In Construction Dive's new ConTech Conversations monthly column, we talk with industry leaders to learn about their companies’ tech adoption and innovation and what the future holds. Do you know a contech expert we should interview? Email [email protected].
Mike Bellaman became president and CEO of Associated Builders and Contractors in 2011 after more than 25 years in the construction industry. Construction Dive spoke with Bellaman to learn more about his thoughts on how the construction industry has changed in terms of tech adoption during his career, and what he believes is the industry’s best road map for tech adoption in the future.
Editor’s Note The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
CONSTRUCTION DIVE: The construction industry has a reputation for dragging its feet when it comes to adopting new technologies. What is the most important thing that a contractor can do to be up to speed with the latest technology?
MIKE BELLAMAN: On a macro basis, we've got 760,000 licensed [U.S.] contractors, 98% of those employ less than a hundred people. So, we're predominantly a small business industry. It's very fragmented. If you just look around in your neighborhood, you'll probably see John's plumbing and Sam's heating, ventilation and air conditioning. You have got home builders, you have got commercial builders. Then you've got mega, infrastructure builders. So, I think when you look at the industry being slow to adopt technology, it's really because of that fragmentation.
I worked with a very large construction organization and we were very quick to try to adopt and try new things. That took time and energy and we had to be careful about not being distracted. Small companies, where the owner of the company might be the head of operations, the head of HR, the head of payroll, the head of safety and the head of technology, it's tough for them to grab on to all the technology that's out there.
You've got startups left and right. I bet you if you went back five years and looked at how many companies were getting into the drone business, selling drones was the big fad. Look back now and see how many of them are still around. I bet you you would be struggling to find many of those still around.
So, as a small company, do I have time to be distracted by all that kind of fanfare? Do I really want to bet investment dollars into new tech until it sticks? Some might say that's a smart strategy, but I think that's also a naive strategy.
We know how fast technology works. I think it was 10 years ago the iPad was invented. I would think everybody uses either an iPad or their phone or some handheld device that they use to get their drawings, to communicate, to collaborate—whatever it might be. We didn't have that 10 years ago.
Construction companies aren’t necessarily out on that leading edge because of the industry being fragmented. So, I think once the market as a whole absorbs these types of devices the industry goes along with it.
What could the smaller contractors who don’t have time for the fanfare be doing to keep up? Are they getting the full potential out of their phones and tablets?
BELLAMAN: If you use Microsoft Excel or Microsoft Word, I doubt you're using it to its fullest potential, for example. The real question to ask would be, are we getting the most out of our tablets and our devices for the effort to put in? And I think the answer to that is that it is an ongoing learning process. I learn about new apps every day. It comes down to workflow, process flow. Three years ago, I didn't have software for signing documents. Three years ago, I didn't have tech for paying bills or e-signatures or timesheets and payroll.
They might dip their toe in the water on certain things. There are certain things that are much easier to dip your toe into than others. Some are complete transformations or process reengineering that might have to occur within an organization. I think it's got to be easy. It's got to be cost effective.
It's tough to switch technology right in the middle of projects, in terms of workflow. Once you start a project, usually you try to finish with that system. I think that as the kids come out of high school or college and enter into our industry—people that have grown up with the technology versus learning the technology—those people are a lot more comfortable and trying things and that will infect certain practices.
What is the best process for a larger company to “dip their toe in the water,” as you put it, a tangible, onsite tech solution before implementing it? Is it best to test it out onsite?
BELLAMAN: A lot of people will find the right project with the right team within their company, as well as the right team in terms of the client that they're working for, partners, subcontractors and consultants.
You've got to have the right culture. You know, "Let's try this. Let's try this drone. Let's try this robot. Let's try this. Let's try that." And before larger companies are going to scale anything, they're going to try it. They're going to see how it works. They're going to see if it fits within their current workflows. Or if they have to change their workflows, they're going to talk about how it interfaces with legacy systems and current systems.
I think the best practice is to say, "Let's give it a go." Find an ideal place where everybody's aligned to try it out, see if there's real value. If there is, then we'll scale its use and application.
What is something beneficial that you can imagine that isn’t on the market yet? What problems will tomorrow’s contech be solving?
BELLAMAN: We are getting more and more into data and information. So, whatever the next breakthrough is, I would imagine it is going to be something around taking all that data and being able to summarize some sort of cause and effect analysis out of it.
Let me give you an example. Right now a drone will fly around a site and take video and maybe do that every day. That's a lot of data. Let's say the project lasts a year and you have all of that video data that captured progress of the job and video content from the same angles or different angles every day and you want to learn something from that data. For a human being to go through that, that would be pretty difficult. But maybe there would be some way for some program or software to analyze all of that data.
Digital photography is just zeros and ones. In chronological order you might be able to glean from that footage some remarkable insights on what caused that project to go the way it went, from a schedule perspective, from a cost perspective, from a safety perspective and from a quality perspective. But I think that's just one example in terms of learning from all of that data and being able to process it.
I was talking to a company that was looking at analyzing and trying to glean out of all the email traffic on a job where the problems were going to be. [They were] using the trigger words in email traffic on a project to determine where there might be some problems or some opportunities or what they might have been able to predict or what they might have been able to learn or discern. We're doing a good job of collecting the data. The question is are we really using it as productively as possible?