Information technology for construction delivered on its promise to improve processes in design and construction in 2014, but only incrementally and sporadically, with no industry breakthroughs to report.
ENR focused during the year on several trending technologies with promise, including improvements in robotics, mobile devices, cloud services, software for collaboration, the proliferating use of drones in construction, 3D printing and ways to leverage the capabilities 4D building information modeling.
All show great potential, and we found isolated examples of excellent application of those technologies at companies around the planet. We showcased many (see stories and read the reader comments about them, at left) to encourage our readers to think about how such tools might also improve their operations.
But, with the possible exception of machine control for grading, there is no trend to report that correlates the impact of any particular technology adoption with productivity gains or process improvement across the industry. That would be a lot to expect from what are, after all, just sets of tools for people to configure and employ.
Technology isn’t the answer; the answer lies in how technology is used, and if the industry is to maximize the gains from technology adoption, it is likely that the significant results only will be achieved gradually, with re-organized jobsites, businesses and project relationships—some of which is getting under way.
Our story on robotics for construction offers a good example offered by Steve DiAntonio, business development director at the National Robotics Engineering Center at Carnegie Mellon University. DiAntonio directed our attention to Victor, N.Y.-based Construction Robotics, which has developed a semi-autonomous mason machine, or SAM, that selects bricks and then mortars and sets them in place until a wall takes shape. “That’s an interesting one,” said DiAntonio. “Go and find a task that lends itself to a robot solution: very geometric, repeatable work.”
DiAntonio noted, however, that construction sites generally are not robot-friendly. Yet the growing use of prefabricated modular components makes it possible to move many repetitive tasks off-site to controlled factory environments where robots really could shine. Such reorganizations are happening. Increased use of robots will not be far behind.
The use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, for construction—which we also wrote about in 2014—offers another example of highly promising technology hesitating on the threshold of adoption. In that case the Federal Aviation Agency’s slow pace in creating a regulatory infrastructure to permit their commercial use is keeping most commercial drones grounded. Again, it’s an organizational issue, not a technical one, tugging at the reins.
Organizational constraints dampen the benefits of most promising technologies until their capabilities have been gingerly explored and analyzed. Potential adopters need to determine whether those new technologies are worthy of provoking change to familiar, proven processes that enable business success. Cautious construction companies like to study, pilot, test and develop workflows before adopting widespread changes. ENR reported some of their experiences in 2014. Expect more in the year ahead.