In recent years, many industries have adopted new and exciting technologies to boost productivity and profitability, and construction is no exception. From wearable technology to drones, remote-controlled loaders and advanced software helping streamline massive amounts of data, these modern-day marvels are making the construction process more efficient, less wasteful and a lot safer. And as structures from housing to office towers must be erected as quickly and effectively as possible, advances in construction-related technology continue to grow rapidly.
The construction sector is facing two critical issues simultaneously. There is the advent of technological trends like remote surveillance, digital documentation and wearable exoskeletons, and many consider the shortage of skilled workers to be at crisis levels. Numerous industries have been hard-hit by a scarcity of trained staff, but no other sector has felt the impact of this worker gap like construction. There is a desperate need for qualified electricians, carpenters, drywall installers, heavy machine operators and others, and the demand continues to outpace supply.
The causes are multifaceted, from existing trades retiring to insufficient worker training and young people being told over and over again that construction is ‘dirty’ and that they ought to pursue white-collar jobs. The combination of older tradespeople leaving the industry and fewer young people entering the skilled trades has left many construction companies looking for solutions.
With the industry on the brink of a massive shift, many are wondering how can technology help fill the gap. The price of state-of-the-art equipment will decrease over time, but other questions remain, namely how will this shift affect smaller and medium-sized businesses, rather than the massive construction firms that can afford pricey technology and software suites?
The most recent figures (2015) reveal the United States employed 9.6 million men and women in construction. In Canada, one out of every thirteen workers – about 1.3 million people – earns a living from the construction industry. Although there are over 350,000 firms in Canada, many are small, especially in the residential sector, where about seventy percent of companies have fewer than five employees compared to fifty percent of the non-residential sector.
Although the industry contributes seven percent to Canada’s gross domestic product (GDP), this is both good and bad news, as the average age of a construction worker in Canada is 41.
Much like in the U.S., the median average age is high, at 42.6 years, depending on the region. While this may not seem old – 41 is the same median age as the overall American labour force – it is critical to acknowledge the physical toll construction work takes on the body. This leads to the question: if not as many young people enter the industry, what can be done to make lives easier for existing skilled, long-time workers? The answer is plenty, including wearable technology, radio controlled devices and drones.
Once thought of as an expensive toy, drones in the construction industry are far from being a novelty. Drones are used for applications ranging from surveying and photographing large sites such as housing developments and mall complexes to inspecting rooftops for wear or damage. Drones do not require workers to scale ladders and put themselves at risk. For construction companies of all sizes, the advantages of remote-controlled drones are many. They are relatively easy to use and incredibly time-saving, which results in improved production and considerable cost reductions.
According to the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC), an incredible fifteen percent of materials delivered to construction sites are mismanaged and end up wasted. Drones are one way to prevent this from happening. On very large or multiple construction sites, it is much easier and faster to have a drone fly to an area where supplies are supposed to be delivered to verify they are there than have an employee waste time driving to confirm delivery. The drone industry is projected to command over $5 billion by 2020, and the world’s construction companies will continue to embrace this technology for its affordability, effectiveness, time and cost savings, and safety aspects.
For construction workers both young and old, emerging devices are quickly gaining importance. Designed and engineered for safety and efficiency, remote-controlled machinery, wearable technology, robotics and other devices are increasingly being used on construction sites worldwide.
When it comes to hauling materials, loaders provided by manufacturers like Bobcat offer operators the ability to work without having to be in the cab. Portable units are used to control loaders from a distance, sparing the operator having to work in bad weather, and better yet, permitting the operator to work from a safe distance when moving materials on sites like chemical plants, mines or nuclear power plants.
Like Bobcat, Caterpillar teamed with Torc Robotics to create the RemoteTask™ remote control system. Used with the Cat® D Series Skid Steer, Multi Terrain and Compact Track Loaders, operators can control machines with great precision from up to 1,000 feet away.
Every bit as exciting as remote-controlled loaders are the demolition robots that are available from a number of companies including industry giant Husqvarna. These futuristic robots do not have a cab, as there is no human operator physically atop the machine. These remote-controlled, three-phase electric robots are designed and manufactured to take on the most challenging tasks and are efficient and powerful yet compact, highly maneuverable and have a long reach. These robotic marvels can fit through standard door openings and feature a range of attachable tools, making them ideal for digging, crushing, surface removal, trenching and other physically-demanding tasks. The Husqvarna DXR line’s remote control is equipped with a 3.5-inch colour display and is the first to use Bluetooth technology.
Not to be outdone, other technologies benefitting are also on the rise, from cloud computing to mobile applications. One of the most futuristic is wearable technology. Long gone are the clunky, geeky virtual reality glasses of the 1990s. Today, wearable technology boasts ‘smart helmets’ with protective visors that create augmented reality, allowing workers not only to see their assigned job, but also to record video in real time and alert others if they fall. There are also vests equipped with GPS and a host of safety features.
Perhaps the most remarkable of the latest wearable devices is the construction exoskeleton, led by Esko Bionics, a pioneer in robotic exoskeletons. The California-based company is also active in creating wearable suits for people suffering the effects of a stroke or spinal cord injury. In construction applications, the exoskeletons can transfer heavy objects without strain to the operator. According to some industry analysts, the market for the combined exoskeleton markets – including construction, medical and military uses – is poised to reach $3.75 billion by 2021.
While many construction companies are dealing with a shortage of experienced workers, there is no doubt that technologies such as robotics, autonomous machines, drones, unified communications, cloud computing, paperless construction management and many others will benefit the industry today and into the future.