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News & opinion

6 NOV 2019

Technology forges a safer future for construction workers

Technology is often painted in black and white showing a dismal future of job loss through automation but with strategic adoption, technology can automate the dirty and dangerous jobs and give supervisors a clearer, more nuanced picture to help them assess risk.

Technology and automation aren't threats to workers, panelists agreed at the Inaugural 2019 Construction Symposium that focused on reimagining the construction industry. Rather than replacing humans on a project, robotics gives workers 'superpowers', claimed Tessa Lau, CEO of Dusty Robotics. Lau advocates putting robotics in places where you shouldn't be sending people – to complete tasks that are dull, dirty or dangerous. Sending a robot down a well would keep the operator out of harm's way.

Realistically, there are limits to what can be automated and what must be done manually since regulation and regulators lag behind technological advances. New tools must be tested and trusted to exceed safety requirements. Even if technology can do a better job of identifying structural weakness during an inspection, it's simply not permitted to replace manual inspections.

Changes in regulations and standards must be approached responsibly and with a good understanding of the industry to ensure automation happens only where appropriate. "Not everything should be automated," said Raffi Holzer, CEO of Avvir. "We need a human connection to make sure it works. Setting up BIM and making sure our customers are ready to go, it's still a manual process and it will be for the foreseeable future."

Unlike other sectors where automation has happened quickly, the construction sector is complex and every project is custom – with its own challenges for those looking to automate. Fostering a good understanding of the nuances of the industry will be key to building tech tools that provide an advantage to the user. It's this lack of understanding of the complexity that has slowed progress.

Finding a good fit

Technology can act as an enabler that allows us to understand the complexity of each project. Current methodology accepts the common use of 2D drawings in the field but this can oversimplify the plans, leave out details and fail to reflect the realities workers experience every day.

"I want to get rid of the drawings completely," said Christopher Sharples, Principal with SHoP Architects when addressing the question of how to design value though technology. "The model is an organic device that is iterative over time. There are ways to go in and script and code to build a shared communicative platform." Those in the field, however, push back against digitization. They find printed drawings more reliable than digital versions that rely on battery power and Wifi connections.

Current methodology leads to poor data and opaque projects which impact project planning and monitoring and can lead to a lack of trust between stakeholders and teams. The right technology well implemented can shed some much-needed light on opaque projects if leaders work with their teams to get them on-board.

Although the nuances within the construction industry means that automation won't be immediate, understanding these nuances will allow for tech tools that fit differing circumstances

"Every project team operates in its own world and is going to keep operating in their own ways," warned Robert Kipp, General Superintendent and Director of Field Operations for Satterfield and Pontikes. "You have to get buy-in from those folks and figure out a way to make their jobs easier. Figure out ways to engage those folks."

It's clear that technology can bring benefits to managers and supervisors. Smart tools can report back to the cloud to ensure everyone is reading from one shared source of truth, simplify the task of tracking projects, monitor worker safety and keep on top of progress. But will it make the team's jobs easier? Adoption of new technology for newness sake isn't good enough. Decisions must be strategic and add long-term value.

"It's either extremely usable and provides value to everyone or it doesn't have the right to exist," said Meirav Oren, CEO and Co-founder of Versatile about using AI to optimize construction processes. She noted benchmarks haven't changed in 100 years – what technology can help us do is achieve more with the resources we have.

“I want to get rid of the drawings completely. The model is an organic device that is iterative over time. There are ways to go in and script and code to build a shared communicative platform.”

Christopher Sharples
Principal, SHoP Architects

Consider the benefits of adoption from a top down perspective, how will it impact the design, planning and management of the project, but also from a bottom up perspective. How will the new tools perform in wet, cold or dirty conditions? What kind of impact will they have on those working in the field? Answering these questions will require listening and learning from workers in the field who have the most experience in the conditions that will test the value of the tools on offer.