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The Key For Construction Firms Adopting More Job-Site Tech Is To Get Out Of The Way

Despite different tech solutions to increase productivity on the job site, construction remains slow to adopt technologies and many field workers face significant pushback over the cost of implementation. Construction professionals are grappling with how to pay for new technology while also explaining to chief information officers and those who approve the budgets how these products are improving job-site performance.


Satterfield & Pontikes Construction General Superintendent Robert Kipp said he does what is best for his project team and what helps them build faster.

“I’ve been at odds with major CIOs who say ‘who do you think you are trying to drop $100K on licenses?’” Kipp said during the inaugural PlanGrid Construction Summit Monday. “If I spend $100K on chipping guns, nobody would blink. … If I spend $10K on some licenses that make my life easier, you’re going to call and bust my chops? Forget about it, brother.”

Kipp, whose team is working on a large multibillion-dollar renovation project at LaGuardia Airport, said New York has a very high labor cost with iron workers costing $112/hour. If you can save 300 iron workers one hour out of their day, that ends up being a lot of cost savings. 

“If [technology] benefits everybody at the site, it’s going to benefit your end user. It’s going to benefit the owner and you’re going to have a better collaborative environment. It’s also going to take care of your staff,” Kipp said. “The people we have are the most important thing we have so why not make it easier for them to do their jobs?”

Brasfield & Gorrie Chief Information Officer Chris Kramer said good CIOs would listen to Kipp and make decisions to help him do his job.

PlanGrid Vice President, Western U.S. and Asia-Pacific Kevin Halter, Satterfield & Pontikes Construction General Superintendent Robert Kipp and Banner Health Senior Project Executive Kyle Majchrowski at the PlanGrid Construction Summit in San Francisco

With construction having low profit margins, there is not a lot of revenue to invest in new technologies, Kramer said.

One of the ways that his company has handled technology costs is pushing them down to the project level and negotiating them as part of the project costs. He said this method has been particularly effective in recovering 95% of the company’s $18M information technology budget at a project level.

Granger Construction invests about a quarter to a half percent of its revenue in tech, Granger Construction President and CEO Glenn Granger said.

“There always needs to be investment in keeping your company fresh,” Granger said.

U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration Construction and Contract Engineer Kathryn Weisner said explaining the intangible costs can help construction executives understand the benefits.

“It’s the time you’re saving, the paper you’re not printing, the efficiency in the process, not just the dollar values,” she said. “Finding the intangibles is often better than the percentage of the money.”

The government agency pilots and deploys several different technologies, such as 3D modeling and digital technology, and offers workshops, peer exchanges and other programs to introduce other local and state agencies to new technologies and explain how they can used to increase productivity of public projects, she said.

Emerging Construction Technology Needs To Address Productivity

U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration Construction and Contract Engineer Kathryn Weisner, Granger President and CEO Glenn Granger and Brasfield & Gorrie Chief Information Officer Chris Kramer at the PlanGrid Construction Summit in San Francisco

With labor shortages worsening and demand for housing and other new builds rising, construction is at a critical point, but productivity is not improving. While other industries have reported skyrocketing productivity over the last 50 years, construction productivity grew 6% from 1948 to 2010. Comparatively, manufacturing’s productivity grew 760%, MarketWatch reports.

“This [construction] industry is not a progressive industry,” Kramer said. “There is a lot of stuff involved in a person putting a block on another block. We have to increase the productivity and do what other industries have done.”

Technology is becoming an important tool to keep people on the job and many young generations expect to use technology on the job, Kramer said.

“The people we’re trying to recruit expect that we have all this tech in place,” Kramer said. “If we don’t have good tools, people aren’t going to come to our company.”

While construction has been late to the game, the industry has been adopting prefabrication, digital technologies and other predictive analytics tools to improve job safety and performance.

While Sprig Electric was one of the first adopters of prefabrication, it is no longer a differentiator in the industry, Sprig Electric President and Chief Information Officer Mark Mandarelli said. He said the industry is now recognizing the benefits of moving as much as it can off-site.

The next steps are finding better ways inside the office to create better prefab work processes to minimize and mitigate what is done in the field. That may mean using technology to make sure teams are working off the right information and reducing rework. The company also has been tagging and labeling materials in such a way that they are brought straight to where they need to go to increase efficiency.

Mandarelli said the company has been focusing on the whole workflow and better connecting the dots of design and engineering to reduce redundancies and that this will be an ongoing process.

A camera mounted on a hard hat that is using OpenSpace tech

Technology needs to be simple and actually improve productivity.

“If it’s extra B.S., no one is going to use it,” Kipp said. “I’m not going to play with a nice shiny box. I have a building to build. … Just because it’s a shiny box doesn’t mean we should play with the shiny box.”

He said new technology needs to fit within the cultural framework of the organization and help augment existing systems instead of adding more inefficiency.

“There’s a lot of cool stuff out there that’s not actually solving problems we have,” Kramer said.

Companies need to work with people in the field to find things that people want and run with it, he said.

The new technologies under development include a way to manage equipment rentals, Kipp said. He said with so many rentals needed for a job site, there should be a better way to bundle technology in rental products to decrease the overall cost of a project and only invest in the asset during the time it is being used at a project.

The industry has tons of areas where further implementation can benefit job sites, Kipp said. Machine learning will get better, more tools will help augment workers and sensors will be integrated more that warn field workers of an issue before it becomes a huge problem.

Without these technologies, the industry has a lot to lose, JLL Vice President Alex Holden said.

“The world is changing very fast and digital is the future,” he said. “It’s basically get on board or get left behind.”