New strategies are helping some project delivery teams improve schedule and cost efficiency thanks to better material use, data monitoring and greater collaboration between team members, even as the industry copes with skilled labor shortages and an uncertain economic outlook.

Construction Industry Institute experts shared findings from their latest research during the group's annual conference, held Aug. 1 to 3 in Cleveland, with the theme “Rockin’ How the World Builds.”

While innovation can come in the form of a flashy new application such as a robotics platform, it’s really about continuous improvement in methodology, tools and processes, said Keith Churchill, Bechtel chief innovation officer and a panelist at the conference. Researchers shared how strategies such as advanced work packaging and industrial integrated project delivery can make projects run more smoothly, and offered attendees best practices to implement them.

“Delivering an innovative culture and captivating our employees is extremely important to helping people understand that they matter,” Churchill said. “Helping people engage on projects, it improves our morale, and improves our overall relationships on our projects—with our customers and with our suppliers throughout the entire chain."

CII’s Research Team 384 looked into digital tracking and tracing of construction materials and ways to implement it both upstream and on-site to ensure the needed quantity of materials are delivered to the right place at the right time and in the correct sequence. They took responses from dozens of firms through surveys and workshops, and analyzed 10 case studies. Bryan Kendig of Dow Chemical Co. said the researchers found materials can impact 40% to 50% of the total install cost of a project, and that proper materials management can lead to a 6% improvement in craft and labor productivity, and a 16% reduction in schedule. 

The team developed a model with practical guidelines for effectively implementing material tracking, from working with suppliers to managing materials on site, using resources like barcodes, RFID, QR codes and Bluetooth. The model includes 43 strategies, broken up between 10 functions and four stages, from consultation to RFPs to upstream tracking and finally on-site tracking. To measure the performance of materials tracking, the team also developed a technology-agnostic maturity assessment tool, which is available with its report. 

Kendig noted it can be difficult to show the needed return on investment to commit to digital tracking and tracing of materials. The researchers included three examples of positive ROIs in transactions, search time, labor productivity and construction operations. A major oil refinery project saved about $5 million with digital materials management, and a chemical project received and issued materials about 30% faster. A nuclear project reported zero lost materials thanks to its on-site tracking. 

Circular Economy Benefits

Another CII research group also focused its study on materials. Research Team 380 investigated the use of a so-called “circular economy” in capital projects, and the benefits that strategy can have for cost savings as well as the environment. 

Construction typically follows a linear, rather than circular, economy, said Carl Haas of the University of Waterloo. As a result, the industry is responsible for more than half of domestic materials consumption and a significant portion of solid waste. But in a circular economy—which tries to decouple economic activity from consumption of finite resources—materials are used more efficiently, with more extensive reuse and recycling. The researchers found that more than 600 million tons of construction and demolition waste was produced in the U.S. in 2018. And while many construction materials have the potential to be recycled and reused, only about 40% is being recovered. 

“We consume a lot of resources to get the job done, and we produce mountains of waste,” Haas said.

Sarah Drumming of Smithsonian Institution shared some examples of successful projects that followed circular economy principles. When the Smithsonian was building its Charles McC. Mathias Laboratory at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Md., the team saw savings in energy and maintenance costs. The building, which is LEED Platinum certified, emits 37% less carbon dioxide than non-LEED laboratories, she said. Also, 94% of construction waste generated was recycled.

To help companies develop business models based around a circular economy, the team prepared a readiness guide and an implementation guide. Nancy Kralik of Fluor Corp., the head of the research team, said the guides will help businesses extend the life of products, save money and meet sustainability goals with both short-term and long-term opportunities.

“We’re here because we’re industry leaders,” Kralik told attendees. “We have the expertise and the economic power to make changes in the way that we view our processes without being pushed by government regulations.”