Technology on the Job Site: The Promise of Productivity

Technology holds out hope for changing construction processes. We'll see what happens.

Mark L. Johnson / August 2020

How exciting to think that by wearing an exoskeleton you can lift a small stack of drywall. It’s thrilling to know that robots can, eerily, now brick walls. It’s amazing to hear that AI (artificial intelligence), right now, is studying, learning and figuring out our industry, wall and ceiling construction.
    
Soon, an AI system—processing images of metal studs, drywall, tape and acoustical ceilings and how they go together—will enable a subcontractor to get paid quicker, sources say.
    
One day, in this AI scenario, a project manager will do his walk-through wearing a helmet with a special 3D camera. The AI software controlling the camera will scan the job site (think Arnold Schwarzenegger in “The Terminator”) and compare the work completed to the work specified in the building model.
    
Just as IBM Watson knows chess pieces and chess moves, a wall and ceiling AI system will be able to “see” every panel, soffit and header and determine whether those assemblies are built correctly. It will know if each individual metal stud and track and the bracing is present. It will compare any changes it sees with validated updates to the BIM. Then, it will calculate a Percent Complete for the job, figure the next cash draw, and invoice the general contractor. This is all in development right now.
    
It sounds wonderful—and productive—but it’s not going to happen anytime soon. Nor are most wall and ceiling subcontractors expecting construction technology to usher in an era of heightened field productivity.
    
Rather, the promise of productivity—the promise of building wall and ceiling assemblies faster, while staying safe, of building with speeds we once knew decades ago, when a team of two could hang 60 sheets of gypsum board a day—that promise, realistically, won’t be met this year, next year or for a few years at least.
    
“Through my AWCI forum groups I’ve learned that we’re at the high-end of productivity,” says Cameron Wies, estimator and lead technologist at T.J. Wies Contracting, Inc. in Missouri, speaking of the company’s field operations. “But, in hearing from my dad [Tim Wies] and other top leadership in our company, it appears that we’ve been stagnant at the exact same production numbers since the 1980s.”

Construction Productivity Is Down
Whoever promised that technology would deliver faster production rates?
    
Technology doesn’t always save time. Compass Construction in Ohio investigated using total station layout systems, for example, but ended up shunning the $15,000 to $20,000 devices.
    
“We just couldn’t see it,” says Brent Allen, vice president at Compass Construction in Ohio. “It wasn’t a good fit for us, because our lead personnel can do it [layout a floor] just as quickly on their own. And, there are always changes on jobs. Dragging expensive equipment back to a job site doesn’t make sense.”
    
So, the notion of technology compressing time on the job site might well come from our collective inner voice. “We’re short on labor. We have so many safety regulations to meet. We can’t raise our fees,” the voice cries. “Help us, Technology!” The appeal turns into hope, which overtakes reason, and out comes the rationale: “If you buy it, productivity will come.”
    
It doesn’t happen that way. And some in the industry wonder whether the desire for the latest and greatest gadgets costs companies more than they get in return.
    
Of course, many wall and ceiling companies run high-tech operations. They connect their offices and the field with iPads and apps. Their crews build accurately and avoid field conflicts using BIM. They own some exoskeletons and some total stations. So, what’s next? Robots marching onto the job site and screwing together drywall and metal framing? No, not anytime soon. And it doesn’t look like human crews will soon meet the old production quotas either.
    
“I don’t think we will ever have productivity reach the kind of levels experienced by previous generations,” says Mark Keith, a construction technology expert and the director of BIM Services for Marek in Texas. “Those were different times with different expectations regarding our workforce safety, processes and productivity.”

The Innovative Mindset
Technology means different things to different people. And firms in the wall and ceiling industry are at different stages in their technological evolutions.
    
So, what is technology? What is expected from it? Taking a cue from Webster’s New World College Dictionary—technology is “the science or study of the practical or industrial arts”—this article treats construction technology as the application of what’s practical for doing work. Technology can be hardware, software, gizmos or systems, so long as they make a difference. In wall and ceiling construction, the main applied technologies currently in use on the job, and by managers running jobs, include the following:

  • Computers, tablets, smartphones
  • Digital documentation
  • Communications software
  • Enterprise resource planning software
  • GPS-based layout systems
  • BIM
  • Cordless tools
  • Lightweight gypsum board
  • Machines that cut, bend and fold material

None of these technologies are particularly new. California Drywall Co. has been using iPads on job sites for seven to eight years, according to Jaime Garcia, executive vice president at the firm. Bob Grupe, AWCI director of technical services, says BIM was on the agenda of the Construction Management Technology Committee of AWCI’s Construction Technology Council five years ago. A YouTube video featuring a tool that can score and fold drywall into intricate shapes was posted in April 2012.
    
What is new is the pressing need to make applied technology work more effectively.
    
The April 2020 McKinsey & Company paper, “Construction and Building Technology – Poised for a Breakthrough?,” says: “High fragmentation, low productivity and slow adoption of technology have contributed to slow recovery and value creation, even after the 2008 financial crisis.”
    
In other words, construction firms are not very productive. Whereas productivity in agriculture, manufacturing and mining have increased since 1990, construction productivity has slumped, McKinsey says.
    
Why is that? The wall and ceiling industry has seen many advances since the 1980s. Hangers today use lightweight board. They operate cordless power tools. They have collated their screws.
    
