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ioT – Improving Quality and Productivity in Construction?

I recently wrote about Wearables in the Construction industry as an accessory using mobile devices to improve productivity. Another category of technology also aimed at improving productivity and perhaps more importantly quality are the ioT controlled equipment and tools. Not unlike wearables, the technology to make this possible has been brewing for the past few years and are only now beginning to be developed for wide number of applications by forward thinking construction equipment and tool manufactures.

Recently media has reported on smart cars, smart thermostats, smart refrigerators — what can we expect for construction? What is the idea behind the Internet of Things (ioT)? At its most basic level it refers to the connection of everyday tools to the Internet and to one another, with the goal being to provide users with smarter, more productive and as I will describe following, delivering higher quality work.

What exactly is the Internet of Things?

Walt Mossberg former technology reporter for the Wall Street Journal, offered a succinct description when he described it this way: “The broad idea behind these buzzwords is that a whole constellation of inanimate objects is being designed with built-in wireless connectivity, so that they can be monitored, controlled and linked over the Internet via a mobile app.”

The first ioT in construction were not small tools, but large earth moving equipment — smart tractors — using GPS satellite receivers to control the equipment to precise tolerances in grading construction sites. Recently, the construction site has seen Robots guided by GPS used to lay out interior spaces and equipment. These applications have been guided by data created in 3D BIM models that were created in the office by the Designers and then translated via the cloud to satellites or the internet and wirelessly communicated to the tractor or the LayOut robot or other more mundane tools like drills and chop saws.

What are the Benefits for Construction?

Construction requires precision in most all aspects of building starting with the grading and layout of the building for excavation of foundations and then on to installing the building systems, equipment and finishes of the building. This precision is what each specialized trades craftsman have learned over years from the apprentice to the master craftsman.

From the Masons of the Middle Ages to the specialty trades of today, construction has required a system to teach entry level craftsmen the “tools of the trade”. Compressed schedules and the ups and downs of construction employment are making it harder for skilled trade contractor to recruit train and maintain a worker who has the necessary experience and skills to build to the highest quality. As I discussed in an earlier post, Wearable technology will supplement the knowledge that a craftsman had historically gained through an apprenticeship experience. This will likely reduce rework, increase safety and offer a bridge to specialized knowledge of a craft.

The ioT will also offer many benefits to construction and has a great future for improving both productivity and quality by offering crafts workers augmented knowledge, precision skills and other benefits that are only now being defined. Smart tools have the potential to make the average worker an expert, increase productivity while maintaining the highest precision in the field.

How would it work in construction?

The underlying technology is wireless. This allows both tradesmen and tools to connect to the internet via Cloud and to each other. Currently these include familiar standards like Wi-Fi, Low energy Blue tooth, RFID and NFC. There are other standards evolving that you’ve probably not heard of yet. These transmitters work within a small Local Area Network LAN and enable the trades to send instructions to the tools that send and receive data. The human in this network can receive and send data and interact and “collaborate” with the smart tools that they manage.

Hilti is a well known tool company in the construction industry. Hilti’s R&D is developing smart tools and a workflows that support them. Notice that I said workflows. The understanding of the workflow of a particular application is the value added and the tool not be of any value without this. I characterize this as “augmented” thinking which adds the experience of the master tradesmen based on the context of the tool. They are creating the new prototypes in three categories Adaptive Tools, Layout Integration and Asset management.

Adaptive Tools would understand the context of a particular problem via sensors. They would then set themselves up correctly or would offer the operator the correct set up. But what is critical here is that an operator must still participate in the work. They are reporting that one tool has been able to do a 3 day job in 2 hours as a result of reduced set up time.

Layout Integration Tools refer to data from RFID or WIFI to control the tool to tighten bolts to the right torque or, the precise depth for the fastener. Both of these activities now require multiple tools, guides and references to do complete this task.

Asset Management, is Hilti’s final development strategy for the internet of Things and smart tools. Trades have a huge investment in tools and equipment. Hilti found that up to 82% of a contractors assets can be in tools and equipment. Hilti is incorporating technology to manage these construction assets. They are doing this by creating tools that know where they are. This would allow the craftsman to not only track the location of tools, but also inform the craftsman about materials that will be used that day by that tool. While these three are the focus of Hilti many other workflows that will be transformed by ioT and wearable technology.

It’s never too early to learn about new technology?

ioT Technology is quickly becoming a practical accessory for homes. Research group Gartner predicts that 4.9 billion connected devices will be in use this year, and the number will reach 25 billion by 2020. As the new technology evolves, we can expect many new and beneficial applications that will be coming to the construction industry. Some should be available as early as 2015 and 2016.

Depending on where you are on the supply chain — GC, Trade Partner or supplier, these new wearable and ioT accessories and products can translate to the bottom line with improved quality, schedule optimization and reduction of rework.

How is your company preparing for the future of information technology? Will you be considered a thought leader and also get more value from the Internet of Things and wearable technology? Challenge your company leaders and your colleagues to understand these evolving technologies and improve processes that will result in the benefits described here. Create a strategic plan to plan for your future and use this potentially value added technology to make your company great rather than just good. By the way, the Building Information Model is the source of location, materials and building systems information for this technology.

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