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Construction’s Interaction with High-tech is Much More than the Obvious

Alex Carrick
Construction’s Interaction with High-tech is Much More than the Obvious

Construction’s interaction with high-tech is much more than the obvious. Yes, there are the products (e.g., smart phones) and the processes (e.g., BIM) that factor in, but there is also a wide range of economic issues to consider as well.

2017-12-11-Construction-and-Technology-Graphic

This article will begin with the ‘obvious’ and then diverge and expand into broader topic areas further along.

The subject of construction and high-tech is a classic example of being blind to the forest as one continuously bumps into trees. Each of us is so immersed in our everyday pursuits that it’s next to impossible to see the big picture.

One helpful way to approach the subject matter is to think of it as a matrix with four closely linked components: (1) personal products; (2) personal practices; (3) business products; and (4) business practices.

All four cells in the matrix have become interlinked. They’re blending or meshing into one another.


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Let’s deal with personal products first.

The personal products are smart phones, tablets, e-book readers and so on. Some of the uses are to e-mail or send text messages; visit websites; learn from Wikipedia; play games by means of ‘apps’; and watch videos.

We also use the new devices to research products, find sellers and sometimes, if needed, locate best financing options.

Most dramatic of all, however, has been the springing forth of a whole new cultural phenomenon, social media.

The changes that have come from engaging in social media have been profound.

Once you as a private person step into the world of social media, you become a public person.

Many people soon discover the best way to enjoy social media is to assume a ‘persona’. A persona shouldn’t stray far from one’s true self, but it can offer a degree of protection for core vulnerabilities. (Also helpful is to develop a thicker skin to deal with ‘trolls’, but that’s another story.)  

In the new world of social media, both the ‘private-you’ and the ‘public-you’ make their way into the professional or ‘business-you’.

My wife and I launched ourselves on Twitter and Facebook not long after their inceptions. In my own case, writing short stories in many genres for posting on my personal WordPress site dramatically changed the way I now compose my economic/business articles – less academic, more conversational, and hopefully more effective.

If approached right, one’s social media presence can lead to jobs happiness.  

How important has social media become to business enterprises? Blogging on corporate platforms is a means to build prestige. YouTube is a handy way to disseminate product information.

It’s enough to point out that numerous corporations have video studios in their head offices. Some even have their own teleprompters, a not inexpensive blogging accessory.

Turning to the business side, there have always been five key metrics of success: a strong profit margin; growing sales volumes; solid client retention; being able to count on a top notch and loyal work force; and gaining a step up on the competition.

Steering the best path forward, however, now depends on constant re-calibration of efforts to benefit from technological advances.

Studies concerning the adoption of high-tech by various industries almost always place construction, along with agriculture, at the bottom of the rankings.

Firms in information and communications technology, the media, professional services, and finance and insurance appear in the forefront.

For a couple of reasons, this gives construction a bad rap.

First, the construction sector is notoriously risk averse, for a good reason. If mistakes are made in finance and insurance, money can be lost. If mistakes are made in construction, and they result in structural failure, lives can be lost.

Second, the full-court press for GREEN construction has spurred the development of numerous products and innovations to reduce carbon footprints. One key offshoot has been a greatly enhanced emphasis on ‘transparency’ as to the materials going into various building products.

The HVAC sector has been a leader in dealing with GHG emissions and working to achieve cleaner air and purer water. There will be more said about HVAC’s progress further along.

The following are some of the key new products proving most useful for the construction sector.   

