CONSTRUCTION LINK Combining tools with purpose.

Looking forward, industry deep-thinkers say the near term holds useful tools ready for work that need only be appreciated, adapted and applied. The future holds inventions yet to be defined.

"When it comes to new technology that’s ready to take the construction and building industry by storm, it’s out there," says Ric Jackson, FIATECH managing director. He says technologies are just waiting to meet the criteria of solving problems, being easy to use and being affordable. "You’ve got to rank them not in terms of ‘this is cool,’ but in terms of ‘I have a particular problem that is causing me pain and I’ve got to fix it.’ If we can rank things according to that, we can accelerate innovation."

As an example, he cites a recent FIATECH test at a Fluor Corp. construction site in Puerto Rico of a commercially ready sensing technology from Nomadics Inc., Stillwater, Okla. Sensors took the temperature of curing concrete, then plotted it against a baseline curve to gauge maturity. The readings process allowed the crew to track the curing process accurately and slice two days off every pour, says Charles Wood, manager of FIATECH’s SmartChips technology testing program. The results led Fluor to make the system a standard for its projects worldwide, he says.

Another SmartChips test involves taking inventory of truckloads of fabricated pipe fitted with Radio Frequency Identification Data tags. At a gate to the jobsite, remote sensors take inventory by reading RFID tags as trucks pass through. The reprogrammable tags can scan from 100 ft away or more and have batteries that should allow them to last for years, says Wood. The test measured whether the tags would function in a highly metallic, exposed environment. Researchers are still analyzing the data, but so far "it looks pretty good," Wood says.

10 Electronic Technologies That Changed Construction
1. The Internet
Collaboration Is Evolving From Sharing to Managing
2. Computer Aided Design
CAD Pioneers Gave Desktop PCs A Full Range of Electronic Drafting
3. Lasers
Lasers Have Become Common Element in Industry’s Toolbox
4. Analysis Software
Speed and Power of Computation Opens Doors to New Possibilities
5. Personal Computers
Personal Computers Empowered Users and Launched a New Age
6. The Fax
Speeding the Pace of Business and Shrinking the Globe
7. Critical Path Method
Network Logic Was Aided By Mainframe Power
8. Calculators
Calculators Built on Microchips Doomed Slide Rules
9. Mobile Communications
Contractors Were Early Adopters of Mobile Comms
10. Global Positioning Systems
Location-Based Technologies Track Construction Operations
What's Next?
Innovations Are Ready for Trial and Adoption, But Great Gains Will Take Major Change

"Almost everything we do ends up being related to a computer, RFID, all kinds of sensors, as well as [global positioning systems] and wireless communications," Wood says.

Innovators also find success combining existing products for new purposes. Case in point: a wireless tablet PC communicator with a touch screen and a digital camera on the back. Field2Base Inc., Raleigh, introduced the construction-specific tool that melds invention with existing technology.

Field crews need not know English. Users navigate the tablet’s software via icons to call up images of existing company forms. Handwriting recognition software and wireless connections provide instant processing and transmission of data from the field, complete with marked up photos if desired. CEO David Lea says his goal is to solve the problem of getting timely information from the field by making a tool that is focused on a need and is easy to use and affordable. The system, including hardware, leases for about $300 a month, he says.

For some industry leaders, more attention needs to placed on the far horizon of systems conceptualization and development. To listen to John Voeller, chief knowledge officer at Black and Veatch, Kansas City, that is a far more challenging venue. You can almost hear him grind his teeth in frustration when he talks about the plodding pace of technology innovation and adoption. Of the tools the industry now uses widely, "It’s a nice list of good things that have given us some value, but the consequence is that it has given us satisfaction," he says. "And satisfaction actually turns into an enemy, because there is so much more we could do."

Again and again he notes examples of technology now taking hold that have been around for decades. He bemoans society’s failure to grasp the significance of technology that falls outside narrow boxes of interest.

The industry has talked about the rich potential of "robotics and RFID…for decades," he says. "We’re just now getting to the point where society is saying ‘that sounds interesting.’ The technology adoption curve has been ridiculous."

He warns that by failing to seize the lead in advancing technology for communications, information management, software design and robotics, we are doing more than missing opportunity. While the U.S. smiles in self-satisfaction, technology innovators in Asia are putting us at a "tremendous disadvantage."

In broadband communications, three traditional opponents–China, Japan and Korea–have recently formed a consortium to deploy a common platform for the next generation of cellphone technology. Improvements to the so-called 4G class of phones will give them a wireless technology platform that promises "blinding" speed, Voeller says.


"It’s where you really get true convergence of communications worldwide, and the ability to communicate things that current bandwidth won’t allow," Voeller says. "With 4G, your device contains hardly any applications." After punching a request into the system, it provides the user with the latest software available.

Developers are meeting another challenge by building intrinsic, real-time translation into a telephone system so Japanese can conduct business in their own language, anywhere. "No longer will everyone have to learn English," Voeller says.

That technological capability has already arrived. Voeller points to his PDA, a $200 Taiwanese device running on a novel Chinese operating system that performs English/Chinese translation in seven dialects. Higher-end models respond to verbal command, he says, and low-priced versions perform a host of functions western PDA users can’t even dream of, due to limitations of our software operating systems.

Redesigning operating systems from scratch is where the next battle of the revolution will occur because western developers are "trapped" by legacy operating systems that restrict innovation, he says. "The future lies in computer technology that has absolutely nothing to do with our legacy," Voeller claims.

When we asked our Web visitors for examples of applications that benefit construction today, and ones with promise for the future, they responded with open minds and a list of about 100 ideas. click here to see them.