Cheers to Another Decade of Industry Innovations

There’s no doubt AEC firms have come a long way since the inaugural issue of Construction Executive was published in January 2003—especially in the areas of safety, technology, collaboration and sustainability. Although the industry faces a looming workforce shortage and numerous economic hurdles, there’s a lot to be excited about regarding the materials, tools, equipment and technology that help bring construction projects to life.

Following is a small sampling of innovations firms can take advantage of now and expect in the near future. Know a good one we missed? Share it with us on Twitter (@ConstructionMag) or Facebook.   

Composite Materials
Although composite materials have been used in a variety of ways for decades, new applications are coming to light as multi-dimensional computer modeling programs continue to influence the design community.

“Composites consist of hundreds of different combinations of reinforcing fibers and resins,” explains Bill Kreysler, owner of Kreysler & Associates, American Canyon, Calif., which specializes in the design, engineering and manufacturing of composite products for architectural, industrial and sculpture applications. “The properties of these products can vary dramatically, but typically the combination of fiber and resin can create something extremely strong—much stronger than either of the two parts alone.”

Composites have a proven history of success in other industries, such as fiberglass boats and wind turbine blades. On the construction front, they have been popular for historic restoration projects as a way to replicate ornamental features that are no longer available or too costly to procure. Because of a high resistance to corrosion, composites also are effective in offshore drilling rigs, aquariums, semiconductor plants, and industrial ducting and ventilating systems involving corrosive gases. In terms of infrastructure, carbon fiber can be used to strengthen old concrete bridges without tearing them down.

“People are becoming more comfortable with them being used for serious industrial applications and see they can last more than 50 years with little or no noticeable change in their properties,” Kreysler says. “A lot of research suggests they are more durable than conventional materials, which makes for good building components.”

More recently, particularly in Europe and increasingly in the United States, composites are extending their reach to exterior building skins. This advancement largely has been driven by architects’ access to digital tools—allowing them to design shapes they never could before and ones that aren’t compatible with conventional means and methods of construction.

As with many aspects of the AEC industry, environmental impact is a major driver of composite use. Manufacturing efficiencies used to be the main focus; companies didn’t care as much about wasting materials. That isn’t the case today. If I-beams only come straight, how can an architect create a curved wall without generating a lot of waste?

“As architects search for better ways to accommodate their designs, they’re looking at moldable, lightweight composite systems,” Kreysler says. “If façade panels can weigh 4 pounds per square foot instead of 40 pounds per square foot, then you don’t need as much steel to hold them up. And if the panels are much stronger than the materials historically used, then they can span longer distances and require even less steel.”

On a project in San Francisco, engineers originally specified a façade of glass-reinforced concrete that weighed 60 pounds per square foot. A composite version of the façade cut the weight by one-third—with the added advantages of more freedom of form and better long-term durability. Composite materials also are resilient and resist cracking when bent, which is important as seismic considerations and earthquake codes come into play across the country.

While the uses of composites are widespread, costs can be restrictive. The materials are at their best when molded into intricate shapes, which often requires a sizeable budget, so they usually are reserved for the type of signature, avant-garde projects that attract big-name architects. “It isn’t a cheap solution, but it’s cost-effective and efficient for complex buildings,” Kreysler says.

A building’s intended lifespan impacts materials choices as well. If the structure is only expected to last 25 years, a less expensive system may be the way to go. Of course, prices may begin to even out over time.

“I think costs will come down in the future as composites become more common,” Kreysler says. “Few people are working in this area in the United States and architects have only been playing with them for the last few years.”

One of the biggest headwinds is the fact that composite materials aren’t classified as non-combustible even though they can be fire-resistant. Above 40 feet, U.S. code requires building exteriors to be made of non-combustible materials unless exempted by passing the NFPA-285 test. With passage, the material can be used on high-rise buildings. At this point in time, Kreysler reports only a couple companies in the country have passed the test (including his firm and another in Texas).

“There’s a lot of history about composite performance, but the fire-resistance problem is just being addressed,” he says. “It’s usually easier to pass skin tests in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.”
 
Kreysler predicts more companies will perceive an opportunity in the exterior composites market and develop systems that pass the NFPA test. In addition, raw materials suppliers are beginning to realize the potential of developing resins.

A word to the wise: Be wary of composite manufacturers with no construction industry experience. “On a building, fiberglass is just one piece of a bigger assembly; all the materials being used have different capabilities,” Kreysler says. “Unless the manufacturer knows how to make a product that shakes hands with the materials surrounding it, you could be in trouble.”