  • Drones − Drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) present opportunities in land surveying; construction site security; equipment deployment; and environmental damage assessment. (As a sidebar, their usage to spot leakages will almost certainly become part of the social contract pipeline firms will need to accept to win go-ahead approvals from regulatory agencies.) 
  • 3-D scanners and 3-D ‘additive’ printers − The constraints on the design flourishes that architects and engineers can add to their projects has been greatly diminished. Plus 3-D scanners and printers can markedly reduce the amount of waste material generated in the construction process.
  • Not just concrete, specially-cured concrete − Many of the tallest skyscrapers currently being built are in the Middle East. Innovations are being made to help them withstand extreme heat. They must also be able to withstand the enormous weight loads bearing down on foundations.
  • Micro-biology and nano-technology − Researchers are injecting an amazing array of supplements into building materials with the aim that, in the event of damage or aging, they will be able to heal themselves.
  • Windows − Beyond providing better insulation against the elements, modern windows can go from clear to opaque at the touch of a button or through voice command.
  • Lighting systems − Especially when combined with motion or presence detectors, the move to greater adoption of compact fluorescent, halogen and light-emitting diode (LED) illumination systems is saving on energy and reducing costs over the longer-term.
  • Wearable devices (e.g., helmets, vests, wrist bands) – The ‘fitbits’ so favored by joggers and physical-fitness aficionados have equivalents in the workplace. As both safety and productivity features, workers can be monitored as to the level of fatigue they are experiencing. Or whether they may be operating under heightened levels of stress.
  • Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) devices − VR and AR devices are viewed as the next major step in bringing together designers, contractors, sub-contractors and quantity surveyors to spot logistics and scheduling problems as early as possible, in order to reduce downtime and related costs. (As another aside, one of the most promising uses of VR consoles is in hospitals to help bedridden or shut-in patients with boredom and/or to provide a distraction from pain.)
  • Door openings − Automatic door closings save on energy usage and costs. Super-fast industrial-bay roller-type door closings promote both tighter security and energy savings.
  • 360-degree photography and video equipment − Again, such new equipment provides more security and it helps property managers to promote sales. (Other security-enhancing measures include facial recognition locking systems and mobile phone access codes.)
  • Magnetic levitation (maglev) ‘rope-less’ elevators: There are already elevators in the prototype stage that employ the same technology as in super-fast maglev trains. Their adoption will permit ‘cabins’ to move horizontally and/or diagonally, as well as vertically. It’s likely they will be installed on the outside of buildings, freeing up more leasable space inside. They’ll also reduce passenger waiting times, since there will no longer be restrictions on the number of cabins per shaft. And being free of cables (or ‘ropes’), they will extend the outer reaches of story-heights. They will contribute to thoroughly altering the appearance of cities.

It was mentioned earlier that HVAC firms have been in the forefront of high-tech product introductions. In bullet form below are three areas where they have clearly been trailblazers:

  • Closed-loop systems to capture, purify and re-cycle/re-purpose rainwater and greywater;
  • Cleaner-burning furnaces, heat recovery units and alternative (e.g., tankless) water heating systems;
  • Air venting, blowing and filtration systems that transform indoor air into closer approximation with outdoor air. The purpose is to provide a healthier work environment.

Let’s now look at changes in construction processes, keeping in mind that they often cannot occur without accompanying changes in products.

The pathway we’ll walk along will be the usual time line of construction activity, beginning with surveying and choosing a location.

Surveying and locating:

Improper assessment of geo-features, such as soil stability (e.g., due to underground springs) can prove to be a huge source of project delays, cost overruns and post-construction litigation and lawsuits.

The 58-story Millennium condo tower in San Francisco, which is both sinking and tilting, is currently the most widely-publicized example. There’s uncertainty about how to fix the problem and court proceedings are underway to determine who will bear responsibility, although that could prove to be of small comfort to the building’s tenants, one of whom is NFL 49ers’ former star quarterback, Joe Montana. 

Light-detecting-and-ranging (lidar) systems are the cutting-edge in surveying. Lidar, used together with ground-penetrating radar and magnetometers, can generate above- and below-ground 3-D images of project sites.

Choosing properly and being precise as to location become especially important when there are issues relating to high-density, environmental sensitivity or historical significance.

Pre-fabrication, Modular and Robotics:

Pre-fab, modular and robotic construction is more common in some other countries, such as China, but it is gradually making its way to North America.

