Technology: Is the Future Now?
Some contractors avoid investing in technology, but others are using it to get ahead.
Mark L. Johnson / May 2021
Walls have been built the way they’ve been built for years. Oh sure, there have been changes. Plaster and lath construction gave way to drywall and metal framing. Innovative tools and lightweight wallboard have put less strain on crews. But these developments occurred over decades.
Now, a plethora of construction innovations has arrived, and the timing is good. Wall and ceiling contractors face schedule compression and a shortage of skilled workers. Technology can help.
ast fall, the Foundation of the Wall and Ceiling Industry published the paper, “Technology Impact on the Means and Methods of Wall and Ceiling Construction,” (www.awci.org/foundation/research) which states that technology is changing construction.
“The need for wall and ceiling contractors to work more productively and safely in today’s labor-constrained construction environment,” says the paper, “is driving investment in project management software, tracking and tagging systems and prefabrication machinery at wall and ceiling firms.”
Does the Foundation’s research paper settle all issues technology related? Of course not. In fact, there was more to say. And that’s what you’re about to read—comments from thought leaders interviewed last fall, but who were not featured in the Foundation paper due to space limitations. Call it, “Technology Impact Overtime.” There’s a lot more to know about the industry’s investment in technology.
Prefabrication is a huge driver of technology adoption, according to several AWCI member contractors. California Drywall Company in California is one firm actively building out its prefabrication operations.
Stephen Eckstrom, president of California Drywall, believes prefabrication is changing wall and ceiling construction.
“Some of the larger companies, like Raymond, Baker Triangle and California Drywall, are looking at manufacturing as a way to build drywall components,” Eckstrom says. “But, it takes a significant capital investment.”
To manufacture building components, Eckstrom has particular technologies in mind.
“The cutting-edge tech includes stud-rolling machines, brake machines and laser cutters to manufacture products,” he says. “Those three items could be a $1 million investment, if not $2 million.”
Eckstrom says he invests in machinery that can generate precision building products. For him, the price tag for machinery depends on its quality output.
“I could have purchased a stud rolling machine for $500,000, but I wanted one that did multiple stud profiles, and it cost about $800,000,” Eckstrom says. “I could have bought a laser cutter for $300,000, but we purchased a top-of-the-line laser cutter for $500,000.”
Eckstrom says he saw the logic of making such large expenditures by observing others firsthand.
“I used to outsource our prefabrication to a vendor,” Eckstrom says. “When I heard that he was retiring and building a multi-million dollar house, and that my prefabrication was 85% of his business, I said, ‘Wait a second. I should do the prefabrication myself.’”
Technology is expanding the role of industry subcontractors.
“The most widespread technology, the one interested in adoption by more contractors, is automated roll-forming,” says Larry Williams, executive director of the Steel Framing Industry Association. “It allows contractors to roll their own studs and track, which they assemble into panels. The technology isn’t necessarily new, but it’s increasingly being used.”
“It’s the software. It has grown by leaps and bounds in level of sophistication,” Williams says. “You can roll studs in more than just standard shapes—studs with cuts, wedges, angles and connection points—and do it consistently and correctly. We’ve been dealing with a labor shortage in the construction sector. So, anything that saves labor time, requires less training or increases productivity is of interest.”
Another factor that supports roll-forming investment, Williams says, is the growing demand for cold-formed steel framing on projects.
“More mid-rise buildings are using cold-formed steel as the structural element,” Williams says. “The code allows for a 1/8-inch gap between the bottom of the stud and the track. For a two-story structure, one-eighth of an inch is not a big deal. But when a building is four or five stories tall, then you’re talking about higher super-imposed loads being transferred from the top to the bottom. That 1/8-inch gap can disappear as the steel gets compressed. The roll-former allows you to taper the ends of studs to seat them neatly in the track. A stud manufacturer can do that, but they charge extra.”
Thus, some wall and ceiling contractors are becoming vertically integrated. They’re buying machines to control processes further up the line. Of course, this is easier said than done, as manufacturing building products requires knowledge of manufacturing processes and a sufficient volume of orders to justify the investment in roll-forming technology.
“These are multi-hundred-thousand dollar machines, and they also have to buy steel coil,” Williams says. “It’s an opportunity for the well capitalized contractor.”
The use of digital technologies and digitized data is expected to impact how work gets done and how construction stakeholders engage and interact.
Cameron Wies, estimator and lead technologist at T.J. Wies Contracting, Inc. in Missouri, says his firm has been developing its digital documentation processes for years.
