“While sectors such as retail and manufacturing have reinvented themselves, construction seems stuck in a time warp. Global labor-productivity growth in construction has averaged only 1 percent a year over the past two decades, compared with growth of 2.8 percent for the total world economy and 3.6 percent in manufacturing,” states a recent report by McKinsey & Co.
“Construction lags significantly behind other sectors in its use of digital tools and is slow to adopt new materials, methods, and technology. Significant advances being deployed or prototyped today can transform the effectiveness and efficiency of construction in three areas: digital technologies, advanced materials, and construction automation,” continues the report.
After years of similar discussion around construction sites getting smarter and a continuous stream of examples for all the connected technology that could boost productivity, we are not much closer to that goal than we were five years ago. In certain markets, including the UK and Germany, construction productivity has actually declined compared to the 1990s, according to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) data.
Slow productivity gains cannot be blamed entirely on poor adoption of smart technology however. Although it could be said that slow technology adoption is symptomatic of poor innovation, which in turn could be the root cause of slow productivity gains. This theory is backed up when comparing construction with other sectors. Research and development spending averages less than 1% in construction, a quarter of what you’d find in the automobile of aerospace industries, for example, with obvious implications for new technology adoption.
“Technical challenges specific to the construction sector [also] have a role in the slow pace of digitization. Rolling out solutions across construction sites for multiple sectors that are geographically dispersed - compare an oil pipeline, say, with an airport - is no easy task,” suggests the McKinsey report. “And given the varying sophistication levels of smaller construction firms that often function as subcontractors, building new capabilities at scale is another challenge.”
Considering these challenges, the construction sector may be content to put aside the potential productivity gains offered by smart technology for now but there may be other routes for this technology into the construction site. Perhaps the most likely application for connected technology to really take hold in the construction sector is safety.
The construction site is a hazardous workplace. Out of 4,693 worker fatalities in private industry in 2016, 991 or 21.1% were in construction. The leading causes of injury in the construction industry were falls, followed by being struck by objects, electrocution, and compressed by equipment. These "Fatal Four" were responsible for more than half (63.7%) the construction worker deaths in 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. Eliminating the Fatal Four would save 631 workers' lives in America every year.
Smart technology in the form of wearable sensors can help keep workers safe by detecting injuries and proximity to high voltage. Some advanced trackers also measure body temperature, perspiration and heart rate, in order to alert managers and the workers themselves about dangerous behaviors like drowsiness or distractedness.
Triax Technologies’ Spot-r tracking system, for example, clips onto workers’ belts and instantly alerts others onsite when a worker has tripped or fallen. The sensors communicate with each other and relay data to the cloud via a mesh network, a system of interconnected nodes that creates connectivity throughout the site.
While at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers developed a similar network for their Safety++ suite of IoT-enabled wearable technologies. Along with jackets that alert workers to harmful toxins and decibel levels, the research team designed work shoes with embedded sensors that can detect whether a worker is carrying a dangerously heavy load. When the user attempts to lift the object, the sensor puts out a message to nearby workers who can come help and minimize risk of injury.
Once these safety technologies begin to take shape in the construction site the opportunity will present itself to apply that technology for other purposes such as increasing productivity. Occupant tracking for safety, for example, will provide data that can provide insight to help site managers run operations more efficiently.
Once the data begins to flow from smart sensors in the construction site the benefits will be impossible to ignore and more technology will soon follow. Safety applications may well offer the gateway for the whole family of smart technology to revolutionize the construction site.
“Sensors can be used on more or less everything on the jobsite,” said Chad Hollingsworth, CEO of Triax Technologies. “The real future is not so much the data collection as it is the ecosystem coming together around that data.”