What CBO learned about new jobsite tools & solutions at 2019's ConTech Roadshow
by Rachel Fulford
April 29, 2019

On a hot day in a city filled with the sounds of ongoing construction projects, contracting business owners, software providers, engineers, computer scientists and other industry techies converged on the Georgia Tech Hotel and Conference Center in Atlanta, Georgia, for the third annual JBKnowledge ConTech Roadshow. Atlanta was the second stop in 2019 for the ConTech Crew, comprised of JBKnowledge Chief Executive Officer (CEO) James Benham, along with construction technology experts Jeff Sample and Rob McKinney, who host a weekly podcast on industry technology news and trends. At the show, attendees were encouraged to “geek out” with other construction professionals for a day of networking, educational sessions and interactive technology demos.

“Your Industry in the News: What’s Next for Contech Roadshow"

Benham began the opening keynote with, “Be safe. Make money. Enjoy your job. And have fun doing it,” and session one kicked off with an emphasis on the importance of forming a technology committee at your construction company, with McKinney providing seven practical steps to digitizing construction workflow. Afterward, Sample posited that robots are the future of construction and one answer to the labor shortage, pointing to Construction Robotics’ “The Mule" as proof that the robot takeover is more imminent than most of us think, and in a much less sci-fi way than we had imagined.

Josh Bone, construction technology specialist at DeWalt Industrial Tool Co., followed with another answer to the skilled-labor shortage—prefabrication. “Georgia is short 28,358 masons at this time, and the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry is short 1 million workers. So, why do we keep planning projects that require masons and other skilled laborers that aren’t available? Offsite construction is the future of building.” He cited Mortensen’s prefab research study as a good educational reference. 

Benham discussed the three Bs of construction (big data, business intelligence and blockchain). He noted that the technology is now available for contractors to monitor jobsite talk, being alerted when trigger words, such as “hazard,” are said, and then review the footage from the moment at which the word is spoken to take measures that increase safety quickly. This type of business intelligence hedges against the statistic that most construction companies are only using 4% to 5% of their data. And blockchain, he said, quoting the authors of Blockchain Revolution, “is the incorruptible digital ledger of economic transactions that can be programmed to record not just financial transactions but virtually everything of value.” That includes construction projects. 

“The Role of Data in the Connected Jobsite”

In session two, Bone broke down big data, answering the questions, “What is data, and why should I care?” Several relatable sports statistic examples explained just how much data there is to be gleaned and which parts of it are useful for different types of companies and job positions. Citing a 2015 McKinsey study on productivity, Bone stated that “technology is the most promising lever for productivity improvement” and addressed seven layers of data collection best practices. “The devil’s in the details, but the margins are in the data,” he said. “Prefab is the future, but data is what will set you apart.” 

“To BIM and Beyond! — The Software and Hardware You Need to Start Modeling”

In the third session, Bone and Benham opened by urging contractors and technologists alike to abandon the approach that says, “We’ll figure it out in the field,” and instead say, “We’ll figure it out on the computer [first].”

“Everyone needs building information modeling (BIM), it’s just a question of how much,” said Bone. Benham explained the challenges of BIM right before listing the statistics on the cost of inefficiency, with the latter far outweighing the former. 

After breaking down the specifics of the method, Bone and Benham showed how the data gathered through BIM is leveraged in virtual design and construction (VDC) through an approach to prefab that’s saving contractors and building owners alike, millions per project. “We all have the tools to do construction right, what we need is a new user experience,” said Benham. 

'Building a Mad Scientist: Driving New Innovation at Complacent Companies'

In session four, Benham began by referencing the constructors of a set of building marvels scientists are still dumbfounded by—the pyramids of Giza. Benham used this as proof that there have always been mad scientists. How we cultivate them at our own businesses is another animal, though. So, Benham gave five steps to building a mad scientist, which he noted does not happen without the necessary materials allocated to do so—dedicated staff and budgeted money. He used JBKnowledge’s group of “mad scientists” as an example. 

At the end of the session, a mad scientist in his own right, John SanGiovanni, co-founder and CEO of Visual Vocal, took attendees through a virtual reality(VR) prefab meeting  on the company’s VR namesake platform, during which every attendee could make simultaneous notes on the mock building plan. According to Benham, it was the largest mobile VR meeting in history. 

“Who is Your Construction Technologist? What Do They Do?”

McKinney led session five, as moderator for what was described “not your typical panel of geeks.” Director of Construction Technology at Winter Construction, David Epps; BIM-VDC Manager at Mann Mechanical, Carlos Osorio; and VDC Services Manager at Building Point SE, Ryan Pastor, composed the panel, who answered a series of questions about the lessons they have learned on the job as construction technologists, their favorite methods of fostering tech adoption and their must-have tools. 