One example often cited is a hospital job in Toronto for which all the patient bathrooms were pre-built off-site in what was essentially a manufacturing plant.

On-site construction has had great difficulty in attracting women workers. Off-site pre-fab and modular construction/manufacturing may well prove more alluring.

Construction’s labor force is predominantly male and aging. A shortage of good labor is an overriding concern for the industry.

The chief advantages of pre-fab, modular and robotic construction are consistency and the labor-saving opportunities that are presented.

Internet of Things (IoT):

When it comes to saving on energy, the new Internet of Things (IoT) offers truly enticing possibilities.

Google ‘Home’ and Apple’s ‘Echo’ are already making inroads into the home consumer marketplace. But IoT has a potential scope that is much broader than simply retail. 

IoT refers to embedding miniature computers and sensors in appliances, entertainment devices, machinery and equipment.

In turn, those sensors and monitors are connected to the Internet wirelessly, as an aid to: (1) gathering and processing data from those connections; and (2) making decisions to better manage the connected objects in order to improve efficiency, accelerate innovation and ultimately (once again) cut costs.

IoT can quickly prove its worth in lowering fuel consumption, extending asset life, optimizing fleet size and reducing equipment loss.

By means of IoT, after-hours lighting at job sites can be adjusted to save on energy. Also, machinery idling times (i.e., when to turn on and off) can be altered to save on fuel.

Remote control operations (often for use in remote locales):

Equipment consoles are now being manufactured to allow operators to control their machines from outside their ‘cabs’. The advantages are readily apparent for work that must proceed in regions of doubtful integrity, such as deep-in-the-bush (e.g., ‘ice’ roads) or where previous contamination (e.g., a brownfield site) presents a hazard to health.

There is one key aspect of ‘remote’ operations that may offer relief for the construction labor shortage problem. Stick-shift and hand-held devices similar to what are used with Xbox and PlayStation modules open the world of equipment operations to a younger generation that is familiar with and enjoys using gaming consoles.

Of course, for construction sector industry leaders, the question arises, ‘Do you really want employees who have been spending big chunks of their early years blasting away at Imperial Stormtroopers on monitors in their parents’ or grandparents’ basements?”

For old codgers like myself, it may take a moment to reach the right answer, a resounding yes. After all, each new generation has its own interests that both warrant respect and lead to surprisingly useful skill sets.

Another thought-provoking notion springs to mind. If you think your world is changing quickly now due to high-tech impacts, try to imagine what will be forthcoming when the millennial generation moves into management.

Supply replenishment and Equipment servicing and repair:

In technical terms, one widely-employed means to keep track of objects (i.e., IoT) is through radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. 

IoT applied to supply stockpiles is quickly becoming the next-stage evolution of just-in-time inventory management.

IoT applied to equipment and machinery assets to more effectively schedule repairs and the replacement of worn-out components, is rapidly morphing into the next-stage evolution of historically-revered and widely-touted ‘preventative maintenance’ programs.

Breakdowns occurring at the most inopportune of times are poison for business operations. IoT is the antidote.

Big Data and BIM:

The next section, Barriers to Entry, will begin to explore the broader economic impacts on the construction sector resulting from high-tech and the emergence of ‘Big Data’.

But first, there are some other more direct ‘Big Data’ implications for construction to consider.

‘Big Data’ – i.e., vast amounts of information stored in the clouds and processed by super-computers – is permitting the evolution of construction delivery processes.

The next-stage evolution of CAD (Computer-Aided Design) is BIM (Business Information Modeling). BIM formalizes much of what we have covered so far.

There are currently six stages of BIM. They run the gamut from 1D through 6D.

The focus these days seems to be mainly on 3D to 5D. 3D BIM concentrates on renderings; 4D on scheduling; and 5D on costing. 6D BIM will be about ‘performance’.

Aids to help firms set up BIM programs can be searched on the Internet.

