Tech comes to construction
Zach Hunt thinks the new tech probably comes his way because he's young and he grew up with it. The 23-year-old project engineer with P&C Construction of Northwest Portland has been walking the firm's latest project shooting 360-degree video on his Samsung Gear 360 camera.
"I put it on this thing that looks like a wand, above my head, and once a week I walk through the building videoing every room. Then I come back to and put it on YouTube, where the owner can watch it."
Cheap cameras (the Gear is $150), cloud storage and processing are changing most industries, but the notoriously slow field of construction seems about to hit its inflexion point.
For Hunt, who has a degree in Construction Engineering Management from Oregon State University, the video walkthrough is a small part of the job, but it's valuable. This way the owner can get a look at the building any time and chart its progress. His current project is a remodel of Whitcomb elementary school in Clackamas.
"If I get an RFI (request for information) about something unforeseen on the drawings, I can send the images to the design team right away. For example, we ran into an existing septic tank system that no one knew about." Another time they took out the drop ceiling on a room and captured images of the exposed HVAC system to send back to the architects. "It gives just enough information for them to get in and see it. Then they have to figure out if the new design still fits."
In the old days, Hunt says, people used to take a photo of the room then drop it in a folder. "And it might not get done."
And before computers?
"Maybe they used to write in journals? Actually, the Superintendent still writes everything down, for owner architect meetings."
As the Boomers age out of the construction industry, it will definitely cause change.
"You're out here with a lot of people who didn't grow up with it. But my generation use it. There's a gap."
Hunt likes that it integrates with other popular platforms such as ProCore and BlueBeam which he calls "Adobe pdf reader on steroids." He can open a floor plan and attach a 360-degree photo (of the kind often visible on Facebook) of any room. And he can view it on his Samsung Galaxy 8Plus phone.
Hunt is most excited about Augmented Reality: that is, viewing reality with an overlay of information, such as where pipes or ducts will go.
"Say you're going to put up a staircase and you have to explain it to the guys. You pull it up on your iPad and they see exactly what it will look like." This will save him time and cut down errors. But not yet. "The technology is still a little shaky."
At CONEXPO-CON/AGG, a construction and agriculture trade show, he saw 3D printed buildings, and 3D printed parts for excavators. "Imagine being able to print a part for a dozer instead of having to wait?"
Andersen Construction, project engineer Brian Krawczyk is a member of the Tech Team which meets bimonthly to discuss new technology they can use. "We look at innovations to improve processes and get production higher," he tells the Business Tribune.
Andersen has one drone and three people who are licensed to pilot it. They use it for time lapse photography, but more recently are testing it for scanning layout.
Just before a concrete pour the post tension cables are all laid out in their blue plastic sleeves in a grid formation. Once the slab is poured and they're covered up, it's difficult to know exactly where they are.
"Inevitably someone has to go back in for things that got missed," says Krawczyk. "Like a plumber needs to add a sink and had to drill though the concrete. Well the cables are under a lot of tension and if you hit one it can shoot out the side and even cause structural problems."
Hence the drone which takes both video and LIDAR, or highly accurate laser-scanned images.
Right now, a company comes out and uses ground-penetrating radar to locate the cables. But mapping it with LIDAR is quicker and more accurate, because the point clouds can scale out from GPS.
"They can get to half a centimeter of accuracy, which is pretty amazing."
This georeferenced image can be tied to the drawings of the building. "As a GC (General Contractor) we have the access to all the reports and drawings. The subs come to us and say 'I need to drill here,' and we pull it up and cross reference it."
This is instead of coordinating it on drawings and then bringing in a structural engineer. This can turn two or three days into a couple of minutes.
VR versus cancer
Krawczyk and his tech team have also been using Virtual Reality as they build in a joint venture with McCarthy the Knight Cancer Research Building,
"We have a while building model. Anyone can put on the goggles and stand inside the building and look around and walk forward."
Owners like it.
"The reality with a set of 2D prints, when it's built, the owner says 'This isn't what we wanted.' Now we can have a surgeon walk in to an OR (operating room) and look around, and say 'This will be perfect here, this is a little cramped, move that wall…'"
They used EnScape to build the BIM (Building Information Modelling) model. "It's a live document, any updates get put in."
A few years back some on the team wondered why they would ever need a drone. But when they asked for one, they got it. "Management is always willing to give us what we need."