Pastor noted the importance of working actively to bridge the gap between the field and the tech office, even though the heft of a construction technologist’s work is done in the office. “Don’t implement something that isn’t beneficial for both the field worker and the CEO,” he said. Of bridging this gap, Epps said, “Don’t shove it down their [field workers’] throats. Let them use it for free to begin with.” “Get the technology in the field and show them [workers] what it can do for them. Sell them on the ease of AR and the reward of the risk,” Osorio said. Epps, Osorio and Pastor’s must-have tools? A laser scanner, robotic total station and project-controls tool, respectively. 

“Millennial Schmillennial: Overcoming Generational Stereotypes to Affect Change”

In the last session of the day, Sample set out to use his own experience in the industry as a young techie  given the job of rejuvenating processes amidst older workers and old technology, to prove that “Millennial is an attitude, not an age.” Sample used quotes on the youth of the day from a diverse group of famous elders over the span of centuries, in which each asserted that young people are what is wrong with and/or will be the downfall of the world. Then, Sample used examples of millennial construction technologists currently changing the industry for the good and encouraged attendees to work in unity with all generations employed at their companies, leveraging the strengths of each. This, he said, “will positively influence companies’ technology strategies and effectiveness.” 

Ending a day jam-packed with information, CBO sat down with Benham to ask him some questions about the industry, the ConTech Crew and this year’s ConTech Roadshow.

CBO: What is the No. 1 reason contractors are resistant to adopt new tech?
JB: Money is always on the list of reasons. We ask that question every year. Our survey of 2,900 people says that budget and lack of resources are No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. So, money and people. Beyond that, it’s just a cultural unwillingness to acknowledge there’s a need. It’s building the way “my grandfather always built.” 

CBO: Do you think construction’s tendency to lag behind in tech adoption is budging?
JB: Our data says that it is slowly, slowly starting to improve. The JBKnowledge ConTech report has the biggest survey of construction technology of anyone in the business for the last 8 years. We surveyed thousands of contractors. Spending as a percentage of revenue is slowly improving. Key tech adoption, especially project management software and BIM, is slowly improving. 

Even drone adoption is common among up to half of the people we survey. Drones are easy, low cost and have a lot of value. And they’re a hell of a lot of fun. I’ve been a drone pilot since the first DGI. 

CBO: What type of tech do attendees seem most interested in?
JB: As far as practical technology, most of these guys are still just trying to figure the basics—managing documents, plans and time digitally. If you watch who they’re visiting with in the exhibitor hall, who they’re interacting with, what they’re asking about in the Q&A sessions, you see that they immediately zone in on what project management and collaboration apps we’re using. 

In the area of BIM, their questions today really indicated to me that they’re trying to figure out what the bigger use cases of BIM are. They want to know which products they should use and where they should go for these technologies. CEOs are coming to me and voicing that their large companies are still struggling with digitization. They want to know, “How do we digitize construction?” It’s not moving from paper to Excel sheets; it’s deciding “How do we create a truly digital workflow?” 

And this is an essential question to answer so that this really inefficient industry (at 40% productivity) can start spending time on the important stuff. They have enough things on their plates already—government shutdown, drastic weather, tariffs, etc. 

CBO: What piece of tech should new implementors start with and, alternatively, what piece should advanced implementors look into?
JB: New implementors must have project management and plan apps. If you want low-hanging fruit, go for just a plan-file management app. Because how many stupid mistakes come from people building off the wrong plans? The amount is amazing.  

On the high end, the must have tech pieces are laser scanners and robotic total stations. Those are so critical. Reality capture—the ability to capture in real time what is being built and what needs to be built—is also critical. But you can’t properly execute a laser strategy until you have a good BIM strategy. There are just too many prerequisites. 

CBO: Do you think tech has the power to combat the skilled labor shortage? 
JB: Yes, it could. We have to remember, though, that it’s not a labor shortage, it’s a skilled labor shortage. There are people out there who need work—3 to 4 out of every 100 people need a job. The shortage is for skill. 

I think the biggest problem we have in the United States is not unemployment, but underemployment, which means there are many working whose skills are not being used well, and they’re not making as much money as they should. So, yes, I do think technology does help and has the potential to play a major role in combatting the labor problem in construction because it takes the people who are skilled and who are willing to get dirty when they work, and it gives them assistance while they get their job done. 

Technology doesn’t take jobs away either. For instance, if you go from a two- to three-person layout group to a one-person layout group, what do you do with the other people, as an owner? Do you fire them? No. They already know how construction works. They already know how layout works. They already know how to read plans. You train them for some other job. It’s not a zero-sum game. 

CBO: What’s hot on the podcast right now? 
JB: Listeners really geek out when we bring on construction tech innovators who are really killing it in their companies—construction technologists. We get a lot of feedback on those people want to hear real life stories of construction tech guys and girls who are out there innovating and making changes at their companies. They really like to talk about 3D printing, drone technology, BIM and VDC tools, project management tools, too. And women in construction is a major topic as well.  

Next up, the crew is in Denver, Colorado. For more information on the ConTech Roadshow, visit jbknowledge.com/2019-construction-technology-conference