By BECKY GILLETTE
Technology innovations such as drones, driverless vehicles and 3D printers are radically changing how buildings are constructed these days, and will do so even more in the future. That is both good and bad, depending on your perspective. While technology is making construction safer and, in some cases, better, it is also eliminating jobs.
Associated General Contractors of Mississippi Executive Director Bob Wilson said innovations in construction technology are exploding right now. A drone research building in Dubai is being built entirely by 3D printers in Singapore. 3D printers are also being used to lay brick.
“With a 3D printer, you can build a wall in about a third of the time, and it is more accurate than one built by the best brick mason,” Wilson said. “The thing that is so incredible to me is how fast construction technology is evolving. There are certain things you just assume will happen because of technology improvements, like medical advancements. But the construction business is something that most people think of as a manual labor type thing. They don’t realize how much technology can affect that industry.”
Wilson said everyone in the industry has figured out just how important new technology is to construction, and changes are happening at a rapid pace. Part of it is driven by work-force issues because many construction companies can’t find enough qualified workers. Another big element is the potential to reduce costs and improve safety.
The general public might not understand how well trained some construction workers need to be.
“The cabs in cranes are like in an airplane cockpit,” Wilson said. “It is hard to find someone with the technology background to operate a crane today. Drones are also having a big impact, as are driverless vehicles.
“The list goes on and on and on.”
Wilson said part of President Trump’s proposed infrastructure program is developing apprenticeships so workers can be trained for the high-tech jobs that are replacing many of the manual labor jobs.
“It sounds like you will be able to get tax credits if you bring people in to be apprentices since we can’t seem to find people with that technology background to operate all this equipment,” Wilson said.
Drones have made it easier and safety to inspect buildings. It used to be an inspector would go out and walk a construction site to make a report on progress. Now a drone can do the job much more cheaply and safely.
“With a drone to check the whole construction site, you can drill down to see if there are issues or how the job is going,” Wilson said. “You can deliver supplies to the job. You used to have an inspector hanging off the side of a building to do the inspection. You don’t have to do that anymore. You can use a drone to check from an office on the construction site. It eliminates a lot of safety issues.”
Drones are now also being used to help build big tunnels. With the use of transmitters along the route, the drones can safely inspect work being done that might be hazardous.
“It is always a big issue with tunnels or sewers with walls to continually check for leaks or cracks to make sure that construction is going the way it is supported to be going,” Wilson said. “You can use a drone to make sure the integrity of the walls can be maintained. When you have the human factor in there, the safety issues are pretty strong. It is safer for the workers we do have, and insurance rates go down. Those advantages are just becoming more and more apparent.”
Another advance is using high-powered cameras in historic buildings to look behind the walls to locate sewers, electrical lines and other cabling.
“You don’t have to drill exploratory holes if you have to renew cabling,” Wilson said. “It almost gives you a blueprint of that buildings. You also now have virtual reality with headsets. You can put the plans in the computer, walk through a building under construction, and overlay plans for the building with your goggles. You can see if a door is in the wrong place or if there are other problems.”
The price of virtual reality equipment is continuing to drop, just like drones can now be purchased for a couple hundred dollars that have a lot of capability.
Another innovation he saw recently at a national convention was using computer games in safety training. For example, a game might be used to teach people the importance of how to check the safety of a harness when hanging to put up drywall or do other tasks.
“You have to continually check the harness string,” Wilson said. “You are playing a game like you are a construction worker. If you don’t do things right, it shows you falling. You have to go back and start checking everything and make sure to do things right. If you are able to complete the job, you go to a higher level. This is going strong, and they are coming out with a Hispanic version, as well.”