In particular, designers and contractors should ensure their fabrication partners adhere to industry-standard practices as developed by the American Composites Manufacturers Association. “Contractors and building owners are used to managing risk, and composites are no different,” Kreysler says. “A material with great potential carries a risk if you’re unfamiliar with how to use it properly.”   

Digital Fabrication
In addition to BIM and materials, the movement toward more complex designs—in which fewer and fewer building surfaces are flat—is tied to digital fabrication. While it came on the scene about 15 years ago, digital fabrication represents the vast majority of work completed by today’s advanced materials and product manufacturers. For example, Ceilings Plus, a Los Angeles-based producer of architectural ceilings and wall panels, can leverage digital fabrication techniques to produce a customized panel in as little as one minute.

“We cut it out, perforate it, cut the notches for hinges and openings for light fixtures, bend the sides and send it out the door,” says Michael Chusid, who handles marketing and business development for Ceilings Plus. “Pretty much everything the company does rests on technology that’s no more than five years old.”

Specifically, Ceilings Plus uses aluminum containing 99 percent post-consumer recycled content in its ceilings and wall panels, as well as a durable UV-cured finish coating that releases zero VOCs during both manufacturing and installation processes. The company also can adhere real wood veneer to the aluminum face and perforate nearly invisible holes to reduce noise issues.

“Our veneer suppliers also have developed processes to re-engineer wood for more color uniformity and are using different trees than in the past,” Chusid says. “Coconut palm, which is very environmentally friendly, is just being introduced to the market.”

Unlike a conventional wood panel with a heavy particleboard core, newer systems can weigh less than 1.5 pounds per square foot. With less heft to worry about, architects are using them on much larger areas that would have been practical in the past, Chusid says.

This advancement also impacts labor demand, as it takes fewer workers to install the lightweight panels. Yet, Chusid points out the need for quality craftsmanship remains intact. “We’re making better panels, but they still require well-trained installers.” 

Nanomaterials
Although the construction industry is trailing the biomedical and electronic fields, cutting-edge firms are beginning to leverage the power of nanomaterials. Essentially, conventional materials such as concrete are being advanced with a variety of manufactured nanomaterials that improve existing (or develop totally new) properties.

Reactive colloidal silica is one example of a nanomaterial taking hold in the construction industry. It has hundreds of uses around the world, and has shown great promise in the areas of cement and concrete.

“People have been densifying concrete surfaces for a long time,” says David Loe, president of Lythic Solutions, Vancouver, Wash., which discovered the impact of reactive colloidal silica on concrete in 2004. “In the past, you used silicates with a high proportion of metallic salts. We’re now densifying with colloidal silica, which contains ultra-low levels of metallic salts and therefore has fewer inherent application problems. The evolution has continued to where we now have contemporary, formulated chemistry with colloidal silica as the main ingredient.”

Here’s the science behind it: Reactive colloidal silica is 99.5 percent pure silica suspended in an ultra-low surface tension liquid. Within this low-viscosity suspension, nanoparticles can penetrate concrete quickly, deeply and cleanly. Because the nanoparticles have a huge surface area (think of thousands of small pebbles in a bucket versus a handful of larger rocks), they offer more chemical reaction sites. The efficiency of the chemistry offers efficiency in the application process.

Colloidal silica also registers a pH between nine and 10, which makes it safer for workers to handle than high-pH silicates. Because there is no caustic residue from colloidal silica, concerns about runoff and slurry removal are eliminated. Plus, anything with a pH above 10.5 is considered hazardous waste on a jobsite. Lythic Solutions already has experienced success with decorative concrete applications in schools, grocery stores, big box stores and other retailers. Advantages in these markets include reduced maintenance costs and the ability to improve an existing concrete floor rather than replacing it with carpet, tile, wood or vinyl. According to Loe, up to 25 percent can be saved on labor costs related to densifying decorative concrete with a colloidal silica product versus older products.

The next frontier is introducing colloidal silica to the concrete placement phase of construction. Lythic Solutions’ newest product, called DAY1, is applied to the surface of concrete to aid lubrication (reducing the drag on trowel blades), extend set time and slow hydration, which helps the slab cure while meeting evaporation testing requirements.

“The way to help a slab cure better is to keep the inside wet longer,” Loe says. “The longer you keep moisture in the slab, the more potential for a complete chemical reaction.”

Traditional methods for curing include membrane-forming compounds, which are messy and need to be removed at some point, and water blankets, which can extend the construction schedule.
 
“We’re changing the conversation so people understand they don’t need to use silicates or membrane-forming curing compounds, and that there is a more cost- and time-efficient option,” says Thomas Collupy, who handles sales and customer service for Lythic Solutions. “This technology allows us to change the conventional wisdom within the concrete construction industry.”