They subcontract the programming for their Oculis Rift and HTC Vive VR tools. "We're general contractors, not experts," he says with a laugh.
Subcontractors, he says, are usually good at jumping in with new technology. "It's all about how we present it to them. If ultimately, it's a better process, they know it's just another way to save on costs."
He prefers that the technology be owned by the GC.
"It's a good selling point, and we can screw up less than anybody else."
In Slabtown, where Andersen is is in a joint venture with JBA on Blocks 295 W, 295 E and 294 E, they have started using a scheduling app called TeamUp.
"It lets you look at any deliveries to the site, which roads are closed, and it updates everyone's calendars. There used to be a big whiteboard. We've taken that and put it on anyone's phones."
He adds that one of his superintendents was in an Uber in San Francisco when the driver started pitching his online video sharing platform. It's like a conference call, but with added images, such as the manual a building manager might need to fix something in an apartment block.
"At first, we were like 'Hmmm,' not 'That sounds great.' And then we've been talking to him. It's some something we are going to be testing out."
BIM & LinkedIn
At Fortis Construction, Phil Miller, the BIM Manager, says technology can save money in the long term.
"The cost of a building is 20 percent in construction and 80 percent in building operation. The cost can be reduced if we can amass the information and make our buildings more accurate."
He says the trend now is for general contractors to take ownership of clash navigation — that is, the points where say a heating duct and a water pipe cross because two designers were unaware of each other's work.
He uses Autodesk NavisWorks to sort out clashes between subcontractor models.
"Personally, I have not used drones but I now Fortis has a couple. We use them to do frequent photography updates on larger projects, such as getting a picture of an entire campus."
He uses photogrammetry, which is to take lots of different pictures and merge them with software so there is no perspective and distances are real."
He likes Navisworks because it can read almost any modelling software, including AutoCad, Revit and the Bentley products and it can include laser scan data.
"We use laser scanning a lot in tenant improvement jobs, where you go through the shell of a building and scan the existing structure, the fire protection and ducts."
They outsource laser scanning to firms like Topa 3D and PPI Group.
Most of his news about new tech comes in the form of promotional emails, LinkedIn, and attending webinars and conferences.
The big one is Autodesk University in Las Vegas in November.
"I am very interested in doing VR, from a GC perspective," adds Miller. "VR is a shiny thing we leave to the architects, they need to provide that kind of visualization to the clients. But they should talk to us. They don't always design things that are constructible. I think having our eyes on what they are selling can on make it more realistic."
Nail guns ho hum
He is more excited about Mixed Reality or Augmented Reality. "That has a lot more potential for construction."
As for robots and exoskeletons that can lift heavy loads, he says maybe they will work – if they save money. "Say the floor couldn't hold a forklift, then they would. It just depends on the application. I think stuff like that is cool. Everyone wants to be Iron Man."
Miller was recently at a conference where three groups showed the same slide: that construction today is not wholly different from what it was 50, even 80 years ago.
"Nail guns and electric drills get things done a little bit faster. But comparing the efficiency curve to manufacturing, those are vastly different curves."
Manufacturing is all-in with new technology and automation.
"Each building is different and can't leverage some of the same automation. But the arc of technology suggests we are at a sea change of technology adoption."
He recently was in an exercise where his team had to make a Lego airplane from scratch. We're like' Where's design on this?' because we just had a grainy black and white photo. When we did it the second time, we could delegate prefab pieces like the wings and the engine. The second time it took two minutes, 40 seconds. Building it first in our mind solved a lot of problems."
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WHAT TO WATCH
According to the AGC of Oregon, which is trying to attract Millennials and Gen Z kids to the field, the technologies to watch are:
n Exoskeletons. These are robotic frames that allow workers to lift many times their own weight, and to reach higher. "Imagine a construction crew that's short on staff members. Waiting to hire new team members could take weeks or even months. Potentially, exoskeleton technology could provide extra manpower and assistance without any downtime."
n Autonomous vehicles. Aside from cars there are autonomous pile drivers, bulldozers, and even excavators. "As self-operating and driving technology continues to improve, don't be surprised if we hear about autonomous cranes or cement trucks sooner rather than later."
n Augmented Reality. This is a great help during and after construction. "New headsets and goggles can give construction teams an in-depth look at a building's interior structure including its piping, wiring, and even foundation."
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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