by Chad Hollingsworth
If you attended an industry event in the last year, you inevitably heard the same refrain: Construction has a productivity problem. According to McKinsey Global Institute research, construction sector labor productivity has been flat for decades, compared to manufacturing, where productivity has nearly doubled over the same period.
It is true that construction has been slow to adopt the digital technologies that have streamlined processes and eliminated inefficiencies in other industries. Part of this is due to competing contractor priorities, including securing skilled labor, increased competition, and limited additional resources to devote to IT, but part of this is also due to the lack of readily available, practical, and scalable technology solutions for the industry.
Worksites are uniquely chaotic and challenging physical environments, and the very nature of a project with countless trades, materials, and heavy machinery and equipment makes constant connectivity a technical challenge. In construction, change is the only constant, and contractors and tech providers have had to work together to develop deployable solutions that add value at all levels of a project.
Despite this, over the last year, construction has worked to shed its reputation as one of the least digitized U.S. industries, as conversations across the industry have changed from “We should embrace technology” to “What are the best available solutions and how can we fully leverage them?”
The growth of construction-focused, internet-connected technologies such as drones, wearables, and sensors have changed the way contractors approach projects, manage daily site operations and safety, and leverage historical project data at their next jobsite. The explosion of useful, previously untapped, data from site resources — workers, equipment, tools, and materials — is being aggregated and analyzed for real-time, actionable insights across project participants and managers.
Looking back, 2017 will be the year that construction returned to the national spotlight, as infrastructure spending, pre-recession levels of construction activity and the skilled labor shortage dominated headlines. With construction backlog passing nine months, skilled labor aging out of the workforce, and younger workers eschewing the trades for traditional four-year college degrees, contractors are forced to figure out how to accomplish more with the same — or fewer — resources.
In this high-stakes industry where every minute counts, builders can’t afford to waste time tracking down the latest blueprints or inputting data from paper logs into Excel spreadsheets. What’s more, the industry can’t afford to take a manual, reactive approach to site safety, relying on other workers to report an injury or safety superintendents to reach each floor and blow an air horn to signal an evacuation. Industry professionals are placing a renewed focus on preconstruction planning and site safety — using new digital tools — in the name of making projects more efficient and cost effective.
In order to survive — and thrive — in the new market landscape, contractors are turning to cutting-edge technologies and real-time data. According to BuiltWorlds’ “The Adoption Leaders 50” report, 38% of respondents believe that internet-of-things (IoT) and connected jobsites will be the most disruptive emerging technology in the built world, and over 40% believe jobsite sensors or scanners will have the most near-term impact on industry productivity.
Investors are taking notice of this trend, too, with roughly $433 million in disclosed funding across 56 deals as of October 2017, according to CB Insights. Forward-thinking firms are developing dedicated innovation positions, with 69% of BuiltWorlds’ “Adopters” saying they expect significant growth in the number of tech positions at their organization.
General contractors are also implementing formal strategies to identify, research, pilot, and adopt new technologies across their organization. By committing to a “try” mentality, and taking a comprehensive, integrated approach to data collection, data security, and data analysis, contractors are expanding their virtual toolbox to advance preconstruction, scheduling, operational, safety, and quality assurance initiatives companywide.
Construction technologies are connecting traditionally siloed project participants — owners, architects, and contractors — with robust workforce, equipment, and safety data, creating a single stream of information that can be used to improve project management and execution. Together, these 2017 developments are raising construction’s profile, attracting a new generation of workers, and determining processes and practices that will build construction’s future into 2018 and beyond.
Chad Hollingsworth is co-founder and CEO of Triax Technologies, of Norwalk, Conn., an active member of The Construction Institute.