One hindrance to speedy production are today’s safety regulations. While safe job sites are important, they require more meetings for foremen, less time to walk jobs, something else to do while trying to hit production targets. Crews start their days with flex-and-stretch periods. They have lots of toolbox talks. These all take time.
    
“Are we working safer? Yes. Have we reduced accidents? Significantly. Will the industry every get back to 60 board days? Probably not,” says Keith.
    
Hoping to buck that trend, some large AWCI member contractors are actively pursuing research and development programs they hope will improve their operational capabilities. California Drywall, for example, is piloting something called “The Cube,” an augmented/virtual reality chamber run by an unnamed technology partner in Pleasanton, Calif. An R&D program at Marek involves estimating and budgeting from 3D models.
    
“Because of today’s labor shortages in the construction trades,” says Keith, “we need to develop an innovative mindset.”
    
Innovation, Keith says, needs to be applied to a company’s complete range of functions: its corporate services, talent development, safety and risk management, operational project management.
    
“But one of the most important functions our company performs is getting information to the men and women at the face of the wall,” Keith says.
    
In other words, effective technology starts at the job site.

Cobbling Together Multiple Apps
One way to run a more effective job site is through better communication.
    
Wies is leading a team to convert his company’s reporting processes to a paperless system. The goal is to give lead men, foremen and project managers actionable information as quickly as possible. The sooner a project manager knows about a problem—HVAC ductwork in the wrong place, material running low, a new work-order ticket—the sooner the job gets done.
    
Wies, a millennial, raised with technology like most millennials, hired a millennial intern, Ryan Herman. Together, they have developed a strategy to acquire technologies that can capture data from the field and make good use of it.
    
“I tried to find the cheap and easy way to do it by cobbling together multiple apps,” Wies says. “It was a very cost-conscious act.”
    
One app his team found is a PDF annotator called GoFormz. GoFormz digitizes documents, creates reports and notifies others in the company. A project manager now sees the extra work-order tickets right away. A form field called “Constraints,” part of the Daily Foremen Logs report, reveals to a PM all potential roadblocks to success on a job—in real time.
    
Now Wies is ready to implement Phase II of the company’s communications revamp, moving from simple digital documentation to enterprise resource planning.
    
ERP systems integrate multiple software programs and functions—project management, accounting, estimating and field documentation—inside a single tech stack.
    
Suppose the field receives an extra work order. The foreman enters the change, and that information populates features used by finance, purchasing and project management. No one re-enters or retypes the work-order. The ERP system has already built the software bridges to connect users in different departments.
    
“We’re cutting down the amount of time we have to enter the same information,” Wies says. “The information goes autonomously from the field and into our job file. It cuts down on the amount of touches our field and office staffs have to do.”
    
Reducing errors boosts productivity. And that’s a win-win.
    
“I tell [our chosen ERP software] that I am investing in technology to let me identify a trend early,” Wies says. “If I can offset the course of one bad project, then the technology pays for itself for about a whole year.”
    
He adds: “The best-in-class construction companies spend a lot of time pre-planning and getting not only the right people on the bus, but everyone that’s on the bus involved with information, so that there are no errors and everything is efficient,” says Wies. Speaking of what technology has done for his firm, he adds, “We have gotten better at not having big problems.”

Communicate, Update, Verify
Technology holds out hope that framers, hangers and tapers can lift more, hang more, tape more each day. But sources say the key technology applications right now involve refining corporate decision-making.
    
True, lots of technology is currently in development—AI to process large data sets and enlighten decision-making, AR/VR layout systems connected to building models and GPS trackers that follow crews along as they work. These will take time, sources say, to make their way to the field and be useful.
    
Remember, though, that technology won’t always be readily accepted once it arrives in the field.
    
“We purchased exoskeletons and tried them out,” says California Drywall’s Garcia. “The next thing I know is they’re back in the warehouse. The guys are saying to me, ‘I hate this thing. I have put it on and then take it off to go to the bathroom.’”
    
In the end, practical field technology is only a tool, and the tool has to have value to those using it. The tool or tools most commonly used in wall and ceiling construction involve decision-making, enabling teams to communicate, update and verify project documentation.
    
This kind of tech works well externally. A subcontractor can tie into the GC’s construction management software and grab the latest documents and schedules.
    
It works well internally, too. Project managers now have real-time connectivity to their foremen and workers. They can sign off on work requests, material orders, equipment orders, whatever is needed, without waiting for papers or having to visit the job site directly.
    
Will applied technology spread among more wall and ceiling subcontractors? Most likely. But the blue-sky technology, which is not yet practical or profitable, will need more time before it makes sense for the job site. And then, the industry may still need to make room for it.
    
“The problem in construction the last few years is there has not been enough time. Work exceeds capacity of the workforce,” says Grupe. “It’s hard to learn new tricks when you’re busy trying to keep on track with your established schedules.”
    
For now, industry players should be content that refined decision-making systems are accessible and work well in wall and ceiling construction. The industry is more accurate with its information in the field. Scheduling has gotten a whole lot better.
    
So, is the industry building walls and ceilings faster by using technology? Are more sheets of drywall going up each day?
    
“Well, as it affects peer productivity, we are making gains, but we are not back to where we once were, is how I would put it,” Keith says.

Mark L. Johnson writes for the wall and ceiling industry. He can be reached via linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunications.