C+S December 2020 Vol. 6 Issue 12 (web)

Why big Silicon Valley tech can never solve the construction industry’s tech challenges

By AJ Waters

If your business is looking for an innovative, new solution to a technology problem, your first thought might be to start knocking on doors in Silicon Valley. After all, that crowded stretch of highway between San Francisco and San Jose is a hotbed of revolutionary tech advancements and home to some of the most valuable companies in the world. However, if your challenge relates to engineering, con- struction, or capital project management, you might just be wasting your time. Make no mistake, the time is absolutely right for construction to take the next step in tech. Just look at the way their workforce, like any industry, is evolving. Experienced workers are retiring faster than new ones can graduate, and these new recruits are digital natives that grew up in the internet age. They have higher expectations about ac- cess to technology in the workplace than any previous generation, but also a greater need for fast historical knowledge transfer to support their growth. So while construction has no choice as an industry but to find new ways of working, it needs to be smart about relying on the experience that got it here to truly find new ways to boost productiv - ity, increase efficiency and ensure successful project delivery. Stubbornly physical Since the dawn of the computer age, most economic sectors have seen exponential productivity growth, and according to many we are in the dawn of a fourth industrial revolution every bit as transforma- tive as those that came before. But one major sector has not shared in the productivity spoils. Con- struction has been holding relatively steady, if not falling, since the 1960s, in the digital revolution. Too many tasks on a project site simply must be done by a human being; there is no production line to automate setting structural steel, for example. The Silicon Valley mindset of a perfectly-designed tech solution dis- rupting entire industries has been on a roll for decades. Surely they see the trillion-dollar construction sector and its slowness to adopt modern tech platforms as a tempting prize. There is an art to understanding construction that can only come from getting your boots dirty. For starters, construction is stubbornly physical. Many of the most successful tech businesses have thrived precisely because they have replaced physical processes with digital ones as much as possible. Amazon, for example, sidestepped the bookstore, and then all the

other stores, making the hassle of chasing something down in brick and mortar retail an afterthought and forcing others to rethink their entire business models. This is simply not an option in construction. At the end of the day, whether your project is in infrastructure, min- ing, energy, public sector or commercial, you actually have to design, get on-site to build and finally deliver a physical product. Real is messier than digital While bright minds create bright ideas, the real world does not always play nice. Silicon Valley sets some of the world’s brightest minds on solving a problem. However, a solution designed in an office – de - spite being theoretically flawless – does not always translate to the construction site. Even something as seemingly simple as good Wi-Fi or a strong cell signal cannot be taken for granted. Consider for a moment, that you gave a construction worker a digital work plan on a tablet and sent them out on-site. Did you give them the ability to download that plan locally on the device if they drop connectivity? That requires building a dedicated app for the tablet instead of just using a browser page. What about the fact they are probably wearing heavy work gloves while out there? Does the soft - ware take into account interacting with a tablet in such a way? A simple answer might be a feature like voice-operation technology as a promising way around this. Yet, if you consider the noisy reality of the construction site and how masks, air filters and other personal protective equipment can limit communication, there are some major hurdles to overcome before this tech can be adapted to construction. Another buzzword in technology is augmented reality – giving work - ers some sort of heads-up display of instructions to follow using a vi- sor or goggles. On the software front the concept is brilliant. Imagine a worker being live-streamed project data and work plans, connect - ing instantly with the most up-to-date information simply based on where they look, all hands-free. However, that worker will probably be wearing safety goggles, ear plugs and a hard hat for much of the day. If the AR apparatus does not fit comfortably in, under or around all that PPE, the idea is another nonstarter. Accounting for experience Talk to any construction industry veteran and they will be happy to tell you they have seen it all, and likely they have. During my time in the field I have been inside a solid concrete bridge five stories above


december 2020


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