“We had purchased a fleet of iPads, but we didn’t have any great ideas on how to start implementing them,” says Wies, speaking of the time when he first began working in the company’s executive offices six years ago. “We tried to digitize our current paper forms to make it easier for transmission from field to office and from office to field by cobbling together multiple apps.”
T.J. Wies Contracting is now in “Phase 2 of that revamp,” Wies says. The company is switching from using separate business software programs to Enterprise Resource Planning software. ERP solutions combine business functions into a single software platform, enabling the integration of data among different departments, such as accounting, project management, risk management and more.
“We’re redoing all of our forms to make our digital documentation autonomous,” Wies says. “We are cutting down the number of times we enter the same information. A form entry goes autonomously from the field and into our job file. That cuts down on the amount of touches our field and office staffs have to do.”
In other words, technology is eliminating steps.
“Before, a form entry notification would come via email, and you would have to add it to your job file,” Wies says. “The ERP automatically puts it into the job file and disseminates the information to all parties. Also, based on the project, when the foremen open a document, the ERP auto-fills pertinent information—the job number, job name, address, the weather.”
Has ERP software enabled the firm to hang more sheets of drywall each day? No.
“We have not seen productivity gains come with new technology,” says Wies.
Still, the investment is profitable.
“I am investing in technology to let me identify a trend early,” Wies says. “If I need to make a change in a project, I need to know about it as early as possible. If a solution can alert me to a negative trend earlier in one project, then I just paid for the software for an entire year.”
AWCI member contractors are keeping an eye on developing technologies that hold promise.
“We’re investigating systems to allow us to analyze work in place and line-out mode,” says Mark Keith, director of building information modeling services at Marek in Texas. “We want to analyze how much work we put in place and how much we are expected to put in place. This ties into how much we bill, which in construction is based on a percent-complete model. The cutting-edge technology uses a scanner to scan a building floor, compare the video and pictures with the model and determine where we are supposed to be that day.”
Line-out mode uses the same methodology but applies to field workers. Say two framers have erected 200 feet of hallway partitions but, to hit a productivity target, they need to frame another 200 feet by the end of the day. Keith says technology can verify the team’s work in place for billings and for the managers supervising their work.
Are such systems ready for the field? Not yet.
“The technologies are not completely developed, and we are working with development firms on them,” Keith says. “Either way, that foreman is not walking around with a 100-pound roll of plans on his shoulder. He has it on an iPad and can show it to the guys standing at the face of the wall. Getting information to those two guys at the face of the wall and getting information from those two guys into our ERP is the most important thing we can do.”
Asset management technology makes use of tags, readers and Internet of Things (IoT) devices to identify and track construction tools, equipment and materials. It has a promising future in wall and ceiling construction, once data providers and contractors figure out how to make best use of the information.
“Asset tracking has been identified as one of the main opportunities for contractors to drive significant productivity gains across the board,” says Eric Hollister, senior director of marketing for electric tools and accessories at Hilti North America. “It doesn’t matter the trade. It’s finding the right asset, at the right time, and putting it in the right hands to get the job done.”
Usage data from tagged tools can be looped through an asset management system to help wall and ceiling contractors assess their productivity.
“Walls and ceilings have one of the most readily translatable use cases for this data,” Hollister says. “In fact, we already have tools in the market right now that will allow you to pull production data—fasteners per day—to track how a tool is being used.”
Will asset management systems take off in wall and ceiling construction? Yes.
“Over the last 20 to 30 years, the trade has been fairly traditional in its use of tools and applications,” says Matt Jackson, senior director of trade marketing at Hilti North America. “However, I think that right now there is an aging but very forward-thinking group of leaders, especially in the wall and ceiling industry, that is pushing the envelope on technology adoption and usage.”
Jackson adds: “These companies are complex, and their jobs are diverse. They move from job to job frequently, and they are learning how to organizationally manage these resources with technology.”
Communications and collaboration technologies are improving work processes today and hold out great promise for improving processes in the future.
“Technology keeps us from doing things twice,” says Mike Potter, vice president, The Raymond Group in California. “Ten years ago, when everything was on paper, it took days to get information to the field. Now, we can inform the field in minutes. If there is a change, the field probably hasn’t started that work.”
Better communication, Potter says, leads to better project management.
