architect or GC to make better decisions. They can see how things will be put together and vary the assembly options and aesthetics without having to mock up costly physical structures.

3. Power Tool Programs
Brent Allen, vice president at Compass Construction, Dublin, Ohio, may describe his firm as an old-time contractor, but he says the company is “progressing on tools.” He notes: “We’re buying new tools and buying into company-specific programs.”
    
While not necessarily new to the industry, power tool maintenance programs and rapid repair services give wall and ceiling contractors a way to maintain their tool cribs and keep their jobs running. The programs give them same-day or next-day service on power tools that break.
    
“The tools almost have an infinite life if you get into certain programs,” Allen says.
    
Back in the day, a framer laying track with a powder-actuated gun that fired and broke saw his job grind to a halt. The gun normally was out of service for at least a week. The new power tool service programs alleviate, even eliminate, this problem. The tool manufacturer provides same-day replacement, same-day on-site repair or possibly a loaner. Whatever the program offers, workflow generally keeps going. The power tool functioning is no longer a production hurdle.
    
“We’re in the process of changing our whole tool program over from one company to another,” Allen says. “We have a big investment in the field.”

4. ERP Accounting Systems
The biggest innovation that Vap has seen lately is ERP accounting. He calls it a “huge innovation for our market.”
    
Enterprise Resource Planning, or ERP, software allows an organization to integrate in one platform many applications—accounting, bid management, budgeting and data analytics. ERP allows a company to manage its multiple business disciplines and back-office functions without purchasing and running separate pieces of software.
    
“ERP solutions used to never be available to small businesses,” Vap says. “It was just so expensive.”
    
Vap uses software to harvest meaningful data from the office and out in the field. He can track material quantities and payroll, for example, and integrate them with the latest prices, crew production rates and job progress reports.
    
“I suppose we could do that before, but now we can do it with amazing speed,” Vap says. “We have a big enterprise tool without the big enterprise cost.”

5. Augmented Reality
Augmented reality allows a user to see the real world enhanced with extra information. By wearing special headsets, a worker can see 3-D images projected into his workspace. The result? He can work faster and more accurately.
    
Jahangiri at BakerTriangle Prefab has written code to connect the Microsoft HoloLens to the firm’s Revit building information modeling software. The integration enables Jahangiri to “see” things he can’t see with the naked eye.
    
For example, the firm recently worked on a 30-story hotel with special cladding, some of which supported exterior signs. Panels were built with carriers to support the loads of the signs. Jahangiri wrote an application to locate the carriers hidden inside the panels.
    
Using a HoloLens, Jahangiri lined up images of the carrier panels on top of the real panels laying the floor of the shop. His application showed where to mark the real panels in the exact spot where the carriers rested below the cladding. The sports were marked and holes drilled. Augmented reality technology made it fast and precise. No one had to guess where to bore holes to add the signage attachments.
    
“The most important thing about this technology is the integration between the 3-D representation of the panels and other building elements, and the actual objects in the real world,” Jahangiri says. “We customized some algorithms for construction purposes.”

Deal with Innovation
Likely, you won’t go out and invest in every innovation mentioned in this article. Perhaps you can’t. Remember, you’re not just buying augmented-reality headsets in deciding to bring augmented reality to your firm, you need to onboard an entire team of programmers and tech people to make augmented reality work. And that’s just one example.
    
Still, the innovations mentioned here are clocking hours on the job in real time and are getting real results. What we see happening is investment. Some companies are shelling out funds to acquire new systems and personnel to run them. Others plan to move on these and other ideas soon.
    
“We’re learning about new solutions every day,” says Vap. “The hard part is know how to deal with innovations so as to make good decisions. If I invest in something today, something better might come out tomorrow.”
    
And then there’s the question of change for the sake of it.
    
“There are so many new products, and they all need to meet the codes and have UL approval,” says Allen. “But I have to ask, ‘How many types of gypsum board do we need from each manufacturer?’”
    
Do we need innovation? And, how much innovation is required? Unanswerable questions, they are. Unless we ask Watson.

Mark L. Johnson writes regularly about construction innovation. Reach him at @markjohnsoncomm, and at linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunications.

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