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2020 Is A Tipping Point For Construction Tech; Execs Say There Is No Turning Back

Not so long ago, construction was among the least digitized industries in the U.S.

But with rising material costs, rising wages and an increasingly ominous labor shortage to navigate, construction companies have increasingly looked to tech to help boost efficiency, advance timelines, enhance project team collaboration, reduce cost and even reduce the need for human workers.

With the novel coronavirus pandemic, adoption of those technologies is moving at a breakneck pace. Site meetings are being conducted via VR headset, drones are instrumental to project monitoring, and robots are digging foundations and remotely piloting heavy equipment. Industry execs, like Skender Executive Vice President Clay Edwards, said they think these futuristic changes are here to stay.

At his Chicago-based construction firm, Edwards said drones, 360-degree cameras, laser scanning and AR/VR headsets have become essential to remote project monitoring and keeping projects on schedule.

“Social distancing requirements on construction sites means that we've accelerated our use of construction technologies to increase efficiency and reduce the number of employees needed on a job,” he told Bisnow.

At a time when budgets are tight, technology is helping companies cut costs too: A 2016 report by the Boston Consulting Group found tech can help reduce a construction project’s total life cycle cost by a fifth, while speeding up the completion timeline by 30%, cutting no corners on quality or safety — and that was before AI knew how to drive a bulldozer.

AI At The Wheel

Indeed, before the pandemic, tech by Built Robotics out of San Francisco was being floated as a way to, if not reduce the number of workers needed, at least free up the limited number of available workers by retrofitting AI to do simple tasks, like autonomously drive existing machinery.

As of early March, the technology was being piloted on some U.S. construction sites.

But in the pandemic, founder and CEO Noah Ready-Campbell said more people are embracing the idea that automation will be a part of the way we work moving forward.

“The driver of [adoption] had been efficiency and productivity, but now there’s this other layer to it, which is health and safety,” he told National Geographic.

The use of drones is taking off, too. Associated General Contractors of America President of Public Affairs Brian Turmail told Bisnow, "There are a ton of uses [for drones], none of which are new since the coronavirus [outbreak], but many of which are being accelerated because the virus has forced more people to work from home as opposed to from an office or a job site." 

When it comes to AR, VR and other remote site visit and collaboration technology, companies are experimenting with all levels of complexity. Swinerton Vice President Peter Hau, who oversees North American construction operations for major tech firms globally, told Bisnow he used to fly around the world to tour job sites and office spaces, but since the arrival of the coronavirus, he has been relying on video call technology and a fleet of his company’s 3D scanners to stand in for in-person tours with clients.

In June, InsiteVR, a company that makes virtual reality meeting software for architecture, engineering and construction, announced a new product, Resolve, to boost the ability for construction teams to review building information models in virtual reality. According to InsiteVR CEO Angel Say, the tech “[enables] teams to review multimillion-dollar construction projects on a $400 wireless VR device," the Oculus Quest, rendering enormous data files and allowing real-time collaboration from home.

There are simpler solutions in play as well. Edwards said Skender uses videoconferencing technology to facilitate live site walk-throughs in lieu of face-to-face meetings.

Will Robots Replace Humans?

Last fall, construction industry unemployment hit record lows, while construction wages hit record highs in an effort to lure skilled workers. But this April, as work across the U.S. ground to a halt as lockdown orders went into effect, the industry’s unemployment rate spiked to triple what it had been at the start of 2020.

The end of these lockdown orders brought dramatic rebounds later in spring, when the industry regained a total of 619,000 construction jobs in May and June. But per the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent jobs report, 444,000 fewer construction jobs are filled now than at this time in 2019, and hiring workers back may take time. Major markets are bleak with the biggest, like San Francisco, Tampa and Nashville, operating at more than a 50% loss compared to this time last year.

A slow rebound for construction employment and the growing presence of artificial intelligence on the job site are a worrying combination. Across the real estate industry, concerns about robots usurping job opportunities are far from new

But once workers are all back at work, the industry will still have a labor shortage, and in fact, the downturn could make it even worse

According to National Geographic, Mortenson Co., a construction firm in Minneapolis, has worked with Built since 2018 to mitigate the labor shortage.

“Operators will say things like, Oh, hey, here come the job killers,” Derek Smith, lean innovation manager for Mortenson told National Geographic.

“But after they see that the robot takes away a lot of repetitive work and they still have plenty to do, that shifts pretty quickly ... We want to take away tasks that are repetitive. Then our operators concentrate on the tasks that involve more art.”

For better or worse, robotics and other next-generation technology are sinking their teeth into the construction industry, and for now, the cost-saving measures, efficiency boosts and pandemic prevention help they offer — from symptom monitoring and contact tracing apps to social distancing reminder microchips — may be critical to some companies’ survival.

Once they get through this period, Edwards said, he doesn’t think they will be looking back.

“Our clients and employees alike have embraced this new way of working,” Edwards of Skender said. “So, we expect to continue these tech-driven practices in the long-term, even when the imminent threat of COVID-19 subsides."