“We’re finding ways to meet the construction schedules using Revit [modeling software from Autodesk] and total stations,” Potter says. “We’re constantly working with the design team months ahead of time. We’re teaching the field how to use what our BIM department uses. Instead of calling in and saying, ‘I’m missing a dimension,’ the field has access to the model and can pull the dimension. We’re not there yet completely, but we’re working on it.”
What percentage of projects use BIM and total stations? Potter says 90% of the GCs for major projects ask subcontractors to use BIM. The percentage is far less on tenant improvement and retail work, he says.
As for the use of total stations, much depends on the project and the foremen.
“Some foremen think it’s faster to do layouts the old way,” Potter says. “But when it comes to jobs with radiuses and off-angles and rooms with odd shapes then, hands down, the field wants a total station.”
Potter says Raymond Group is using roll-forming machines to roll its own studs on many projects.
“We’ve built corridors and ceilings on multi-floor buildings by roll-forming studs,” Potter says. “We produce the studs in the shop and get them in place faster than cutting studs in the field.”
A Seat at the Table
BIM technologies are impacting wall and ceiling construction now and will continue to do so in the future. However, the spread of BIM in the wall and ceiling industry is still moving slowly.
“Our engineering team is doing the BIM work for the framing contractor, helping them with virtual construction,” says Mike Murzyn, technical product and marketing manager at ClarkDietrich Building Systems. “BIM is modeling—getting clashes taken care of upfront—and collaborations with other trades. We’re working with different trades—electrical, plumbing, sprinkler systems, HVAC and any service that can run above or within the partitions.”
Still, only about 5% to 10% of wall contractors, Murzyn says, have BIM departments.
“Five percent doesn’t sound like much, but the big companies are doing a lot of BIM work,” says Terry Westerman, vice president of marketing at ClarkDietrich Building Systems. “The smaller companies that do less complex projects generally don’t need BIM on a regular basis. On complex projects—hospitals, airports—BIM can optimize performance by allowing the framing contractor to remove clashes before they put labor on the project, and to help them optimize that labor once they are on the project.”
The value of BIM lies in its good results.
“About 10 years ago, the contractor would come to us saying, ‘We need BIM because it’s in the specifications. We need the lowest package you have so that we can check off the box,’” says Murzyn. “I hated hearing that. I would say, ‘Yes, we can do the minimum modeling package and just show the corner and the jam studs.’ But then, the contractors would realize we could do so much more. The BIM could show them the locations of blocking for soap and sanitizer dispensers and the backing for handrails. That’s when their eyes lit up.”
Will building materials producers like ClarkDietrich continue to be modelers for subcontractors, or will more wall and ceiling contractors take on that function?
“Our engineering team will probably hate me for saying this but, yes, more subs will get involved,” Murzyn says. “We would like to have them get going with BIM.”
“The HVAC and other folks have been there for a while,” Westerman adds, “but now the framing contractor has a seat at the table.”
Keeping It Simple
In Texas, Baker Triangle Prefab is changing the means and methods of wall and ceiling construction by keeping it simple.
“We’re trying not to reinvent the wheel every time we start a project. We’re trying to standardize our prefabrication processes,” says David Keane, VDC specialist and project engineer at Baker Triangle Prefab. “The onsite speed and efficiency is great, but the front-end effort—the massive upfront coordination that goes into the design—is so monumental that it only makes sense if it can be easily repeated.”
“So, we have started to refine the software we use to be more repeatable, to be more translatable across projects,” Keane adds. “It’s about building a library instead of building from scratch each time. It’s not about adding technologies, but about better understanding the technologies and software we currently use.”
As an example, Keane cites the use of PlanGrid, a document-sharing program Baker Triangle foremen use to fill out work orders and RFIs, markup drawings and generate punch lists and safety reports.
“We’d like to be able to tie PlanGrid and our 3D models together,” Keane says.
Doing so would potentially give Baker Triangle 5D BIM capability—3D modeling plus scheduling and budgeting. McKinsey & Company’s 2020 report, “Construction and Building Technology: Poised for a breakthrough?” says 5D BIM is a disruptive technology affecting construction today.
“When you look at a wall on a 2D plan, you just see text notes and the lines indicating the wall. But, a 3D model can house information within the line-work,” Keane says. “We could click on a wall and pull up the STC rating, or the material used, or the wall’s height and finish. Tying in the model with the construction documents would give us added properties and parameters. We could compile schedules, quantities and totals from the model.”
Mark L. Johnson writes regularly about the wall and ceiling industry. You can reach him at linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunications.