Contributed by Lucas Marshall
The construction industry faces a multiplicity of mounting problems — from workforce shortages topping half a million, to rising costs across a range of important commodities, to global shortages for critical materials like cement that risk a federally funded infrastructure slow down, Reuters reports.
Inventory ties up a significant amount of capital – with manufacturing inventories representing $2,471.6 billion in February, the US Census Bureau revealed. And as material prices continue to surge, materials management will naturally become a mission-critical part of a company’s operations. Lean manufacturing looks to implement substantive changes that streamline processes which have led to cost savings in the millions.
Applying similar concepts, like productization through industrialized construction (IC) can build the important infrastructure needed to deliver quality and consistency—moving the mentality beyond “projects” to finished products.
However, as physical and digital worlds bleed together, their intersections should be better monitored. For example, tying a physical toolbox to a digital inventory is ever-critical when tool theft is rampant. Creating these digital bread crumbs help tool managers trace their way back to valuable equipment as it’s deployed to the field, alerting them to events that warrant their intervention, as well as helping them better manage their supply chain.
Digitization is the way of the future. McKinsey suggested it as necessary to futureproof the industry.
Here are three examples of how construction companies, small or large, can use digitization to improve process management, eliminate waste, and maximize production output and quality.
1. The Internet of Things
McKinsey calls “IoT Connectivity” one of the critical tenets of its “next normal in construction.” They note the construction ecosystem represents a 13% stake of the global GDP yet has seen a mere 1% annual productivity growth for the past two decades. To transform, they urge, a “product portfolio that seamlessly integrates into an end-to-end, controlled, industrial-grade supply chain (requiring IoT connectivity)” is needed.
For the uninitiated, the Internet of Things, more than any other technology, splices digital and physical worlds together by creating a network of “connected” individual objects of all types, shapes, and sizes that link back to the internet.
Examples of IoT devices construction companies can deploy to integrate the end-to-end, “industrial-grade supply chain” McKinsey recommends include some of the following:
- Advanced Tracking Technology Hardware: Adopting the right tracking hardware for the right application across the value chain plays a critical role in driving data visualization and connecting key operational data sources—from the tool crib to the prefab warehouse to the field, back to HQ. Asset tagging hardware, for example—ranging from warehouse barcodes to construction-grade “ID tags”— is useful for providing basic location updates for small tools, while Bluetooth tags can help provide more regular location for items on the jobsite via community Bluetooth finding, and GPS tracking can provide real-time updates for valuable inventory, rented heavy machinery, and fleet vehicles.
- “Smart” Tools: Smart power tools can provide important utilization data for quality assurance purposes and user remediation. They can also provide application-specific customization for precision fastening to assure specification and repeatability. They likewise incorporate advanced technologies like machine learning to help protect users from dangerous events like kickback.
- Smart Building Technologies: Smart buildings incorporate advanced technology that can do anything from automating maintenance requests and enhancing building longevity via AI-enabled predictive maintenance to making HVAC systems and plumbing more sustainable.
- Wearable Tech: Advanced technology has been developed with the human element of construction in mind, particularly to address its inherent dangers – construction wearables like smart boots can measure user fatigue, while smart hard hats can reduce the risk of traumatic brain injury, for example.
2. Direct Software Integrations, Data Connectors, and Interoperability
A staggering 85.1% of respondents reported they believed integrations were “very important” or “important” when purchasing software, the 2021 ConTech report found.
“Seamless integration from pre-con to boots on the ground [would improve our processes,” responded one participant in the previous-mentioned report.
The integration trend continues. For instance, when asked recently about the future of the industry, the Construction Progress Coalition’s founder said, “more integration and acquisition.”
- Direct integration, like those between a BIM design platform, the project management SaaS product, and your team’s inventory system can help a multi-disciplined construction project share important project data, collaborate more seamlessly, and remove manual reentry to boost productivity and reduce the risk of human error.
- Data connectors through Platform-as-a-Service providers or home-grown APIs can help spin up integrations quickly or empower technical teams, respectively, with fewer technical complications.
- While integration is important, software interoperability will become increasingly important in the industry needing to establish standards for data synchronization.
3. Lean Management Principles and Digital Twins
Lean management principles aim to identify a customer value stream and eliminate waste from the manufacturing process.
The same principles can applied to construction through offloading preassembly to prefab, adopting cloud-based project management and automated scheduling software to help streamline workflows and shift the frame of mind in construction ideologically to a sense of productization, quality assurance, and customer satisfaction.
Similarly, digital twins can help visualize entire operations at a higher level to help tacticians identify potential risks and intervene before they become problematic.
The construction industry is among the hardest working industries despite drawing the proverbial short straw—delivering the built environment we all enjoy while seeing far more occupational hazards and razor-thin profit margins. Embracing technology to connect the digital and physical worlds can help move the needle toward greater profit margins, better safety outcomes, and an industry that can finally reap the rewards they’re long overdue for singlehandedly building the world we live in.
About the author: Lucas Marshall is a professional writer and digital strategist with 7+ years of experience – having spent the last 4 years+ reporting on the AEC industry, and specializing on the skilled trades. For Milwaukee Tool, he’s responsible for raising awareness about the company’s digital products—including their free-to-use connectivity platform, ONE-KEY™—and serves as Editor-in-Chief for the One-Key Connectivity Blog.