High-Tech Tools

We’ve gotten everything there is to get from our crews. It's time for BIM and prefab.

Mark L. Johnson / September 2022

Construction projects today are complex. Timelines are tight. Lay-down areas for materials are limited. And many general contractors stack the various trades on their job sites all at once. It’s not easy to be productive.
    
What can you do to ease this congestion? The answer is to get ahead of it with today’s high-tech tools—collaboration and prefabrication. These are the keys to productivity—the new productivity—where you get man-hours off the job site.
    
Want to get a job done faster? Don’t expect power tools to compress timelines all that much. But the latest building information modeling and collaboration software can smooth the way for better communication with GCs and the other trades. You’ll avoid conflicts and save time.
    
Having trouble finding skilled labor? You already save man-hours at the face of the wall. Your crews use cordless power tools, collated drywall screws, automatic taping tools and more. But you could save even more man-hours by pre-building and pre-assembling building components. A factory setting can be very efficient.
    
Are you willing to make those investments? Great. If not, then adjust what you expect from your crews.
    
“Before they even can put a piece of material in place, the barriers the industry itself puts in front of them is actually the cause of lower output, not the guys themselves,” says Travis Vap, president of the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry and CEO of South Valley Drywall, Inc. in Colorado. “When they’re allowed to produce, they can produce at high levels, levels we saw 20 years ago.”
    
What can high-tech tools do to help? Let’s find out.

Prefabrication and Collaboration
The barriers to productivity are many. They include trade stacking (when a GC releases an area to multiple trades), faulty scheduling (when trades hand off areas before completing their scopes), compartmentalization (when trades work independently) and skilled worker shortages (which won’t resolve anytime soon).
    
You have a lot working against your production teams. But BIM and prefabrication can make a difference.
    
Shawn Burnum, vice president of operations at Performance Contracting, Inc., in Kansas and immediate past president of AWCI, says his company is investing in cold-formed steel roll-forming machines at some of its locations, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. Investing in the machines, Burnum notes, is also a commitment to prefabrication and having BIM operators at the ready.
    
“The high-tech tools coming out will work in our industry,” Burnum says. “But a lot of them work in concert with BIM.”


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These tools “coming out” include a construction robot from Dusty Robotics. It’s a BIM-driven automated layout tool that can mark an unfinished concrete slab (no more chalk lines), simplifying the work done in the field. The Mechasys FrameR system also integrates with CAD drawings. It’s a projector that also makes field layout a no-brainer.
    
Other BIM-centered technologies include roll-forming machines, such as those from FrameCAD. The machines aren’t exactly new, but their software systems continue to advance. Roll formers give a contractor willing to set up a small factory the ability to produce metal studs and track in custom shapes and sizes and to kit framing packages.
    
Hyperframe, an interior wall framing system still in development, uses software to translate a project BIM into a production run of standard U- and C-shaped steel studs. The studs are automatically cut to size and bundled and delivered to the job site. There, installers position them using Microsoft HoloLens 2 mixed reality smart glasses and snap them in place.
    
Indeed, BIM is driving the utility of many new technologies. And pre-construction activity is reaping the benefits, helping teams to complete their work faster with fewer members.
    
“When we talk about prefabrication, or really anything else that we’re doing with technology, we are trying to ‘pick up’ the man hours in the field,” says Dan Wies, president of Wies Drywall and Construction Corp., and the Wies Offsite division, in Missouri, and member of the AWCI board of directors. “That’s really where the productivity happens.”
    
But besides prefabrication and BIM, what other investments might wall and ceiling contractors consider? Here are seven ideas currently in play.

Mixed Reality
Some industry contractors are trialing the HoloLens to do conflict resolution in the field. The idea is to save time and be spared many problems.
    
Paul Godwin, director of BIM services at Marek in Texas, says his company is testing the HoloLens as a way to coordinate processes between trades. By modeling a job, or by having access to a project BIM, Godwin believes Marek can use mixed reality technology to scan entire floors, or sections of floors, and determine the correct geospatial placement of the framing studs. Mixed reality can reveal potential conflicts between Marek’s framing and the ductwork, plumbing runs and electrical runs installed by the MEP trades, the company hopes.
    
“The technology will show our studs in a hologram,” Godwin says. “We will be able to say, ‘OK. It looks like we’re going to hit that duct.’ We will see the conflict before we start construction.”

360 Cameras
Burnum says PCI uses 360-degree cameras to track production, document progress on scopes and spot conflicts. Burnum can be in Kansas City and see a live video from a project in Montana where, say, certain issues have escalated beyond the role of the project superintendent and require the input of an executive.
    
“I saw one project on my computer screen where it was very clear that the area was not open for our crews,” Burnum says. “The area was not ready for us to begin our scope of work.”
    
Burnum says PCI recently entered a corporate agreement with a company that produces 360-degree cameras.

Robots
Robots are all the rage in business, and in many ways they are intriguing and fun. But are they productive?
    
Though Canvas is not yet available in his market, Wies is excited about the construction robot, which can complete the mudding and sanding portions of the drywall finishing process.
    
Published reports have stated that California Drywall, Daley’s Drywall & Taping, Nevell Group and KHS&S, along with self-performing general contractors like Webcor, Swinerton and DPR Construction, have partnered with Canvas in developing the worker-controlled robotic machine. Wies says technologies from India and China are also entering the robotic interior finishing space. He is excited to see what they have to offer.
    
