Blue Collar, High Tech

The digital age gets its hands dirty as construction firms embrace new tools

By Dennis Boone

For decades, the knock on the construction sector was that it failed to embrace technological advance. 

Well, look who’s knocking back now: From drone use to wearable tech, Big Data to even more sophisticated modeling information systems, construction companies are hip-deep in tech tools aimed at driving efficiencies, reducing the legendary levels of wasted labor and materials on the job site, and lowering costs for their clients.

And they’re only scratching the surface of what’s coming down the road, on multiple levels.

“The new trends we see have to do with both how we build and what we build,” says Richard Wetzel, a principal at Centric Projects. “The ‘how’ mostly revolves around technology, and specifically tech-nology in the field.” That means constant adaptation to new apps and software so-lutions to take the project management and field super-vision process to the job site, where they are required most, he said. 

Where things get inter-esting is with the “what.”  The changes there, Wetzel said, “have been fascinating.” Exhibit A: Centric’s comple-tion last year of 3435 Main, its first modular apartment project. “The apartment units were fully constructed in a factory in Nebraska then shipped to the site and lifted into place,” he said, assembled like a giant Lego set in a matter of a few weeks.

Trent Nichols, director of building innovation for JE Dunn Construction, says the company has shifted from a mode where it didn’t investigate every trend that came along. “Today is different,” he says. “The industry is changing and evolving at a rapid pace, so to be completive in the market, we try to investigate all trends, even at their infancy, to determine what and where the potential value might be.”

Buying off-the-self technology and using it the same way everyone else is using it does not create an advantage, Nichols said, so the company has made an investment to focus on innovation, “not only help us plan better, but change the way we execute work. This is a complete shift in philosophy from the past, when technology had to prove extreme value before it was integrated in standard work flow.” Now, he says, the company strives to be a leader in innovation, integration, and changing the way it executes work.

At McCarthy Building, the construction giant’s massive work force is in the middle of that tech transition said area vice president Mark Heit. “We are looking for a BIM-enabled work force, and for us that means project staff and foremen have the ability to navigate models at the site.” Getting there, he said means that “our job sites have the latest information of what to build at all times. We used to have to wait for papers to be passed along, but that no longer happens.”

That is part of a tech wave, he said, that includes lap-top programs, enterprise systems, phone apps, iPad apps, drone, infrared thermography, laser scanning and virtual-reality uses.

As a consequence, construction firms are changing their business models, not merely investing more in new tech as it comes on-line, but in the people and strategies that apply it.

“Absolutely,” said Ramin Cherafat, CEO at McCown-Gordon Construction. “The department we have for man-aging and tracking tech is two to three times bigger than it was just five years ago,” he said. That’s a two-track challenge, he said, because “we know everything we do now has to be continually updated and improved, but at the same time, we have to explore new tech, especially with respect to how we work in te field, or track productivity, inventory and  materials. We budget more, we plan more.”

The benefits of all that, said Mark Iammarino, Turner Construction company’s general manager for this region, become “value points we’re trying to document with clients.” And some of those are more receptive to the message than others.

“We understand that it’s helping us become more efficient and deliver a better-quality product, a safer product and a less expensive building,” Iammarino said.  But there’s no sure program to show clients how much this is actually saving them. Showing those owners the impact on the bottom line, he said, is still too often a challenge for all contractors.

One other significant impact on the construction sector is the emergence of jobs that might appeal to people with tech interests, those who might not have considered careers there without such tools and processes. JE Dunn, said Nichols, is immersed in training existing staff on new methods, but also working hard to bring on people at ease with the technology.

“It has to be a combination of both,” he said. “We hire very technical resources to lead the implementation and execution of technical services and workflows that support our internal strategic initiatives.” As adoption grows, he said, the internal talent is trained to use emerging technologies. “Our goal is always to provide enterprise-wide solutions that create value in lieu of individual one-off technology solutions that add value in a very small corner of our operations,” he said. “To do this effectively, it requires specialized res-ources and a well-trained staff.”

Fortunately, newer tech is increasingly user-friendly, said Heit. “Once you know the process behind it, that becomes pretty easy,” he said. “The bigger challenge is using that information in a proactive way that adds value, not just process. We prefer to train existing staff and invest in people, especially those with construction experience, when chasing the tech.”

When McCownGordon is recruiting on campus, Cherafat said, students these days see the commitment the company has made and how that tech is being used. “It’s definitely an attraction,” he said. But it’s one thing to talk about having tech, and another to use it and make processes better, the marginal utility of it may vary depending on the type of work being done. Still, he said, “you can’t give up on it—that’s not an option any more.”

No new employees, Wetzel said, come ready-made with every skill required. “General knowledge and experience, yes, but specific technology training, no,” he said. Thus, we have a robust in-house training program for existing staff.

As much as things have changed in the half-decade since the sector shook off the Great Recession, much more is coming, executives know.

 “I think we’re going to see increased use of prefab-rication—that’s already happening on the construction sites, with mechanical, plumbing and electrical systems,” said Cherafat. “We see it with design and architecture. And I think we’re going to see construction, design and engineering become more integrated.”

There’s an even greater imperative looming, Iammarino noted, that will require more and better tech tools. “Historically, the industry always lagged behind the auto industry by 10 or 15 years,” he said. “But now, construction s adapting to new tech faster than ever, and we have to:  With less skilled labor coming on board, we have to find ways to do more work off-site.”

As the pace quickens, said Heit, “it’s becoming a com-petitive arms race to adopt quicker and leverage those savings to be more competitive. We’re on the verge of a lot of things, like virtual reality and artificial intelligence, and what that may create.” The flip side of the labor issue is that with technology also squeezing manufacturers and transportation sectors—largely populated by the blue-collar workers needed in construction, more candidates could come from those ranks. 

Client demands, said Nichols, will keep the drive alive. “It’s hard to say exactly where it will take us,” he said. “There will be a continued focus on innovation and as part of our strategy. I expect us to focus on harvesting, aggregating, and analyzing data to drive productivity and improve the way we execute work.”