Technology to the Rescue?

Ulf Wolf / March 2019

Construction technology continues to advance and almost daily offers contractors new tools to meet both long-term growth and efficiency goals—as artificial intelligence analytics, drone hardware-software combinations, independently operated robots and other technologies all strive to enable the construction industry to do more with less.
    
Since the labor shortage shows few signs of letting up, this begs the question: Will technology come to the rescue?
    
To answer that question, we’ll take the pulse of the technological field and find out how contractor members of the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry view recent advances and future possibilities.

2018
What do you consider the best technical innovation of 2018?
    
Says Adam Barbee, general superintendent at Daley’s Drywall & Taping in California, “In 2018 we saw machines that learn and analyze construction projects. Also, augmented reality advanced to the point where, using goggles, we can see what will be built. And this, of course, is just the beginning. BIM has also made huge advances across the board.”
    
“For me,” says John Kirk, owner of Kirk Builders in California, “it was the announcements by two different manufacturers that they plan to release electric trucks within two years.
    
“More practically, I would say, the incremental progress being made in cordless tools. The batteries are up to 20 and 22 volts, they hold up well and aren’t too expensive.
    
“Laser technology has also continued to make incremental progress. The lasers you can now acquire for a few hundred dollars are pretty amazing.”
    
Lee Zaretzky, president of Ronsco, Inc. in New York City, has this take: “While New York City—where our environment is mostly vertical and most projects involve existing structures—is famous as a late implementer of new technology, what did catch my eye in 2018 were the virtual reality goggles that integrate with BIM to allow you to visualize implementations and conflicts.”
    
Mr. Google, a well-known California-based search engine, weighs in with, “Interest in virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift and mixed reality tools like the Microsoft HoloLens has grown in recent years, as evidenced by the number of pilots performed and use cases identified by AEC (architecture, engineering and construction) professionals.
    
“In fact, entry-level headsets are now used to walk owners through a simulation of their project in their own offices, and both architects and engineers can now interact with holograms of their designs. (Source: https://www.constructiondive.com).
    
“Also, researchers at Japan’s Advanced Industrial Science and Technology Institute have announced the development of their HRP-5P, a humanoid robot prototype that, using environment detection, object recognition and other spatial-awareness capabilities, can pick up drywall boards, put them in place and fasten them with a screwdriver without human assistance.
    
“While not the fastest kid on the block, HRP-5P has a far larger range of motion and field of view compared with his human counterpart. Today, researchers are working with other private companies to target labor shortages by using HRP-5P as a platform to develop pilots and use cases.” (Source: as above)
    
Says Charles Antone, consultant at Building Enclosure Science in Rhode Island, “Although a little older than a year, one excellent innovation was brought to market by Concrete Sensors, a Boston-based company (www.concretesensors.com) that manufactures sensors that are embedded in concrete slabs. Over a period of about five years (as long as the battery lasts), these sensors provide hourly readings on the strength, moisture levels and other important information about the concrete as it cures. This is real-time data in lieu of the normal testing at intervals, and greatly helps monitor building quality and predict progress.”
    
This, of course, only skims the surface of 2018 tech advances. Google the term and you’ll stay jaw-droppingly amazed for hours.

2019
What technical innovation(s) do contractors anticipate for 2019?
    
Craig Daley, president of Daley’s Drywall & Taping in California, says, “We’ll see more software integration of software. We want to enter data only once. We see combining estimating, proposal generation, job tracking, tool tracking, vehicle maintenance, financial tracking, safety programs, to-do lists, scheduling, etc. in an application that integrates all facets of the job, from start to finish.”
    
Adds Brittni Daley-Grishaeva, Daley’s CFO, “A few years ago, software companies used to advertise all-in-one solutions. These days new software is developed so rapidly with so many new innovative features and functionalities that it’s no longer realistic to expect complete all-in-one solutions—perhaps a most-in-one at best. However, this is not as big of an issue as it used to be since most software now integrate with other software better than it ever did, so you still won’t have to enter data more than once while reaping the benefit of more programmers and more creative problem-solving.”
    
Barbee says he is seeing “more and more advancements in pre-fab. This of course is not new, however pre-fab is now advancing at a rate that is new, and we will soon be able to make things in a flash that used to take hours. Also, drone technology will definitely expand.”
    
Kirk sees “incremental progress in cordless tools and laser technology. Possibly an electronic tape measure as versatile as a hand tape measure, and possibly monitoring tools for silica, noise and other potentially harmful exposures.”
    
“I see robots putting up drywall,” says Zaretzky.
    
Gilly Turgeon, president of Green Mountain Drywall Co., Inc. in Vermont, agrees. “Automated Drywall Installers,” he says. “I see they are working on it in Japan.”
    
Mr. Google says “augmented reality is coming. Although virtual reality has been an emerging trend over the past few years, it’s quickly growing outdated—especially when compared to augmented reality’s uses and benefits.
    
“This is the ability to visualize the real world through a camera lens. It’s something that’s bound to open many new opportunities for the construction industry even though it’ll come with a hefty price tag.
    
“However, for those companies that can afford to start using it now, it’ll revolutionize how they project and build things. This is a trend that will grow much bigger in the next few years. (Source: https//geniebelt.com/)
    
“Also, BIM will remain one of the hottest construction technology trends. It comes as no surprise if we take into account that the emergence of an open and highly collaborative data ecosystem (see definition below) is on the way.
    
