Technology in Industrial Facility Construction and Operations

Construction companies need a solid strategy for implementing new technologies, including documenting and assessing progress according to agreed-upon benchmarks.
By Weston Tanner
March 10, 2020

From BIM and laser scanning to mobile apps and drones, technology is impacting the planning, construction and operation of industrial facilities. Keeping up with the latest developments can be difficult—but part of successfully adapting to change is understanding what’s new and taking steps to integrate useful technologies into company culture and workflow. Whether it’s using robotic vehicles to lower the cost of topological mapping and site planning or using drones to conduct inspections and improve worker safety, companies should make a habit of carefully reviewing—and adopting—helpful technologies.

Evaluating technologies is complicated by the fact that many have proven track records in some applications but are not living up to expectations in others. This is because development and adoption of technology does not happen in a linear fashion—not for companies and not for the industry at large. In fact, for more than two decades the industrial and construction industries have seen waves of new technology hit the market and with each wave, there has been a tendency for everyone to get overexcited in the short term while underestimating long term effects.

The Science of Technology Adoption

Gartner, a leading research and advisory company, offers insights on how a technology is initially perceived, how it is adopted and how it matures. Gartner captures those insights in its Hype Cycles curve. According to Gartner, each new technology trigger is met with a period of inflated expectations—the “hype.” Because optimism and imagination outpace reality, the hype is followed by a “trough of disillusionment.” During this trough, despite the public losing faith that their initial expectations will be realized, the underlying technology continues its growth. Eventually the technology begins to demonstrate its real value and progresses beyond the trough, a phase Gartner calls the “slope of enlightenment.” Finally, the application or product enters a mature, productive phase of adoption known as the “plateau of productivity.” Once it’s reached this plateau, a technology is in widespread use.

Photography is an example of a technology that has plateaued in industrial construction. Digital photography has made it cheaper and easier to take photos and video of a jobsite. New photo formats--such as 360-globe views or photogrammetry (in which software tools are used to create a rough 3D model using photographs taken from multiple angles)—improve the amount of information captured. Light detection and ranging (LIDAR), like photography, is now commonly used during site exploration and construction monitoring, but LIDAR exemplifies how some technologies can occupy different parts of the curve at the same time: use of LIDAR for scheduling is not as advanced as it is for monitoring, so for this use, LIDAR would be considered to be in its trough phase. Similarly, BIM has advanced well into its plateau phase for design and bid management. However, BIM for estimating and scheduling is just entering the slope of enlightenment.

Drones are a familiar technology, especially for site exploration, but are not yet taken for granted. This puts them on the slope of enlightenment for site exploration. It is expected that drones will eventually be employed for materials handling and inventories, as well as inspections conducted as part of facilities maintenance, although these applications are still largely hype. And in terms of construction progress monitoring, drones have been heavily hyped but are now experiencing some disillusionment for this use.

Meanwhile, the "Internet of Things" has made great strides in materials handling and inventory. Connected devices can be embedded in tools, equipment and materials to relay information, including location. Radio frequency identification (RFID) uses wireless communication chips that incorporate the use of electromagnetic or electrostatic coupling to uniquely identify an object. Barcodes—either line-based barcodes like those used in retail or the more robust QR codes—can be easily applied to objects and convey a vast range of information. For building operation and maintenance, Internet of Things allows facility managers to monitor and remotely control building temperature and lighting, as well as accomplish energy management. However, Internet of Things for construction progress monitoring is still in its infancy.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning are among the tools making the biggest impact on facilities management. Some programs now “learn” the habits of building occupants and adjust energy use accordingly.

A few technologies that are still merely hype—but which companies should nevertheless keep an eye on—are augmented reality, wearables such as smart glasses and 3D printing.

What’s a Company to Do?

The above examples indicate the complexity of determining a given technology’s value. To deal with this complexity, construction companies need to create a solid strategy for implementing new technologies, then documenting and assessing progress according to agreed-upon benchmarks. Doing so will help companies choose tools wisely and make the most gains. Keep in mind that technologies are created and developed to solve specific pain points. Therefore, companies should not adopt “tech for tech’s sake,” but should identify problems or inefficiencies in existing processes and focus on the technologies that can solve those problems.

Implementing pilot programs will result in an organized approach that tracks not just flashy new tools, but the business problems companies are trying to solve. Pilot programs prevent confusion, competing systems and overbuying. They also provide a framework for documentation. Capture as much information as possible in writing, including:

  • why a new tool is expected to be better than the current status quo;
  • specific goals for the tool being tested; and
  • a time horizon for when those goals should be met.

Goals can include whether a tool will make a current process faster or cheaper, whether it will provide the customer with better information, or if it will make the end-product more valuable for the same price. Holistic financial ramifications should also be addressed; for example, will a given tool help field staff, but put an extra burden on IT? If a piloted tool is not meeting anticipated goals and is not providing value, the team should be quick to document lessons learned and put the tool on the shelf.

Construction firms should help facilitate pilot programs by creating test environments, identifying core user groups who will execute the program and coaching people in how to properly document the piloting processes. Begin by developing a strategic vision. Create a road map to outline steps and form an executive committee to set and oversee benchmarks. Onsite teams can execute the details of the road map. Detailed internal implementation processes should be established to make sure that tools with value can be scaled quickly and effectively. Communication is critical. Written communication plans to inform staff of what is being piloted, as well as major successes and failures, should be in place.

As more and more construction technology startups hit the market, there is an increase in the amount of “noise.” A given technology may be a good fit for solving some problems, but a poor fit for solving others. Creating a solid strategy for implementing technologies, then documenting and assessing progress according to agreed-upon benchmarks, will help companies choose tools wisely and make the most gains.

by Weston Tanner
Weston Tanner has more than 15 years of successful technology leadership in the construction industry. He plays a key role in shaping Graycor’s technology strategy related to project delivery. Weston earned his bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Kansas. Prior to joining Graycor, Tanner was with Walsh Construction for seven years, serving as their virtual construction manager before being promoted to director of construction technology.

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