From vending machines to virtual reality: Inside the 21st-century job site trailer
Jeff Bauer has avatars on the brain. Bauer, the virtual design construction manager for New York City–based Turner Construction, was joined by the company's general manager of medical equipment planning and management, Russ Alford, to lead a hospital client through a virtual reality walk-through of 250 labor and delivery rooms last month. By the year’s end, the Turner team plans to have a remote VR program allowing 15 people in different locations to become avatars within the same virtual BIM model and to collaborate on project review in real time and in real-world dimensions.
Bauer and Alford see a range of use cases for VR to redefine communication and collaboration throughout the design-build cycle. They even anticipate a near-future in which VR caves are a common built-in feature of job site trailers and offices. Yet the Turner assessment of the extent to which VR is currently used as an applied technology in the field is quite blunt.
“I don’t think we see any VR on the job site yet,” Alford said. “We do see some people looking at augmented reality via [Microsoft's] HoloLens, but VR is still largely a communication tool for the design phase and hasn’t made it to the field level yet.”
Still, as construction teams look to gain efficiencies in what Alford and others describe as a paperless, do-more-with-less working environment, the job site trailer has begun to take a high-tech turn. Touch-panel plan tables, smart lockers, video conferencing, super-range wireless and equipment vending are helping to cut down on clutter and offer more efficient onsite collaboration between GCs, supervisors and subs.
Among the last places one would expect to find construction data analytics at work is inside a vending machine, but Indianapolis-based IVM — which supplies equipment and sundry vending machines to the Logitech and Facebook campuses — sees AEC as a major growth market for smart vending. For the typical GC who stores disposable items and smaller tools and gear in the construction trailer, smart vending machines can automate equipment distribution and track usage and inventory.
“We are a tech company masking as a vending company,” said IVM Director of Sales Jeff Gabonay. “From safety goggles to batteries to work gloves and earplugs, there is a need to manage disposable assets on the construction site, and smart vending automates the process while providing inventory checks and weekly reporting and forecasting for equipment over a six-month period.”
While vending machines are best geared toward consumable and disposable items, vendors like IVM also offer smart locker storage for more expensive equipment. Its vending machines and lockers can be fitted with barcode, RFID or QR code scanners to tailor and track equipment access among workers.
Even analog workbox design is evolving to meet the demands of space utilization and high-tech equipment storage in the project trailer. For example, the new iM2275 Pelican Storm Case was designed with a taller lid height to provide 1,700 cubic inches of lockable storage space, enough to securely stow a drone in a watertight, dust-proof, thief-resistant workbox.
For now, the all-digital job site remains a concept rather than a reality. Yet BIM, construction project management software and bidding and procurement systems have drastically eliminated the volume of paper documents invariably housed within the construction trailer. In their place, high definition video screens, touch panels and plan tables are emerging as a preferred — if not yet everyday — medium for construction teams to collaborate.
“Electronic plan tables are probably the real tricked out thing we have implemented at several projects,” said Wesley Cotter, director of corporate communications for Providence, RI-based Gilbane Building Company. “We’ve got them on hydraulic lifts and they can turn flat as a display table or upright to address a trailer full of subcontractors and allow a full audience to work with BIM models.”
Julian Clayton is the vice president of customer success at New York City-based Fieldlens, whose construction-focused, task-management mobile application is designed to streamline field reporting and collaboration on the job site. While Clayton sees broad opportunities to leverage technology for project management, he’s uncertain whether the demographics of industry seniority will let paper completely disappear from the trailer — at least not yet.
"[Y]ou need to pick one or two technologies at a time and roll them out and prove that they work.”
Vice president of customer success, Fieldlens
“I absolutely see opportunities to do more, but what I don’t see is a [realization of the] trend to completely digitize construction," he said. "From a small GC to a Balfour Beatty, you are still dealing with a senior person in the room who is in their 60s or 70s and only willing to learn so many new things before they retire. If we move to digitize everything, they’ll refuse to use it. I don’t think it's a fault, I think it's simply a natural progression where you need to pick one or two technologies at a time and roll them out and prove that they work.”
Clayton sees more GCs investing in advanced wireless systems to set up remote, high-speed networks without the need to run cable or fiber to the site. Firms like San Jose, CA–based Ubiquiti Networks are fast developing routers and super-range wireless relays to extend broadband transmission as far as 188 miles.
“If you are looking at hardware for the job site trailer, the bigger thing is the use of dumb terminals rather than individual laptops,” Clayton said. With long-range wireless relays offering broadband from a box about the size of two card decks, construction managers don’t have to pay (or wait) to pull a line to the job site. “As they get that right, you can stream internet to the job site from miles away and have a hot desktop right on site to broadcast to the dumb terminals,” he said.
From the home office to the job site
As construction companies develop the ability to stream bandwidth from the office directly to job site trailers, the adoption of collaborative software and hardware tools will continue, networking experts say. For New York City–based Hunter Roberts Construction Group's relocation to a new headquarters building in late 2014, the company enlisted Mode:Green to design and install video walls, interactive boards and control systems to turn some rooms into multimedia collaboration spaces.
The upgrade included 13 Polycom audio conference rooms, estimating rooms with Sharp touch-panel displays, a training room with an 80-inch television and high-definition cameras for recording safety videos and presentations, 15 dumb wireless terminals for streaming iOS and Android mobile media with four-way split screen capability, and a 32x32 HDMI matrix switcher that can broadcast to any and all displays in the building. All of those features merge back onto a single Crestron network user interface.
The most important feature? Hunter Roberts can extend its tech suite directly to the job site. “They run their networks in their construction trailers,” said Mode:Green President Bill Lally. “From a technology standpoint, they figured that one out internally, but certainly network policies from the home office to the job site can be identical.”
“What you are going to see is the adoption of VR not as a technical tool but as a communication tool."
General manager of medical equipment planning and management, Turner Construction
The extension of networking brawn to trailer offices without the requisite investment in server technology opens up the opportunity — and the square footage — to realize Turner’s aim of broadening VR adoption in the field.
“What you are going to see is the adoption of VR not as a technical tool but as a communication tool,” Alford said. “You’ll see two-wall caves so teams can collaborate in real scale and real time without having to leave the trailer. We want to have those caves on every site if we can. More than anything else, it will be the tool to change collaboration on the job site and enable a level of communication that will get much more detailed.”
That's if the vending machines don't beat the avatars to the punch.