Of course, there are a few hurdles to overcome before widespread adoption ensues—not the least of which is educating contractors that are set in their ways to try something new (though the products don’t require any special tools, equipment or training to apply). Additionally, there currently is no ASTM standard for this product category. As such, Lythic Solutions is working with organizations to put protocols in place for a new standard.  

Heavy Equipment 
One of the biggest changes to the heavy equipment sector during the last few years has been new engine technology meeting increasingly stringent emissions regulations. Manufacturers already have introduced machines meeting the Environmental Protection Agency’s interim Tier 4 requirements, and developments to meet final Tier 4 requirements are well under way.

At John Deere, research and field testing revealed an application-specific selective catalytic reduction (SCR) system was the best way to meet the final requirements. The system (pictured below) includes an after-treatment solution integrated with the company’s interim Tier 4 engine platform that yields efficient, economical and reliable performance.

For machines exceeding 75 horsepower, the emission control solution will consist of a diesel oxidation catalyst, diesel particulate filter and a selective SCR system designed to meet the rigorous demands of off-highway applications.

“Telematics also is becoming more critical to owners and fleet managers as they learn the benefits of utilizing the quickly evolving technology to increase uptime, lower daily operations costs and improve productivity,” says Mike Mack, president of Deere & Company’s Worldwide Construction & Forestry Division.

In light of demand, John Deere intends to grow its WorkSight suite—which features five integrated solutions for machine equipment monitoring, proactive health management, remote diagnostics, grade control and payload weighing—to enhance information flow to and from machines. “In the future, your machine may be able to alert you to fluid contamination, receive underground utility plans and communicate with other machines on the jobsite,” Mack says. 

Welding Equipment

Productivity demands and new materials arriving on the scene are some of the major drivers impacting the development of welding equipment.

“In the turnaround market, owners want to take plants offline for a shorter amount of time, resulting in shorter project timelines,” says Joe Ryan, marketing segment manager for Miller Electric Mfg. Co., Appleton, Wis. “In pipe welding, we’re also seeing a shift in materials being used—chromes, high-strength alloys, duplex stainless steels—plus more stringent quality standards for these materials.”

Additionally, more filler metal types are being used instead of solid wires. Naturally, materials changes impact the labor force.

“For years, stick welding was the process of choice for many contractors,” says Chris Wiershke, Miller’s product manager. “While still widely used, stick welding is being slowly replaced by wire welding due to its increased deposition rates. The demands for shorter project timelines have provided the opportunity for welders willing to be trained and certified to run high deposition welding processes, such as the wire processes. As the workforce gets younger, they are open to faster welding processes.”

At the same time, people entering the workforce and applying for jobs are not as trained in the specific processes required for critical pipe welding applications, so simplicity of equipment is key.

In terms of engine-driven welder generators, Miller is focused on developing quieter, more productive machines with lower operating costs. On the financial front, the goal is to provide equipment with better fuel efficiencies and longer run times, both of which save money and time spent refueling machines.

“Electronic fuel injection, which has been around for at least 25 years, is just now getting used in our industry,” Wierschke says. “We can offer up to 27 percent better fuel efficiency just by leveraging engines with electronic fuel injection technology. We rely on our engine suppliers to provide those solutions so we can incorporate them into our products.”

Another way to reduce fuel consumption is to run machines at a slower speed, which is possible with advancing technology. Though this solution hasn’t been leveraged much in the past because it adds to the machine’s price tag, it’s relatively easy to justify given the need to save on job costs.

Slower running engines also are quieter, which makes the machines more versatile for noise-sensitive environments such as residential developments, hospitals and nursing homes. They positively impact safety, too, because workers can communicate better on the jobsite.

Productivity, safety and technology work hand in hand. For example, wireless remote controls are gaining popularity as a way to manage machines. “They reduce the need for someone to climb up and down a ladder or platform to make adjustments,” Wierschke says. “Without remote controls, someone might need to call down to a worker on the ground to adjust voltage, thus interrupting that person’s regular job.”

This benefit is just as important for welders working on the ground, where fewer wires and fewer steps taken to control machines equal fewer opportunities to encounter a trip hazard. Reducing jobsite clutter also is being achieved by providing multifunctional machines—such as welder generators with battery chargers and jump starters—as well as industrial large-frame engines that allow one machine to power two welding arcs. By tying two arcs to one unit, contractors only need to transport one piece of equipment and fill one tank with fuel.

The innovations seem to go on and on: larger electrodes that deposit material faster; built-in preventative maintenance reminders and asset tracking capabilities; and better incorporation of microprocessor technology on circuit boards.

