Technology Advances In The Construction Industry

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Technology Advances In The Construction Industry

By Pat Miller, CPA

When considering the impact of technology on the modern workplace, construction services may not typically be the first industry that comes to mind as being at the forefront of technological advancement.

Many of the tools used on a typical job site have remained unchanged for years, if not decades. However, technological advances have allowed construction companies to improve not only the efficiency of their work and the quality of their end product, but also the safety of the work environment for their employees.

In addition, technological breakthroughs are on the horizon that will help construction companies complete tasks and achieve results that were previously thought to be impossible.

On-Site Communication

One such advance is evident in the area of on-site communication. Considering the importance of constant communication on a job, more and more companies are starting to bring their own WiFi to their job sites.

In very rural locations, where cell phone and LTE service may be ineffective or almost nonexistent, WiFi allows workers on a job site to stay connected not just to each other in the field, but also with management back at headquarters. Consequently, safety issues or disputes that arise on the job can be addressed more quickly.

Change orders can be generated by the team onsite, then reviewed and approved by management more efficiently. With this enhanced wireless capability, project managers and superintendents are able to utilize tablet devices to their full potential. They can submit real-time data (such as receipts for small purchases and information about progress on the job) back to management at headquarters.

For outdoor jobs, projects managers and foremen are able to track weather forecasts to ensure that their crew doesn’t have a potentially unsafe situation due to incoming storms.

Certain applications will allow project managers to track employee timecards, which provides the dual benefits of maintaining timecards in the same place (for data storage purposes) and being able to submit their timecards electronically (permitting them to transfer the data to payroll more quickly by not having to manually deliver timecards to headquarters). Regardless of the specific tasks it’s used for, WiFi on the job site has helped construction companies communicate more easily and efficiently.

Drones

In addition to WiFi capabilities, another one of the more popular innovations to recently take flight at construction sites is the unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone. At first glance, it’s not difficult to see why drones have become frequent sights on construction jobs.

They allow the operator to traverse large job sites quickly to survey the status of the job, saving time previously spent walking from end to end. Drones can help provide a new aerial perspective on the job site, which permits the user to identify potential hazards or design flaws that may not have been evident from the ground level.

They can also assist in performing tasks, such as inspections at high elevations or in tight quarters, that would have otherwise presented a safety risk to a worker. Lastly, drones grant the user a means of surveillance to both watch for uninvited guests to the job site and to monitor workers, if necessary.  Drones have aided companies by making job sites safer and more accessible for employees.

3-D Modeling

Another recent innovation that some companies have begun to utilize is that of 3-D modeling. In the near future, physical blueprints of building designs may become obsolete, as 3-D modeling software becomes more sophisticated and cost effective.

Used in conjunction with tablet devices, 3-D modeling software will allow companies to make changes to project designs on the fly, rather than having to take the time to edit existing designs by hand.

When taking other available data (such as financial information about the project or local ordinances) into consideration, the software will also allow the user to quickly determine whether or not a projected design change would fit within the budget or would even be permitted under local code, further saving the company valuable time and resources.

Smart Clothing

While these existing technological advances have already helped construction companies in numerous ways, the future of technology promises even further gains in efficiency and employee safety. Some of these advances, such as smart clothing, are already in their infancy stage and being used in other industries.

Professional (and even some amateur) athletes are already wearing smart clothing on a daily basis. Small sensors located within shirts, shoes, or other active wear are able to track the sensory data of the athlete and compile the data for an interested coach or for the athletes themselves.

This data helps to detect and notify the user when the athlete is experiencing excess fatigue or other unsafe health conditions, such as an elevated heart rate or blood pressure.  Construction companies making use of this technology would thus be able to tell if an employee is unable to safely continue their work tasks.

One company within the industry is even designing a smart safety vest with built-in lights that will activate when the site gets too dark and an ‘airbag collar’ that will deploy if the wearer falls from an excessive height.

As safety is often on the forefront of management’s mind, smart clothing will help ensure that employees are able to work more safely than ever before.

Self-Operating Vehicles

Like ‘smart’ clothing, self-operating vehicles already exist and are in limited use. It’s easy to imagine how self-operating vehicles and heavy equipment could benefit the construction services industry.