The company I work for is becoming increasingly immersed in supplying information to help with the total construction package.

ConstructConnect, in its database, has detailed information on hundreds of thousands of projects, including major players (e.g., architects, engineers and building product/BPM suppliers), scheduling (from contemplated to groundbreakings), ‘blueprints’ and, through alignment with a sibling company, costing take-offs.

Barriers to Entry:

Given that innumerable high-tech advances are playing out around the world, are there advantages to keeping foreign firms out of a domestic economy?

The surface appeal of doing so is hard to resist, but don’t rush to judgement.

Consider a case study in which a Chinese design firm wants to take over a U.S. or Canadian company. Two stand-out disruptions immediately spring to mind.

First is the potential for a corporate culture clash. Second, the Chinese firm will have government financial backing, which may provide it with an unfair advantage when competing with privately-owned companies.

Equally hard to resist, though, are the opportunities to be seized. Chinese, South Korean and other Asian construction firms have been leaders in adopting modular, pre-fabricated and robotic building methodology.

Plus, China is spending vast sums of money on its ‘One Road One Belt’ initiative, a new Silk Road for the 21st century. ‘One Road One Belt’, − comprised of railway lines, harbors, power plants and a myriad of other billion-dollar projects not just in Asia, but in Europe and Africa and elsewhere, − encapsulates China’s plan to reshape world trade.

Chinese partnership or ownership will smooth entry into that motherlode of engineering marvels. 

Within the context of the new high-tech world that is emerging, the broad issue of erecting barriers − which must inevitably include barriers to technology entry – fosters, over the longer-term, an accumulation of inefficiencies.

High-tech versus Square Footage:

In almost all building type-of-structure categories, owners contemplating investment plans now have high-tech alternatives to adding square footage.

This dichotomy of choice first reared up in the retail sector with the well-known debate about
spending money on ‘bricks and mortar’ locations versus promoting sales by means of Internet platforms. Many of the old-line name-brand firms that opted for the former have lived to rue the day.

But the same duality is evident nearly everywhere. Is there a demand for cinema complexes when most families are staying comfortably in their cocoons while streaming shows on Netflix or downloading movies through Apple TV?

E-mailing and text messaging have reduced the need for pulp and paper mills and post offices.

With respect to the construction of medical facilities, hospital emergency room visits are down as more individuals look up their symptoms on-line − a practice which can be dangerous, since Doctor Digital doesn’t have all the answers.

College and university students can earn their degrees on their laptops without the need to be on a campus. 

Many investors are choosing e-trading over brokerage houses.

Tellers at bank branches are saying to their customers, ‘You know you can do this electronically’. In effect, they are talking themselves out of their jobs. And commercial property developers may soon be losing a previously-sure source of tenancy. 

What will be built?

Moving forward, there will be instances where high-tech on its own will provide the impetus for certain kinds of construction proceeding.  

  • The move towards ‘passive’ (i.e., energy neutral) homes is far more prevalent in Europe than in North America. Nevertheless, the push for energy conservation in residences is well underway and will continue to accelerate as roof-top solar panels and shingles continue to fall in price and, correspondingly, rise in popularity;
  • Skyscrapers – symbols of success for many emerging nations;
  • Wind, solar and geothermal power plants;
  • Other forms of infrastructure (to be discussed below);
  • The need for warehouses (a.k.a., ‘drone docking stations’) keeps climbing as all manner of retail purchases (e.g., electronics; clothes; groceries; meals; floral arrangements) are now being made by means of ‘point and click’;
  • Airports − as prosperity grows around the world, more people wish to travel. As for what to do while time slows to a crawl in airports, the inevitable has happened. Airports have become a fallback bastion for ‘bricks and mortar’ retailers;  
  • Battery plants for both electric and hybrid motor vehicles and for energy storage;
  • Certain extraction sites (e.g., lithium mines) for those raw materials that have become increasingly important for the proper functioning of high-tech devices (also to be discussed below.)

