Technologies like 3-D printing and augmented and virtual reality typically capture attention for the future they promise — one in which buildings rise nearly at whim and visualization tools make seeing the result of design choices that much easier. Day to day, however, the application of these and other tools and systems is more nuanced. Rather than off-the-shelf solutions, innovation occurs primarily at the project level and addresses its unique needs.
From new ways to track equipment use and worker productivity to the emerging modular construction category, we explore how those unique applications came together in some of 2016’s biggest industry tech topics.
Construction companies level up on employee, equipment tracking
Keeping an eye on equipment and employees on the job site is one thing, but collecting and monitoring that data consistently is another. And it’s the latter in which construction companies made major progress in 2016. From wearable devices that keep track of workers’ location and functions such as body temperature and heart rate to machine and equipment telematics designed to help manage use and upgrades, the technology brings promises of workflow efficiency, improved safety and cost savings.
Job site security is another area in which digital methods are fast-replacing their analog forebears. Surveillance cameras, GPS tracking and controlled-access systems across Wi-Fi and mesh networks are standardizing and better-controlling job site and equipment access.
Con-tech startup space flourishes
With the growth of systems and apps that bring construction technology onto the job site has come a business and investment vertical with all eyes on AEC. Many of these tools have been conceived of and/or built by construction pros unhappy with the status quo — from apps that improve field reporting and closeouts to platforms that cut back on paper plans used on the job site.
Bringing construction documents and project schedules into the cloud is a common goal for these startups. They include Procore Technologies, a project management software that recently achieved a $1 billion valuation; Fieldwire, a mobile- and desktop-based plan-viewing app that snagged $6.6 million in financing last year; and the Caterpillar-backed data capture platform Uptake, which was named Forbes’ "hottest startup" of 2015.
Drones get (formal) permission for takeoff
Construction companies were using drones long before the Federal Aviation Administration’s final rules on the commercial use of small unmanned aerial vehicles went into effect in August. Aerial photography was among the most common initial applications of drones in construction, but they’ve since expanded to a host of tasks associated with site surveillance, grading and excavation and even comparing 3-D models with as-built designs.
The technology still has inroads to make. A May 2016 survey by the National Association of Home Builders found that one-third the number of respondents who said they were aware of drones (66%) have actually used them (22%). Larger AEC firms are leading industry adoption of the technology.
Modular stacks up
For all its potential, modular remains an emerging segment of building design and construction. Offsite manufacturing uses the environmental control afforded by a factory setting to manage the installation of specialized components, improve efficiency and reduce waste. While the category has been making slow but steady progress — finding use in applications with repeatable plans like multifamily, healthcare and education — it has faced some challenges.
In October, prefab pioneer Forest City Ratner announced that it was selling off its modular business following construction of the 32-story 461 Dean Tower (shown above), in Brooklyn, NY, whose delay-laden construction took four years. The project, which recently opened, is the tallest modular steel building in the world. Roger Krulak, CEO of Full Stack Modular, which bought Forest City’s modular business, told Construction Dive that the delays had more to do with relationships among the project team than it did modular technology. The other three buildings planned for the site will be constructed using conventional building methods.
3-D printing’s impact on construction becomes clearer
Quests to extrude entire structures from the ground up are no longer the stuff of fiction — they’re underway or completed all over the world. Researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, for example, made headlines this year for 3-D printing an excavator cab.
Still, 3-D printing stands to make a bigger splash in smaller doses. From rapid prototyping and model making to fabricating custom components for application, additive manufacturing is making a subtle but sure impact on construction.
The addition of 3-D printing capabilities to projects is requiring a greater degree of tech savvy among the project team, much like the rise of BIM and CAD software did for architectural design and engineering positions. "Recruiting people into construction remains very difficult, so looking at how we can bring prefabrication to bear is an advantage," Branch Technology CEO Platt Boyd told Construction Dive in October. "Looking at building as a factory process and not an onsite process can begin to address the labor shortage that is occurring and growing in the construction industry."
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Augmented and virtual reality offer a new vantage
Much like 3-D printing and drones, the introduction of augmented and virtual reality to construction focused on the visual: gathering images, making models and viewing projects or scenarios in (almost) real life. And like those other technologies, the use of AR and VR has since expanded significantly.
Today, VR technology is being used to train workers to deal with job site hazards without exposing them to harm, to show project stakeholders the result of their design decisions long before installation and even to solicit direct feedback from individuals and groups who will use a space but aren’t involved in project decisions.
While VR is immersive, AR adds digital layers atop real-world scenarios. The idea calls to mind futuristic views of job sites overlaid with details on worker productivity, equipment location and wear, building material volume and general project progress. Already, the idea is being applied via heads up displays, which create a virtual dashboard that takes information on safety, plans and more on the go.
There are more tech innovations to look forward to in 2017. In addition to gains in the categories discussed above, we also have our eye on research that’s making concrete more resilient, the growing influence of smart-home tech and BIM’s quest for global domination.