In dangerous situations and on hazardous job sites, self-operating heavy equipment could be controlled remotely from a distance to prevent workers from having to put themselves in a potentially hazardous situation.

Also, because one worker could theoretically control multiple self-operating vehicles or pieces of heavy equipment, the company would be able to utilize its human capital more efficiently.

Those workers would still require specialized training to be able to operate multiple machines at once, but that would seem a small price to pay in order to be able to deploy multiple workers on another job.

Virtual Reality

One way that workers would be able to obtain the necessary specialized training to simultaneously operate multiple machines is through the use of virtual reality, which presents numerous potential uses.

Experienced workers could use virtual reality to show newer employees how to operate heavy machinery or perform skilled techniques in a safe environment. Simulations have been developed to help workers become comfortable working underground, in tight spaces, and at extreme heights before even stepping foot on a job site.

Similar to 3-D modeling, developers and project managers will be able to see and edit the building being worked on before the work is physically completed, potentially saving the company money and time from having to complete costly re-work.

This would also allow companies to determine the exact placement of building materials such as piping and wiring, meaning they could complete some facets of the construction off site and ahead of time, helping to avoid potential delays.

3-D Printing

Another technology already in existence but with potentially major ramifications in the future is 3-D printing. Printing a needed part on location will be much easier than having to purchase and transport the part from off site.

3-D printing will allow companies to create building materials and even whole sections of the building itself (such as the walls or flooring) much more quickly than currently possible.

A company in China has already begun to print small concrete houses for low-income families; domestically, small office buildings in their entirety have been printed for use in California.

A Dutch engineering and design firm has already released plans for a full steel bridge to be printed for use in Amsterdam and hopes to have the project underway within the next year.

The biggest concerns with 3-D printing are related to safety and quality control. Because the technology is so new, there isn’t enough data yet to compile long-term track records for safety and quality control, making the process and the materials difficult to regulate.

Yet, as 3-D printing becomes more prevalent in the industry, construction companies and regulators will get more comfortable with utilizing the changing technology.

Exoskeletons

Lastly, a final new technology already being used on some job sites are exoskeletons, or power assist suits. Worn over clothing, these suits can help workers operate heavy machinery and tools for a long period of time while minimizing the stress put on the body.

Not only does this help improve a worker’s posture, but it also improves the quality of the work by helping the worker stay focused over longer periods. They can also help workers lift heavy objects by redistributing the load of the object to stronger muscles within the body, reducing strain on a worker’s back.

There are some risks to the current versions of the suits, namely that they limit a worker’s mobility and that the weight of the devices themselves could inadvertently increase the pressure on unforeseen areas of the worker’s body.

As with 3-D printing, there is currently insufficient data to generate proper safety standards or to determine any possible long-term health effects, but the potential for increased work quality and employee health is tremendous.

As is the case when any new technology is unveiled, those in the construction industry will have to approach the innovations on the horizon with skepticism and caution.

However, when considering the potential gains in workplace efficiency, job safety, and financial results that technological innovation has to offer, it’s easy to get excited about what the future might have in store for contractors and how they build our world.

RubinBrown’s Construction Services Group

We provide services to general contractors, specialty subcontractors and related companies in the construction industry.

  • Ken Van Bree, CPA – St. Louis
  • Partner-In Charge
  • Construction Services Group
  • ken.van.bree@rubinbrown.com
  • 314.290.3429
  • Matt Beerbower, CPA—Denver
  • Partner & Vice Chair
  • Construction Services Group
  • 303.952.1252
  • matt.beerbower@rubinbrown.com
  • Zach Fritz, CPA—Kansas City
  • Manager
  • Construction Services Group
  • 913.499.4416
  • zach.fritz@rubinbrown.com
  • Mark Jansen, CPA – St. Louis
  • Partner & Vice Chair
  • Construction Services Group
  • mark.jansen@rubinbrown.com
  • 314.290.3208
  • Pat Miller, CPA—Denver
  • Manager
  • Construction Services Group
  • 314.290.3217
  • pat.miller@rubinbrown.com

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