Infrastructure:

Modern economies, at their core, are all about moving people, goods and services faster, cheaper, safer and greener. In other words, there must be a crucial emphasis on logistics and infrastructure

The benefits of IoT for infrastructure are readily apparent.

For example, through feed-back sensors, bridges can be monitored for ‘flex’.

Patterns of ‘flex’ within normal bounds alleviate worries about safety. Patterns that deviate substantially from ‘norm’ justify sending in a team of engineers to solve how to shore up a structure.

For roads and highways, especially with the proliferation of autonomous vehicles expected over the next decade, there will be calls for a continuous back-and-forth exchange of information about traffic flows and alternative better/faster routes.

For building in general, embedded IoT will increasingly play a role in assessing earthquake or severe weather (e.g., hurricane, tornado, etc.) damage.

The bottom line is that almost all new infrastructure construction (as well as many other types of construction) will have a built-in communications/IoT component. 

Raw Materials:

Due to our progressively deepening immersion in high-tech, there will be a transitioning of demand away from some raw materials in favor of others. Below are some examples:

  • Aluminum − Aluminum’s strength combined with its lighter weight helps with energy efficiency;
  • Copper − The usage of copper in electric vehicles is at least three times as great as in gasoline models;
  • Lithium; manganese; cobalt – These are prime ingredients in lithium-ion batteries. One reason Elon Musk located his battery plant in Reno is that Nevada has lithium mining. As an aside, Chile has more than half of the world’s known supply of lithium.
  • Contained within the borders of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Africa is nearly three-quarters of the global reserve of cobalt. Nobody wants to do business in the Congo, which continues to harbor child labor. Where are mine owners going to spend their money on the next round of extraction facilities?
  •  Silver – a key ingredient in solar panels;

Breakthroughs:  

For big data and artificial intelligence and robotics to truly conjoin most impressively will require moving beyond the constraints of traditional binary computing.

The most fervent hopes are being place in ‘quantum’ computing to provide the next big leap.

Computers up to the present day have been driven by binary coding, where 0s and 1s as bits represent electric current being turned on or off.

Experimental quantum computing adopts ‘superposition’ theory instead. Quantum physics postulates that a photon or electron can be both 0 and 1 at the same time.

The example most often offered − or at least written into the dialogue of “The Big Bang Theory” television show a lot – to explain ‘superposition’ theory is ‘Schrodinger’s cat. Intellectually, it’s possible to conceive that a silent cat in a closed cardboard box can be either dead or alive.

The companies that are in the forefront of researching quantum computing are finding that data entry isn’t an insurmountable problem. Rather, the significant barrier is in accessing the results.

Conclusions change instantaneously with efforts to read them.

This hurdle is expected to be overcome and once quantum computing becomes reality, processing speeds will far surpass today’s fastest machines.

Geezers and Whipper Snappers:

The foregoing only scratches the surface of what is happening in the constellation of cyberspace.

There are many other words and phrases that are either new or have changed meaning entirely from when I was a lad – avatars; cloning; holograms; click-bait; crowd-sourcing; bitcoins; etc.

Some will exert direct impacts on construction activity. Others will mainly be seen dancing on the edges of center stage.

When I began my career, as a ‘whipper snapper’ in a galaxy far far away, an old-timer came up to me and said, “You may be starting out with new-fangled ideas, but over time you’ll come to realize that while the trappings may change, the issues don’t really alter by much. The core concerns shouted from headlines will stay essentially the same.”

To a significant degree, he was right. But maybe that no longer holds true.

Because we’re human beings playing on the same emotional keyboard as our ancestors, it’s easy to fall back on the old bromide that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Except that never before has there been the opportunity to muck around with basic DNA through the use of genomics.

Is the volume and rapidity of change stressing you out? Have no fear, surely there’s an altered gene sequence that can fix that problem.

We’re living in science fiction.

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