In the area of field layout robotics, Godwin says a team at Dusty Robotics recently gave a demonstration to him and other Marek officials. He says he has another demonstration scheduled, but this time with Houston-based Rugged Robotics, which has its own automated field layout machine.
    
Initial reports from AWCI members suggest that layout robots can identify errors before work gets started and streamline the layout process.

Drywall Framing Systems
Many wall and ceiling companies are turning to drywall framing systems to help them build ceiling bulkheads, light coves, soffits and other drywall components out of prefabricated grid instead of traditional stick-built stud framing.
    
The SimpleSoffit drywall framing system from Armstrong Ceiling & Wall Solutions, for example, has pre-made notches in its main runners, which are engineered based on the framing dimensions and design specifications of the project.


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Burnum says PCI recently used SimpleSoffit at a university project in Des Moines, Iowa. Because the project had two other drywall contractors also performing work on the job, those contractors noticed PCI using the system to build bulkheads and diffuser drops. They inquired about the product and decided to try it themselves.
    
“Our distributor says they’re starting to order that product,” Burnum says. “They watched us install it, and we were so much faster than they were.”

Internet of Things (IoT)
A new report on the Internet of Things from McKinsey & Company says the IoT is revolutionizing what businesses can do.
    
The report, “The Internet of Things: Catching up to an accelerating opportunity” (November 2021), says that by 2030 IoT technologies could enable between $5.5 trillion and $12.6 trillion in value globally. One McKinsey partner said he is particularly excited to see IoT deployed on construction sites to improve processes.
    
Hilti’s Nuron platform, for example, gathers data from each cordless tool in the system and sends it securely to the cloud automatically with every charge cycle. The data collected includes information such as tool usage, charging location and battery state-of-health.
    
While Nuron is specifically a 22-volt battery platform, with interchangeable batteries among Nuron tools, it is also a notification and productivity management system. Customers just need to use Hilti software and subscribe to its fleet management services.
    
“I like the lost tool feature,” says Wies, speaking about the technology in general terms since he is not currently a Nuron subscriber. “Say one of your guys leaves a tool out, and he gets back to the job on Monday and says, ‘I don’t know where it’s at.’ You can check the data on where it was last, and it may jog his memory. Or, maybe somebody from another trade picked it up.”

3D to 2D Estimating
Another area gaining traction is software that makes it easy to do estimating takeoffs from 3D models. The ability to do estimating from 3D models isn’t new, but estimators would normally have to be trained to use modeling software on top of doing their work as estimators.
    
One takeoff software product that Godwin likes is called Vector from The Estimating Edge. Vector is a simple BIM integration module. Godwin says an estimator using it does not require expertise in using Autodesk Revit, a common modeling application. In fact, the estimator never actually enters the model itself. The software does that for him, converting vectors into material quantities and greatly speeding up the work and accuracy of doing takeoffs.
    
“If you can do a takeoff of 70% of your drywall job in a matter of an hour or so, and hit a button and the software populates your partitions, and hit another button and it does the takeoff, filling in all the blanks, that’s going to be a game changer for estimating,” Godwin says.

Video Conferencing
In some cases, productivity can be gained on a job site by using technology that’s readily available: video conferencing.
    
Vap says GCs can slow down production inadvertently. An example is when a GC who requires the trade crews to meet in the parking lot to do stretches and bends before they walk on the job site and begin their work. Vap feels the GC could instead use FaceTime, YouTube, Zoom or another video conferencing tool, to lead the exercises.
    
“If you do it in the parking lot, you will probably lose an hour and a half of production time per day because of the logistics of getting all those men from the parking lot to their workstations,” Vap says. “They are constrained when they don’t have to be.”
    
While video conferencing is not new, simple uses of it can help crews to be more efficient.

The New Productivity
What is the new productivity? Essentially, it’s reaching the goals of meeting budgets, making clients happy and being profitable. Technology can help with these goals—or it can get in the way. Or people can stand in the way.
    
Godwin says BIM has regional acceptance. Some GCs are big on BIM, and some aren’t. He says BIM projects are rarer in Austin, Dallas and San Antonio more so than they are in Houston. In Houston, BIM is now common on 20% to 30% of the commercial projects, he says.
    
“You’ll have a general contractor in Houston that’s advanced in BIM. The same general contractor in Dallas barely does it,” Godwin says. “There is no rhyme or reason to it.”
    
It’s similar with Marek. While many Marek production teams are thrilled to be part of BIM projects, others are not quite as thrilled, Godwin says. Either way, he helps his teams to buy into BIM, because he says more GCs are coming around to giving wall and ceiling contractors access to the architectural models.
    
“They are starting to let us coordinate the critical framing because they see now that they don’t want to coordinate in the field when the studs clash with the mechanical and they have to reroute ducts and pipes,” Godwin says. “We can all get in the room sooner [through BIM], and it makes life easier.”
    
That’s the new productivity. High-tech tools making production easier. We have seen this coming for some time now.
    
“We got into 3D modeling in 2007. Very few people [in the industry] were doing it back then,” Vap says. “Now it’s becoming more common. But there are still a lot of companies that don’t have their sights set on doing it.”
    
“But more will come around. It’s about the type of contractor that you are,” Vap says. “Maybe a large firm has the ability to try some things because they have a bigger R&D budget than a small firm. Maybe somebody isn’t as far along as us on exterior prefabrication, but they’re doing interior framing and they are much further ahead than us. Over time, we can all find ways to use these tools.”

Mark L. Johnson writes regularly about the wall and ceiling industry. You can reach him at linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunications.