ENVISIONING THE MODERN JOBSITE
Productivity has increased by leaps and bounds as processes have gotten faster and cheaper. Twenty years ago, the industry looked completely different— a $500 million project would have taken four years to deliver; today, it can be done in 29 months.
These new projects are becoming incredibly complex as new technologies change the size and scope, giving rise to more specialization and fragmentation. Building projects faster with fewer people requires a whole new level of preparation. This is where advanced planning and advanced work packaging can play a big role—by informing exactly how the material is going to arrive, how it will be staged, how it will be fabricated and how the area can be best managed to deliver the work.
Automation also offers unprecedented promise. In construction, the safest hour is the one not worked. Relying on autonomous vehicles or modularization can reduce craftsman hours, which also reduces congestion and helps decrease safety incidents while improving productivity. These technologies are absolutely paramount to success.
The industry has made great strides in changing jobsite culture. Today, safety by design and safety by procurement are key to making jobsites safer than they have been in the past. Constructibility plays a big role in making man hours safer—for example, by having materials fabricated according to how the contractor wants to build them, rather than how the fabricator wants to send it. This might mean designing materials so that a field weld can be performed at waist level, rather than overhead or laying on the ground.
On the field side, safety is set into action through daily safety toolbox meetings, which outline exactly what everyone is doing, the processes and the hazards, and how can they be mitigated to reduce risk. After that, it’s not just “fill out the paperwork and get to work”; rather, safety is discussed whenever anything changes. The focus has shifted to how tasks are performed more safely, which is a change that’s taken place over time.
Technology will also help evolve the work process. The University of Colorado created a tool that leverages a virtual twin. Workers stand a much better chance of actually being safe when they go out in the field if they can identify hazards and solve safety issues in a digitized virtual model.
CHANGE COMES IN WAVES
There is no doubt that technology has improved performance and increased efficiency. As recent as two or three years ago, surveyors would grid an area, then upload data at the end of the day. It was a time-consuming process. Today, drones and site mapping technology can upload and share data in real time, allowing the engineering team to begin design sooner.
Yet many processes are still manual and time-consuming. Technology has primarily helped streamline the advance work—the planning and data collection—which can help shorten the overall schedule. Automation (automated welding, autonomous vehicles) can help reduce man hours, but a lot of processes are still done the traditional way. The tech advances are in the upfront planning and the preparation, and less on the actual work.
In this sense, technology is happening in two waves. The current wave is focused on discovering opportunities to automate or streamline existing processes. Take a group of masons who are using an automated brick laying machine to construct a wall. Using a robot allows the masons to hand off the more tedious work, letting them focus on the more intricate bricklaying.
The second wave will look at what is being built. Here the question becomes, are bricks even needed, or can the building or facility be constructed using packaged units or modules that snap together? There is a lot of opportunity in figuring out a different process.
TECHNOLOGY AND THE NEW WORKFORCE
It’s no secret that the workforce is aging and diminishing and fewer people are pursuing trade careers, making it a challenge to attract and train new workers. Members of this next generation of “digital native” workers have grown up with smartphones and iPads and are used to integrating advanced technology in their daily lives. This behavior translates to the jobsite, where these workers are eager for apps and programs that can be accessed with the swipe of a finger.
To attract this workforce, the construction industry needs to pursue and integrate these technologies – from apps that connect an iPad to an advanced work package, or cloud-based software that sends real-time data to a mobile phone.
One of the biggest potential gains in productivity comes down to reducing distraction and streamlining efforts to help keep the crew on their tools all day. Crews get misdirected and have to chase down different things; they get moved around and priorities change. They have to content with missing materials and tools. How can time on tools be maximized?
Engineering groups are becoming more engaged with OEMs than in the past. Typically, an operator purchases a piece of equipment, obtains the data and starts detail engineering. Productivity could increase if the OEMs have a better understanding of the constructibility aspect. It’s a common refrain that clients want a technology that can help reduce their labor – approaching it early is the only option, because once the engineering has started, labor hours begin to stack up.
The greatest problem for productivity is rework. If something is installed incorrectly and needs to be redone, that’s a huge productivity problem. To prevent this, contractors can become better at understanding the sequence of construction and ensuring that all the materials, companies and tools are available at the right times to do the work. This is where technology can really add value, by offering advances in sequence planning.
Historically, jobsites accepted a certain level of risk. The old focus was on following the rules, but that didn’t guarantee safe behaviors that reduced risk to life and limb. Safety has evolved exponentially over the last few decades, gaining a new level of discipline and visibility. With the advent of today’s new technologies, the construction industry can deliver on a higher promise to safeguard health and safety while improving productivity and reducing delays, helping to evolve even more rapidly, ensuring a safer, more productive experience for all.