Is the construction industry too stuck in its ways?
Aarni Heiskanen, a self-described Construction Innovation Agent, writes often construction, “tries to solve problems using old-school approaches when customer requirements have increased, regulation pressures are higher and the products – buildings – have become ever more complex.
Many startups and even established companies have tried to redefine or disrupt the industry with digital technology with modest results. Why is it so hard?”
Some of these new technology ideas directed at construction are referred to as “killer apps,” defined as features, functions or applications of a new technology or product which are now, or will be soon, indispensable.
Aerial drones might be a good example. Rather than relying on ground-level surveys undertaken by humans of remote or hard-to-access sites, drones with high-resolution LiDAR (light detection and ranging) devices save hundreds of person-hours and present information that is remarkably accurate. Another is thermal cameras mounted on mobile scanners or robotic dogs that collect data and monitor projects, even during non-working hours.
These are expensive technology developments. That leaves decision-makers in the construction industry to decide whether there is practical value that justifies the cost.
The fact is not all new technology works for construction. This was a point of discussion during one of Heiskanen’s recent AEC Business podcasts.
Construction technology experts with diverse backgrounds from around the world took part in an open conversation about one particular “killer app” long on promise but yet to find widespread industry adoption: Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR/VR) headsets.
Heiskanen noted virtual reality tools, such as headsets popularized by the gaming industry, have been around for decades. While enthusiastically marketed to the AEC industry, they aren’t often seen on construction sites or in architecture and engineering offices.
Jaan Saar is with Estonia’s Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, and tasked with redefining construction as a digital industry. Despite the hype surrounding new headset product releases from various tech giants, he remains unconvinced of their usefulness in a construction environment
“There’s very little practical application for it, practically zero.”
He referenced an instance when a VR/AR headset was used on a site, without much success.
“For one, whenever the sun was shining, it didn’t work. Two, when it was too dark, it didn’t work. They were really struggling to find the right environment.”
Given that most construction is outside in the open air, Saar said there are limitations that can only be overcome with really good technology. It’s not there yet.
Damon Hernandez, co-founder of Mixx Reality, works in 3D and extended reality development as a designer and adviser.
He said any new technology has to be driven by purpose and value first.
“I think the big issue is that a lot of these things are driven by interest in the ingredient, and the ingredient itself has no purpose.”
In the case of AR/VR, Hernandez believes its value is very case specific. He terms AR/VR as a “nice to have” tool, as opposed to a “need to have this on every site” tool. Too many people get seduced by technology before defining the real need and value.
Heiskanen suggested at this point in its development, AR/VR for construction might be “a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.”
Hernandez agreed. He acknowledged AR/VR creates experiences in our brains differently than by simply looking at a screen. However, in essence, “It’s just a way of visualizing data and communicating information. I don’t see where it’s anything more than that.”
New developments will continue to arrive, leading Cristina Savian, founder of international technology consultancy BE-WISE, to conclude with observations about the industry’s overall hesitation to adopt new technologies.
“It’s not just about just trying. It’s about trusting the process. We trust our construction process because we’ve been doing this for hundreds of years. We know it is a very risk-adverse industry, and that is the reason why we keep building in the same way.”
John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont.-based freelance writer. Send comments and Inside Innovation column ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.