“Expect an acceleration of change in the welding industry during the next five years,” Ryan says. “Partially due to workforce turnover, welding processes are being examined as a potential competitive edge. And some of the innovations of the last five years are gaining acceptance as governing bodies incorporate them into codes.”   

Tools
Power tool electronics have come a long way in the last few years. Active torque control in combihammers provides additional operator protection against sudden tool rotation when drilling into rebar, and brushless motors on cordless tools, breakers and chipping hammers increase tool lifespan while improving productivity. Safety is crucial as well, with features such as dust removal systems being added to a variety of tool types.

Ultimately, productivity is the number one thing manufacturers such as Hilti are keeping in mind as they develop new products. “If contractors can get the job done faster, they will be more likely to get additional projects,” says Mark Modersohn, Hilti’s mechanical and electrical trade manager, Tulsa, Okla. “It’s a mistake to choose purchase price over productivity. The least expensive tool at the cash register may end up being the most expensive to operate and maintain in the long run, and have a shorter lifespan. Having the right tool for the right job makes a contractor safer and more productive.”

To that end, it’s becoming clear that many contractors prefer a “usage” versus “ownership” model of service so they have highly productive tools in their managed fleet at all times. Smart technology is another must-have going forward—to aid both tool security (where is it located) and maintenance (how long it has been in use). Cordless jobsites are expected to become more of a norm as well.

“Our research and development teams are actively exploring the use of battery technology in tools and applications that traditionally have been considered too big for batteries,” Modersohn says. “We also expect to see tools and consumables designed to work together for increased application productivity.” 

Mobile Technology

No discussion of industry innovations is complete without mentioning the explosion of mobile technology. Nearly 90 percent of construction professionals use smartphones for work (2.3 hours daily) and 20 percent use tablets (1.9 hours daily), according to CDW’s 2012 Small Business Mobility Report, which surveyed more than 750 small business professionals across five industries (including 151 construction respondents). Additionally, 85 percent of construction users somewhat or strongly agree that mobile device use is critical to their job.

Advancements in technology are making this mobile dependence possible. Until a few years ago, wireless voice calling was the predominant way to communicate on and around jobsites.

“Today, with the power of 4G LTE, contractors can share files, pictures, drawings and schematics almost instantaneously—helping reduce the cycle time of the project and save time and money,” says Howard Faber, Verizon Enterprise Solutions’ vice president of sales for transportation, distribution and construction. “Contractors today can view in real time the progress of a job, hold a face-to-face conference call and monitor materials all in the palm of their hand.”

While respondents to the CDW survey identified smartphones as the most helpful device for everyday work tasks, IT managers expect employee use of tablets to grow 117 percent in the next two years. Aided by increasingly sophisticated technology on tablets, Faber says construction firms will continue to move many of their home office and trailer functions to the jobsite. Capabilities include front and rear facing cameras, as well as RFID readers and barcode scanners to enhance security and locate inventory onsite and at laydown yards.
 
“With 4G LTE, high bandwidth and today’s data rates, firms can engage in project management, real-time safety inspections and building information modeling in the field,” Faber says.

Going forward, even more advanced solutions are in the works. “Augmented reality, digital virtualization and laser scanning are all coming quickly onto the scene,” Faber says. “As machine-to-machine technology continues to become more sophisticated, homes and buildings will get smarter. We may no longer have to send someone to a jobsite to complete a task because it can all be done remotely.”

While beneficial from an efficiency standpoint, rapid progress within the mobile industry can make it difficult for businesses to deploy and track devices in the field, as well as ensure workers don’t take advantage of tools for personal reasons. Only about half of IT managers surveyed by CDW agree their company has an effective strategy for managing employees’ mobile device use. The main challenges include securing devices and controlling the increased need for storage and servers.

Knowing when to adopt new technologies also is difficult for construction firms that often get set in their ways and have to keep an eagle eye on the bottom line. Faber recommends assessing technology replacement needs based on usefulness rather than frequency.

“If the tool is still functioning and doing the job, it is useful. If the device breaks or no longer has the technology to keep up, it’s time to replace it,” he says.

It’s also crucial to know what functionality the device should perform before making a purchasing decision—something many enthusiastic leaders fail to consider with almost universally dissatisfying results. Does it need barcode capabilities or a rear-facing camera? Will it be able to run the applications the company intends to load on it?

According to Faber, and likely thousands of IT managers across the country: “The ‘cool factor’ is not a good reason to leverage mobile technology.” 


Joanna Masterson is assistant editor of Construction Executive. For more information, email masterson@abc.org, visit www.constructionexec.com or follow @ConstructionMag.