From drones to automation, Nevada contractors invest in tech to stay competitive
If you were asked to visualize a construction worker, you would likely picture a laborer in a hardhat, tool belt and work boots, wielding a hammer. A foreman? Clipboard in one hand, rolled up blueprints in the other, pencil behind the ear.
While that visual is still seen on your typical construction site today, there is a growing amount of technology — from equipment on site to software behind the scenes — being used by construction companies to increase efficiency and productivity.
Clipboards traded in for tablets. Tape measures traded in for electronic measuring tools. Crews spending all day surveying acres of land traded in for drones doing the same in a half hour.
“I think the common perception is that construction is just people with hammers and tool belts,” said Todd Miknus, IT manager at Clark/Sullivan Construction, a general contractor based in Sparks. “And they’re not thinking about all this tech behind the scenes and even on site.”
INVESTING IN TECHNOLOGY
Clark/Sullivan, for example, invested about $35,000 in a robotic total station, which Miknus said the company used to lay the foundation and “build out of the ground” the new Procter Hug High School, scheduled to open in the fall of 2022 in North Reno.
The high-tech surveying tool, he said, enables Clark/Sullivan to make 3D measurements of angles and sloping distance with a movable telescope.
It can be operated remotely from a distance; meaning, only one operator is needed in the field rather than the traditional two-person team of surveyor and assistant.
“The old way,” Miknus sad, “if you didn’t have a robotic total station, guys would go out and they hammer something into the ground and they take old school string and draw a straight line with it by pulling it. And that takes a lot more man-hour time versus if you do it with a robotic total station, it’s more accurate and takes less time.
“There was a little bit of number-crunching and ROI analysis if this is a good tool or not. And we just decided that it was, and it helps some big projects coming out of the ground.”
Neeser Construction, a general contractor in Reno, has reached the same conclusion. In recent years, the company started using a robotic total station to boost efficiencies, said Stacy Reid, director of project management.
“It’s a very useful tool that we have now,” said Reid, noting the data collected by the tool can be exported directly into their system from CAD (computer-aided design) files. “You can set up a point inside the building or anywhere on the site and lay out the foundation, plumbing locations, placement of walls, utilities — anything — all the way through the building as its been constructed.”
EMBRACING A NEW REALITY
Reid said Neeser Construction has also implemented technology advancements to give more accessibility and visible updates to their clients.
The company uses drones to show clients aerial views of a project, giving them a grasp of its progression, which is especially useful when clients are not able to be physically present on a site, he said.
In addition, Neeser has implemented virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) during the design and planning portion of its projects. This, Reid said, allows clients to virtually walk through a space and “get a feel for it.”
“A builder can really see how spaces come together but owners (of the project) really can’t conceptually look at plans and say, ‘oh yeah, I can visualize what that room’s going to look like,’” Reid explained. “With a lot of new technology, you can convert (plans) into a virtual space, and they can wear a set of goggles and actually walk through the space and see it in three dimensions.
“For you to be able to show that you have technologies that are cutting-edge, it really appeals to potential clients and sets you apart from your competition.”
Neeser Construction also uses building information modeling (BIM), an application of the Internet of Things (IoT) and AR technologies, in order to identify conflicts within the construction before the building even starts.
“It’s much easier to figure out how to run things in 3-dimension on a computer before you actually start putting work in place and start realizing that you have conflicts with ducting or piping or conduit, whatever, inside the building,” Reid said. “It’s much more expensive to try to fix it after the fact than it is to work out all those details and problems ahead of time.”
To that end, both Reid and Miknus said investing in new technologies and solutions is required to stay competitive and keep pace within the construction industry, which generates about $1.4 trillion annually and accounts for 7% of the U.S. GDP.
“Embracing technology provides a better quality for your product, and more access to critical information in real time,” Reid said. “The evolution of our industry requires that we adapt some of these procedures and technologies.”
To wit, an Oct. 30 report from renowned management consulting firm McKinsey & Company stated there will be a major tech shift in the industry over the next decade, especially in robotics and automation. Things have already begun to change, thanks to a new, younger generation of construction workers, Reid said.
“They’re very tech savvy,” he said. “I think it actually invites more interest from people when you adopt a lot of these techie things, so to speak. The younger generation really enjoys their phones and apps and technologies that are out there.”
DOING LESS WITH MORE
Which begs the question: How might the arrival of more automation alter demand for labor in construction?
Miknus said it could lead to some people losing their jobs, but it ultimately brings more high-tech construction jobs that need to be filled.
Aaron West, CEO of the Nevada Builders Alliance, agreed.
“At the end of the day, you still need that skilled trade worker,” West said.
However, finding the workforce to run the robotic total stations, drones, VR software and whatever technology comes next may take some time, West said.
“The biggest challenge is that we’ve got 50% of our workforce over the age of 55, and only 7% of our workforce is under the age of 24,” West said. “That’s scary.”
In fact, by 2026, an estimated 29% of the current American construction workforce will retire, according to the National Center for Construction Education & Research. And the impacts of COVID may accelerate that trend.
“I’ve been saying this for a while — I don’t believe we’re going to be able to meet our labor needs based on the way we’ve always done it in the past,” West said. “If you look at the trend of young people, less people are working with their hands. That’s why I’ve really been trying to drive the idea of innovation — how do we do less with more?”
With that in mind, West said a big opportunity in the industry is embracing offsite construction — the manufacturing, planning, designing, fabrication and assembly of building elements in a controlled environment.
This prefabrication method, West said, reduces waste and allows workers to be more productive.
“We’ve seen a lot of that in framing,” West said. “It used to be you just dropped off a load of wood and seven workers would show up and start packing, and three weeks later you’d have a framed house. And you’d probably have a 20% waste on your materials, and maybe you had some weather delays.
“Now,” he continued, “we’re seeing a pretty good shift to assembled wall panels, where they use laser guided saws and CAD modeling to lay these things out. The material waste, essentially, is 1%, not 20%. And it goes from taking a crew of guys three weeks to three days.”