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Technology Versus Construction

Building better, faster and smarter


Technology continues to impact life!

Few could or would argue. Relationships; lifestyles; industry; and the way business is done. There is expert consensus that businesses and specific industry sectors embrace technology in different ways and at different speeds. Some can’t fathom doing business without it. And some have challenges adjusting.

A prime example is digital files versus walls of filing cabinets crammed with reams of printed paper documents. Some say it is not old versus new, as much as clunky versus efficient.

Is it an explanation (or an excuse) why the construction industry is sluggish about embracing technology? “All industries are embarking on a digital transformation journey. Whether they have chosen to be active participants or passive passengers, this train has left the station!” says Reva Bond Ramsden, dean of SAIT’s School of Construction and chair of Women in Trades and Technology. “How a company manages the digital transformation will be critical to their success over the next five years.

“In the construction sector, the digital transformation is going to hurt a little in the short term, and not every construction company is going to be able to survive it. But the positives of this digital disruption will be undeniable.

“The companies that have figured it out are going to see the benefits of technology and will be able to build better, build faster and build smarter – in ways we have never seen before and using materials we haven’t considered before.”

Shannon Lenstra, president of Kon-strux Developments, Calgary’s award-winning renovation contractor, suggests that, for the Calgary construction sector, change may be a lingering challenge. “There is still a lot of past precedence; the tired old saying that ‘it has worked like this for a thousand years, so why change it?’

“But, especially in construction, the times are changing,” she adds. “The newer generation is moving quicker and some of them work smarter. It is all about adapting to the work environment. Being a changemaker or a disrupter is what changes the way our industry works. And change is a positive and it is good!”

Most construction industry experts and insiders agree on the puzzling irony that construction has always embraced technology and new ways of doing things. From power tools that eliminated cutting boards and drilling holes by hand to the elevators that impacted the height of buildings, technological advancements have always driven construction forward.

So why are some construction companies slow to adopt the new level of new tech? Innovation like connected equipment and tools, telematics, mobile apps, autonomous heavy equipment, drones, robots, augmented and virtual reality, and 3D printed buildings?

Technology is proving to build stronger, taller and more energy-efficient structures. Technology in construction is also making construction sites safer and workers more efficient, while boosting productivity, improving collaboration and tackling more complex projects.

On the practical side of the technology transformation is an unavoidable reality check from Bill Black, president and COO of the Calgary Construction Association. “Change, and especially making technology changes, costs money. Of course there are tremendous new technologies and technology systems, particularly for the construction sector. But there’s also a huge cost of adoption, not only with expensive software, hardware, equipment and techniques but billable hours that must be devoted to training and also the potential of possible mistakes.

“A big challenge is that the industry is not really geared up for research and development. The blunt business reality is that it’s tougher to incorporate the added costs in a tougher economy. Many smaller construction companies are reluctant to take on the extra costs when they’re stretching to pay their workers.”

Some (usually outsiders) say the Calgary construction sector is slow to embrace technology. “Everything is relative,” Bond Ramsden shrugs and smiles. “Industry research shows that the speed of technology doubles every 18 months. So, every day you wait to embrace digital technology, you are exponentially further behind.

“Despite a high dependence on oil and gas, Alberta is still a thriving economy compared to other provinces,” she says. “And although the Calgary construction market isn’t necessarily slower about embracing technology than other areas, perhaps it would be smart to be a faster follower during this digital transformation period.”

Black points out the construction industry has been forward-looking, resilient and consistently good at adapting to all kinds of changes. “A lot of the things we deal with are outside forces, like weather and the economy, and cities and code authorities are often slow to change.”

While embracing technology is a challenge for the industry, Black warns about the construction industry’s shrinking workforce. He cites BuildForce Canada stats demonstrating that in the next decade, there will be a 300,000 deficit of construction workers.

“Although the drop will mostly be generational due to retirement,” he says, “we need a tech-savvy workforce that can work with the skill sets that are already revolutionizing the industry: BIM and virtual design (3D models), autonomous vehicles, watching sites by remote, software that tracks compliance with safety regulations, and project management and estimating systems.”

A key aspect of technology revolutionizing construction can be seen in software and mobile solutions to help manage every aspect of a project. From pre-construction to scheduling, project management and field reporting to managing the back office, software helps streamline processes and improves productivity.

Black points to prefabricated construction as another example of technology’s impact. “Building components are built off site and then assembled or installed once they have been transported to the site. Prefab building components cover everything from framing, internal and external wall panels, door and window assemblies, floor systems, and multi-trade racks of panels with all the duct work, wiring and plumbing packaged together.”

Construction sector experts emphasize that every construction site is different and presents its own unique set of challenges and risks, which makes it difficult to apply technology to streamline processes and increase productivity the way industries like manufacturing and retail have been able to do. “There’s no doubt about it,” Black adds with enthusiasm. “Technology is coming at us like a bullet train.”

Effectively dealing with “the new construction” is a key aspect of Kon-strux Developments’ expertise. However, the reno-construction sector continues to be impacted by the government, the public’s attitude about the stifled economy, finding good trades and, most of all, a shortage of skilled and qualified labour.

“Especially in the past five years or so, the impact of technology on construction has been huge,” Lenstra points out. “There are better construction platforms for builders and tool and material improvements. But sometimes it’s difficult for the Calgary construction sector to attract techno-savvy workers. Our industry gets a lot of engineers, oilpatch workers and tech workers who cross over every time there is a market depression or an economic flux in Calgary.”

“Doing it well requires a lot of trial and error and a culture that can accept failure as a learning opportunity to keep pushing forward,” SAIT’s Reva Bond Ramsden adds. “Not many construction companies have those kind of resources. We need to work together, put ego aside and leverage the progress that a handful of organizations have made – and be a fast follower.”