Technology is making its way into the construction industry

NATIONAL REPORT—While it’s true technology adoption has been a bit slower in construction than other industries, advances are being made—yet there’s still much more work to be done.

“Traditionally, folks in the industry are used to solving problems with their ingenuity,” said Jason Krankota, VP of construction sales at Nvoicepay. “That’s the culture of the industry; some of the biggest firms are still family-owned, and there’s still a strong connection to, and reverence for, that first generation of builders. Bringing in technology is not usually their first thought.”

Prior to 2018, utilization of new technologies was low among companies in the construction industry, according to research conducted by investment management company Jones Lang LaSalle Incorporated (JLL). During this time period, construction firms of all sizes struggled daily to commit capital and manpower required to implement new technologies into existing processes. These challenges—despite ongoing improvements in the industry—are still proving to be problematic today.

“In a recent survey, 42% of general contractor respondents indicated a lack of staff, and 41% indicated budget constraints,” said David Black, managing director of JLL’s hotel project and development services practice. “Another factor is that every construction challenge is different, so it’s more difficult to make a one-size-fits-all solution.”

Information sharing is an important component to any construction project. Teams exchange information constantly. While data is free flowing from one team to another, it needs to be contained, for most of what’s being shared among project teams needs to be properly documented.

“For decades, the common practice has been hard copies—of letters, drawings, specifications, changes, etc.,” said Daniel Pietropola, VP of High Construction Company. “Change can be challenging, and the construction industry has been very slow to adapt. The inherently collaborative nature of the work among multiple firms—and varying levels of expertise of individual coworkers—makes the jump to new technologies challenging.”

Construction teams aren’t the only crews impacted when new technology is introduced. There are other players to consider, including engineers, owners, architects and subcontractors.

Technology is more prevalent in construction today.

“As each firm implements the technology that works best for its internal processes, a new layer of coordination is needed to ensure that the technology of each firm works together—and that all team members are willing to invest in the necessary technology interface,” he said. “With all project collaborators operating on different talent, budgets and approaches for the project, implementing new technology in the construction industry has been slow.”

In 2018, the industry began shifting its mindset on technology as large general contractors began adopting more technology solutions. This strategy trickled down to small and medium-sized firms.

“Part of this is due to the need to improve productivity and stay competitive with peers,” Black said. “Technology projects that were previously thought of as pilot programs are beginning to be rolled out across the portfolio of projects, big and small.”

Even investors are paying closer attention to construction technology. For example, according to a JLL report released in July 2018, in the first half of 2018, venture capital firms invested $1.05 billion in global construction tech start-ups, setting a record high. “Today, more than ever, people seek real-time interactions,” Pietropola said. “As construction firms strive to improve productivity and profit, the benefits of incorporating technology for real-time interactions, such as sharing information, documenting progress on site, digitally reporting, and keeping documents updated, are apparent. Construction software companies are implementing several tools to provide more comprehensive platforms. Where companies previously tested a punch-list app or a digital drawings tool, many of these companies are teaming up to provide single source solutions.”

Three focus areas of construction tech start-ups include big data and artificial intelligence (AI), collaboration software and off-site construction.

“There are so many ways that technology is playing a major role in projects today,” Black said. “Whether it’s using drone technology to monitor productivity and safety, or using cloud-based software and mobile apps to manage communication, workflow and scheduling, these systems are improving productivity and communications. These are some of the most easily adapted systems in the industry.”

AI’s impact on the industry is expected to take some time. Krankota said, “AI needs relevant data to feed algorithms, and construction firms need to be successful in their digital capture strategies before AI can play a significant role in the industry. Eventually, AI should be able to supplement decision-making around project scheduling (learning from past projects and providing guidance on delays, etc.), job-site safety (feeding job-site video into an AI platform to spot issues) and design guidance (what types of materials to use on a building based on the performance of other buildings).”

Building information management (BIM) is bringing together project teams. “BIM has really provided a level of collaboration between architects, engineers, contractors and subs to better understand the design in three dimensions, thereby avoiding some of the inevitable field conditions and change orders that plague projects when you can least afford the time or the money,” Black said. “BIM modeling allows the whole design and construction team to work collaboratively on all aspects of the design, improving productivity and avoiding unnecessary field errors.”

Also trending is modular construction. “This can be done by manufacturing building components, such as exterior wall segments, MEP building systems and complete hotel rooms in a controlled factory setting; shipping these components to the job site; and then having the general contractor assemble and connect these pieces in a building block fashion,” he said.

The global modular construction market is expected to grow at 5.95% CAGR through 2023, according to a ReportBuyer report from April 2018. In 2016, the market was led by the Asia-Pacific region, with a 46.3% share, followed by North America with a share of 27.6%.

“CitizenM has piloted this process for complete hotel rooms in several new properties with great success, and others are exploring these technologies as well,” he said. “Modular construction has a lot of potential, but there are risks until more manufacturers become available and more construction firms adjust to learning the technology and realizing labor savings.”

While the industry is shifting toward adopting more technology to accommodate growing needs, challenges do lie ahead.

“The biggest challenge is in the rapidly changing role that technology is playing in the building industry; the ability to adopt the technology in a nimble and affordable way; and current competition for skilled labor, which ties directly to productivity,” Black said. “Given the realities of the employment market and the pressure on costs and fees, contractors will need to look to innovative solutions to mitigate these issues and remain competitive.” HB

To see content in magazine format, click here.