“BIM technology could be the catalyst for a fundamental change in how we manage, design, and develop a construction project.” (Source: as above)
    
Suggests Antone, “I see a maturing of envelope systems, that and more systemization—off-site prefabrication. Even though buildings will never be completely manufactured off-site and then assembled following Ikea-like instructions—most owners want unique buildings, those parts of a project that do not have to have a personal or unique touch can and will, more and more, be manufactured off-site (systematization). Plumbing is a good example. Bathrooms and such fixtures can be systemized in a controlled environment and then assembled in place.”

Data Ecosystems
A data ecosystem is a collection of infrastructure, analytics and applications used to capture and analyze data. Data ecosystems provide companies with data that they rely on to understand their customers and to make better pricing, operations and marketing decisions. The term “ecosystem” is used rather than “environment” because, like real ecosystems, data ecosystems are intended to evolve over time (source: https://mixpanel.com).

2020
We then asked contractors, “If you could invent (or conjure) anything, what would you create and bring to market in 2020 to help the construction industry become more efficient and profitable?”
    
Daley says, “Screw guns have become much easier to use with the addition of auto-feeding screws and being cordless. Now a fairly green apprentice can screw at journeyman speeds, except they miss the studs! So how about incorporating a stud finder into the screw gun? Both screw guns and stud finders are available at hardware stores, so we need someone to put them together.”
    
Wishes Barbee, “A master pre-construction program that would define absolutely everything from beginning to end. This includes all crews, materials, deliveries and time stamps all dovetailing with each other so there is no collision in the job progression, and all with nanotechnology precision.”
    
Suggests James Keller, vice president at Valcom Enterprises, Inc. in Kentucky, “The best thing would be a robotic drywall hanger for constant, steady production. That, and no lunch breaks.”
    
Zaretzky would conjure “a uniform communication platform where all GCs and subs can collaborate in real-time. That, and a universal platform based on BIM so advanced that it can generate pricing and bids.”
    
Turgeon would also like to see robots. “Not sure if they would be more efficient,” he says, “but I truly believe they would be more profitable in the long run.”
    
Adds Antone, “I’d conjure 3-D printing so advanced that one could build anything one could conceive of, uniquely and aesthetically. That would be my dream future.”

Inefficiency
According to McKinsey & Co., our industry would be $1.6 trillion better off each year if the construction industry’s efficiency and productivity growth over the past two decades had matched that of manufacturing.
    
Reams have been written, speculated and opined about the almost legendary inefficiency of construction as an industry, but at the end of the day, is construction not inefficient for a reason?
    
Enter a cathedral. Enter a DMV waiting room. The feelings experienced in the two buildings are galaxies apart—yet, they are both buildings.
    
When we buy an existing house, our first impulse is often to remodel. Why? We want to make it our own, we want to make the building unique. There is almost something spiritual about it. We want to feel good, safe, pleased when we step into our house, our home.
    
We feel awe and reverence stepping into a cathedral. We feel, well, dread, and somewhat perplexed, when we step into a DMV waiting room.
    
A building is not a car. Henry Ford could automate the manufacture of his Ts (you could have any color you wanted as long as it was black). Cars can all look and feel the same (though that industry today is scrambling like mad to present individual brands as unique), we don’t really care, but we do care about buildings, more than we possibly realize.
    
We will probably never cookie-cut buildings. There will always be a unique element to them whether one-story homes or skyscrapers, and that is why we will probably never build everything in an off-site plant to then assemble onsite. We will create buildings, often from scratch, often uniquely. That is why architecture is considered by many to be an art.
    
Perhaps we are inefficient for a reason.

Other Thoughts
Daley says, “Technology used to be limited by our antique computer hardware—too bulky, processor too slow. These days, hardware is both fast and portable enough. It’s the software that needs to improve to save us time, not the hardware.”
    
Barbee says, “Today’s technology can deal with and process enormous amounts of data in seconds, and it’s only becoming faster.”
    
Kirk adds, “Technology has come a long way in construction. The fact that drywallers and tapers have learned how to use it says a lot.”
    
Zaretzky says, “Technology will continue to develop across all sectors, though the good news is that foremen and supervisor obsolescence is still a way off.”
    
Adds Turgeon, “Technology has been good to us in the past, and hopefully we can come up with something in the future that will save this industry.”
    
A reality check courtesy of Mike Espeset, president of Story Construction Company, an Iowa general contractor: “As a company, we focus more on creating better human interaction than we are relying on technology as a lever. Technology can be a lever, but never a substitute, so we’re not doing anything remarkably related to technology. We are keeping up with the times; we’re relevant, but we’re staying off the bleeding edge.”

To the Rescue?
Two important things to remember about computers and technology: Humans will never be replaced, and garbage in equals garbage out.
    
It is very easy to be charmed (if not a little overwhelmed) by the fireworks and minor miracles that advanced software and technology introduce on an almost daily basis. However, it is better not to lose sight of the fact that all software solutions are conceived by humans, they are coded by humans and implemented, run and interpreted by humans.
    
Humans ask the questions or pose the problems that technology answers or resolves; humans receive and evaluate those answers or solutions. Technology will never replace humans, it will only ever extend and augment our views, understanding and capabilities.
    
And, as an interesting aside, it is humans who will occupy or live in the buildings we build. Computers will never ask for aesthetic and comfortable homes.
    
As for information, even the fastest super-processor, today or ever, will compute correct and valuable results only if the data fed its software is correct (as collected and evaluated by humans). Garbage in has equaled garbage out as long as we’ve had computers and software, and for centuries before.
    
Yes, as technology facilitates and augments human capability, it may well come to the rescue, but it will never do so on its own.
    
It takes humans to rescue humans and their worthy enterprises.

California-based Ulf Wolf is the senior writer at Words & Images.