Ten years ago the iPhone was still in its first iteration and Android was not yet born. It was nearly impossible to fathom the leaps smartphone technology would take and how it would infiltrate most peoples' lives in just a few years. That rise also has spawned a host of companies focused on technology for construction.
After growing up in France as the son of residential construction workers, Yves Frinault served in the French military as a paratrooper before pursuing his master's degree from 2006 to 2007 at Stanford University, which is where he became interested in construction tech. However, Frinault found most tech was geared toward helping architects and engineers but neglected onsite workers' needs.
He tabled the idea of developing onsite technology until a few years later, when it became apparent most people would own smartphones. So in 2013, Frinault, founded integrated construction app Fieldwire alongside Javed Singha. Frinault serves as CEO and Singh is COO.
Frinault talked with Construction Dive about how technology has boosted jobsite productivity, what is on the horizon and how technology should supplement, rather than replace, skilled workers.
Q: How has technology changed construction in the past five years?
FRINAULT: Smartphones are like a personal computer for the field workers and craftsmen onsite. Think about the way personal computers have changed the way you work as an office worker: the way people are doing their jobs today compared to 40 years ago is fundamentally different. The same thing is happening for people working onsite. An engineer or project manager onsite is using a computer about half the time, but if you look at an onsite superintendent or foreman, they're away from their desk 80% of the time. If you look at field staff, the personal computer had not fundamentally changed their lives.
Q: How can technology help close construction's productivity gap?
FRINAULT: If you look at the way a craftsman spends his time onsite, only about 30% is actually doing construction; the other 70% is spent doing other things, such as coordinating the many people and companies onsite to make sure you get the right people in the right spot with the right equipment and materials. That's a relatively easy problem if you're doing a small-scale project like a house, but it's a very hard problem to solve if you're doing a very big project like a billion-dollar hospital.
What changes in those two projects is the scale of everything. You start having a lot more companies that are involved on the project and they're using different technologies. For example, one contractor might be on Android and another will be on iOS. You have to have a technology that works on two very different platforms.
Problems that are really hard for people to solve, like how to get 200 people to coordinate and look at the same thing in real time, are actually very easy for technology to do. It all becomes hyper-efficient. When you make it more efficient, you're massively increasing the amount of time people spend actually building.
Q: What are the big trends to keep an eye on moving forward?
FRINAULT: The Internet of Things (IoT) is interesting. A good jobsite is three things: People, equipment and materials. The goal is to get all of those to work really well together. We think we are a part of the technology that focuses on people. There are companies focusing on the equipment side, like Hilti, that we announced a partnership with this year. IoT goes from having a sensor on a drill all the way to having a drone that flies around. At the end of the day you're producing content, but it's only valuable if the project team can use it onsite.
Q: Technology has myriad benefits for the industry, but on the flip side, do you see any drawbacks to digitizing construction?
FRINAULT: I think the biggest risk we see is whether technology is empowering to the final user or whether it's replacing him. That subject is absolutely core to us as a company and what we call blue-collar tech. Blue-collar tech for us means that, as a company, we're trying to build technology that makes the end user/blue collar worker more competitive on the market as a paid worker rather than having technology that replaces him.
For example, one thing we're not necessarily hyper-excited about are robots that are laying bricks or doing drywall. It's interesting, but I'm not sure it's the end goal. Construction today is the biggest pool of blue-collar jobs we have. I think there is a huge value in preserving skilled labor jobs. Although manufacturing is very automated, maybe that was the only way for manufacturing.
But in construction there is a lot of value in having labor that is extremely flexible on their jobsite. A jobsite is not a manufacturing plant. There are a lot of things you can't predict so I do think there is still a lot of productivity to gain by tooling the workers with the right software, equipment and construction techniques before we start to put a robot onsite and try to solve the productivity problem that way.