When considering the impact of technology on the modern workplace, construction services is not typically the first industry that comes to mind as being at the forefront of technological advancement.
Many of the tools used on a typical job site have remained unchanged for years, if not decades. However, technological advances have allowed construction companies to improve not only the efficiency of their work and the quality of their end product, but also the safety of the work environment for their employees.
In addition, technological breakthroughs are on the horizon that will help construction companies complete tasks and achieve results previously thought to be impossible.
One such advance is evident in the area of on-site communication. Considering the importance of constant communication on a job, more and more companies are starting to provide their own WiFi at job sites.
In very rural locations, where cell phone and LTE service may be ineffective or almost nonexistent, WiFi allows workers on a job site to stay connected not just to each other in the field, but also with management back at headquarters. Consequently, safety issues or disputes that arise on the job can also be addressed more quickly.
Change orders can be generated by the team onsite, then reviewed and approved by management more efficiently. With this enhanced wireless capability, project managers and superintendents are able to utilize tablet devices to their full potential, submitting data such as receipts for small purchases and information about progress on the job, in real-time.
For outdoor jobs, project managers and foremen are able to track weather forecasts to ensure that crews do not have potentially unsafe situations due to incoming storms.
Certain applications will allow project managers to track employee timecards, which provides the dual benefits of maintaining timecards in the same place (for data storage purposes) and being able to submit timecards electronically (permitting transfer to payroll).
Regardless of the specific tasks it’s used for, WiFi on job sites has helped construction companies communicate more easily and efficiently.
In addition to WiFi capabilities, another more popular innovation to recently take flight at construction sites is the unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone. It’s not difficult to imagine why they have become frequent sights on construction jobs.
Drones allow the operator to traverse large job sites quickly to survey the status of the job, saving time previously spent walking from end to end. Drones can provide a new aerial perspective on the job site, permitting the user to identify potential hazards or design flaws that may not be evident from the ground level.
Drones can also assist in performing tasks, such as inspections at high elevations or in tight quarters, that would have otherwise presented a safety risk. Lastly, drones grant the user a means of surveillance to both watch for uninvited guests to the job site and to monitor workers, if necessary. Drones have aided companies by making job sites safer and more accessible for employees.
Another recent innovation that some companies utilize is 3-D modeling. In the near future, physical blueprints of building designs may become obsolete, as 3-D modeling software becomes more sophisticated and cost effective.
Used in conjunction with tablet devices, 3-D modeling software allows companies to make changes more efficiently to project designs.
When taking other available data into consideration (such as financial information about the project or local ordinances), the software will also allow the user to quickly determine whether or not a projected design change would fit within the budget or would even be permitted under local code, further saving the company valuable time and resources.
While these existing technological advances have already helped construction companies in numerous ways, the future of technology promises even further gains in efficiency and employee safety. Some of these advances, such as smart clothing, are already in their infancy stage and being used in other industries.
Professional (and even some amateur) athletes are already wearing smart clothing on a daily basis. Small sensors located within shirts, shoes, or other active wear are able to track the sensory data of the athlete and
compile the data for an interested coach or for the athletes themselves.
This data helps to detect and notify the user when the athlete is experiencing excess fatigue or other unsafe health conditions, such as an elevated heart rate or blood pressure. Construction companies making use of this technology would therefore be able to tell if an employee is unable to safely continue work tasks.
One company within the industry is even designing a smart safety vest with built-in lights that will activate when the site gets too dark and an ‘airbag collar’ that will deploy if the wearer falls from an excessive height.
As safety is often on the forefront of management’s mind, smart clothing will help ensure that employees are able to work more safely than ever before.
Like ‘smart’ clothing, self-operating vehicles already exist in limited use.
In dangerous situations and on hazardous job sites, self-operating heavy equipment can be controlled remotely from a distance to prevent workers from having to put themselves in potentially hazardous situations.
Also, because one worker could theoretically control multiple self-operating vehicles or pieces of heavy equipment, the company would be able to utilize its human capital more efficiently.
Those workers would still require specialized training to be able to operate multiple machines at once, but that could be a small price to pay in order to be able to deploy multiple workers on another job.
One way workers would be able to obtain specialized training is through the use of virtual reality, which presents numerous potential uses.
Experienced workers could utilize virtual reality to show newer employees how to operate heavy machinery or perform skilled techniques in a safe environment. Simulations have been developed to help workers become comfortable working underground, in tight spaces and at extreme heights before even stepping foot on a job site.
Similar to 3-D modeling, developers and project managers will be able to see and modify jobs before the work is physically completed, potentially saving money and time from having to complete costly re-work.
This would also allow companies to determine the exact placement of building materials such as piping and wiring, allowing some facets of the construction to be completed off-site and ahead of time, helping to avoid potential delays.
Another technology already in existence but with potentially major ramifications in the future is 3-D printing. Printing a needed part on location will be much easier than having to purchase and transport the part from off site.
3-D printing could allow companies to create building materials and even whole sections of the building itself (such as walls or flooring) much more quickly than currently possible.
A company in China has already begun to print small concrete houses for low-income families. A Dutch engineering and design firm has released plans for a full steel bridge to be printed for use in Amsterdam and hopes to have the project underway within the next year.
Domestically, small office buildings have been printed for use in California in their entirety.
The biggest concerns with 3-D printing are related to safety and quality control. Because the technology is so new, there isn’t enough data yet to compile long-term track records for safety and quality control, making the process and materials difficult to regulate.
Yet, as 3-D printing becomes more prevalent in the industry, construction companies and regulators will get more comfortable with utilizing the changing technology.
Lastly, another advancement already being used on some job sites are exoskeletons or power assist suits. Worn over clothing, these suits help workers operate heavy machinery and tools for a long period of time while minimizing the stress put on the body.
Not only does this help protect a worker’s physical well-being, but it also improves the quality of the work by helping the worker stay focused over longer periods. Exoskeletons can also help workers lift heavy objects by redistributing the load of an object to stronger muscles within the body, reducing strain on a worker’s back.
There are some risks to current versions of the suits, namely that they limit a worker’s mobility and that the weight of the devices themselves could inadvertently increase the pressure on unforeseen areas of the body.
As with 3-D printing, there is currently insufficient data to generate proper safety standards or to determine any possible longterm health effects, but the potential for increased work quality and employee health is tremendous.
As is the case when any new technology is unveiled, those in the construction industry will have to approach the innovations on the horizon with skepticism and caution.
However, when considering the potential gains in workplace efficiency, job safety and financial results that technological innovation has to offer, it’s easy to get excited about what the future might have in store for contractors and how they build our world.
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