Connecting construction with technology

Productivity gains through embracing technology to improve efficiency is the way of the future for smart contractors. Jim French, Heavy Construction Specialist, Teletrac Navman.

WE ALREADY HAVE the technology. The next step is putting it all together.

Technology that was only possible in science fiction films is common and completely normal nowadays.

We use highly sophisticated technologies on a daily basis, without much thought. Treadmills monitor heart rates through handle bars, cats and dogs are tracked by microchips, and cars have reversing cameras, remote keyless systems and adaptive cruise control.

What this means for construction is that much of the technology that will be commonplace is already available. We will increasingly see the adaptation and combination of current technologies to specific industry needs. Individual technologies will be brought together into singular solutions.

Biometrics for security and safety

Biometrics are a key technology for tracking employee time, controlling access to sites, and for monitoring worker wellbeing.

The UK and EU are driving the trend of biometrics use in construction, as Europe has a tighter regulatory framework governing how its construction workers are controlled, compared to other regions. Large scale projects are the starting point of this technology’s use in the industry.

The 2012 Summer Olympics venues in London took around 81,000 workers five years to build. With multiple access points and various subcontractors, the planners developed an access control system powered by biometric hand reading technology to secure the worksites.

In terms of safety, we’ll see biometrics being used to monitor machine operators to create a full profile of that person. Cameras that monitor for rapid eye movement alongside joysticks or handles that measure pulse, much like those on treadmills, will create a real-time health profile of the operator.

The profile can be used to alert managers when an operator is showing signs of fatigue or stress that could lead to accidents. In a similar vein to child locks on appliances, machines will have a biometric testing of the operator to ascertain that they are fit to operate before allowing the machine to work.

Biometric technology has been developed and implemented for years – it’s more mission possible than mission impossible. It has reached a point of affordability and reliability, and will disrupt industries like construction. According to research company Stratistics MRC, the global Biometric Technology market is predicted to grow from US$3.24 billion in 2016 to around US$12.22 billion by 2023. [Statistics MRC. (2017). Biometrics Technology Global Market Outlook (2017 – 2023). Gaithersburg, MD, USA]

Peer-to-peer contact 

The connectedness of technologies will enable better communication between workers on a site, making the site safer and more efficient. Machines and vehicles will use technology such as GPS tracking and radio-frequency identification (RFID) to gain a greater spatial awareness of the other bodies on site.

Collisions and accidents can be reduced by smarter peer-to-peer connectivity. For example, drivers of large, heavy vehicles will be alerted to smaller vehicles approaching or operators exiting their cabs.

The real-time information feeding back to the site managers and the surrounding workers will drive efficiency within the industry, as managers will no longer have to make multiple radio calls to know who and what is ready for a task.

Asset tracking is a major use case for RFID. Using tags on underground pipes for gas, water, internet cabling and electricity means that they can be easily located in future – saving time and reducing potential damage.

A large-scale construction project in Western Australia used RFID tags on tools, materials and components during construction to better manage and track the project and the resources.

All the information in one place

This year Teletrac Navman, CCNZ and Contractor magazine conducted the New Zealand Construction Industry Survey to gauge attitudes of industry peers on a wide range of issues. Investing in technology to measure and monitor daily performance was seen as a key opportunity by 38 percent of respondents, along with 20 percent noting new design and build technologies and modelling.

The respondents highlighted a range of different technology they used on a regular basis from project and fleet management, to machine control and guidance, to financial management.

With the integration of multiple technologies and staggering amounts of data, the software will become more sophisticated. Managers will need to review and analyse both historical and real-time data into one central portal. Data from operators, machines, vehicles and external sources like climate monitoring services will integrate to create a highly in-depth overview of a work site.

How will the growing interconnectedness of technology further change and affect the construction industry?

Projects become more predictive

As the wealth of historical data builds up for the industry, the ability to predict details around a future project will become accurate and streamlined. Businesses will be able to analyse data from previous projects to make estimates on timing, resources needed, costs and more. These data-driven predictions will be used to draft effective project proposals for large projects and give greater visibility into the planned project and costs. The data will further aid businesses in their management of projects from planning right through to completion.

New jobs and skillsets required

Technology changes the careers available in all industries and construction is no exception. The wealth of information produced by monitoring technology is just white noise without the correct management and analysis of the data. Which means that new jobs will be created to interpret data, and we’ll also see current jobs needing different skillsets based around the technology that needs to be used and understood in their role.

There is a sense of hesitancy around automation; people are concerned that jobs will be lost to machines. I think the direction towards semi-automated machinery and remote control is a more likely scenario than total automation.

The applications of automation will change the job skills required and improve the safety of operators. For example, instead of placing the operator in the cab of a heavy excavator on a steep hill, the operator will be on site at a distance using remote controls to complete the task. The human component is still needed, but the process eliminates the risk to operator safety.

Look at the technologies that you rely on every day. These were not around 50 years ago, or even 10 years ago in some cases. The future trends are continuums from where we are now. The focus will be on the adaptation of existing technology to address business needs and the connecting of sites, fleets, personnel and assets.

This article first appeared in Contractor Perspectives 2018.

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