Where we've been, how far we've come & where we're headed next

Picture it. It’s the year 2000. Faith Hill, Santana, Eminem, Rob Thomas and ‘N Sync rule Billboard magazine’s Top Hot 100 list. And if you listen to these artists’ hits outside of waiting for them to air on the radio, it’s most likely on a Sony Walkman via CD or—if you’re really computer savvy—on napster.com, a free file-sharing network at the height of its 2 years of operability before countless legal battles with artists, music executives and labels end in the site’s shutdown.

Gladiator wins “Picture of the Year,” which, if not in theaters, you watch via DVD or illegal online download. AOL Instant Messenger and email are your forms of online communication. Text messaging is only a year old, and, according to The Week Publications Inc., Americans send an average of only 35 texts per month.

Google, a 2-year-old search engine, launches AdWords, allowing advertisers to target potential customers based on key words typed into the search bar, and announces the company has indexed over 1 billion pages, becoming the world’s largest search engine. Microsoft Windows and Internet Explorer are released. The following year, Apple releases the iPod MP3 music player and the iTunes store, skyrocketing the digital world into full, ongoing, fast transformation headed for the smartphone just 6 years later.

 

 

USB drives are now available to the public, and we all survived the Y2K scare—a near peril of our own construction—relatively unscathed and, ultimately, a little confused.

If nothing else, the year 2000 showed the world that technology has the potential to be just as dangerous as it is helpful. Luckily, for most industries, tech has definitely been more of the latter over the past 20 years, even for the laggards.

Construction’s Technological Beginnings

While 2000 may have been a technological launching point for many, contractors were not among them. “Most construction companies were still largely using paper for their operations—from paper plans, to paper spec books, to paper records for project schedules, requests for information, submittals and more. A contractor using Excel would’ve been considered advanced,” said James Benham, founder of JBKnowledge, a technology and risk-management consulting company for firms in the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry.

And it didn’t look much different in the field. According to Ian Ouellette, vice president of product at Triax Technologies, a construction tech provider connecting jobsites through the internet of things (IoT), “Mobile phones were newly available. There were no smartphones. Wi-Fi had only been available to consumers for 1 year—still a very early product. There was no connected activity. Jobsite activity logs were largely pen and paper, compiled through visual observation, which was probably the superintendent’s job back then. Maybe some firms had a safety position, but tech was just beginning to augment firms’ capability to cover more ground on-site.”

Eventually, tech tools like drones would play a major role in logging jobsite activity, but they were little more than a Jetsons-esque view of the future at the turn of the century.

 

“In 2000, drones were almost a mythical technology for construction companies. The equivalent to drone tech then was a helicopter flight where someone would take a picture of a worksite, however that was only accessible to larger enterprises. Even then, the quality of the picture was only as good as the camera the construction company had on-site,” said Dan Burton, chief executive officer of the professional drone services company DroneBase.

And though the rest of the developed world was rapidly adopting new technologies, the construction industry was not yet privy to advancements that could revolutionize how business was conducted every day. But change was coming.

The Age of Connectivity

2007 saw the advent of the smartphone with Apple’s release of the iPhone, combining web browsing, music player, GPS navigation, high-definition photo capture, texting, calendar, vocal dictation, weather report and mobile phone functionality in a single device—a game-changer not only for personal activity, but for business as well.

“It’s all about the mobile connectivity. People are able to replay and consume information remotely though Wi-Fi-enabled mobile devices, largely doing what used to be done with pen and paper on-site, anywhere and anytime. Speed, volume and latency of data has really increased since Wi-Fi. The data we used to enter ourselves is now captured by video and modeling,” said Ouellette.

And, according to Benham, “Next to the migration of computing resources to the cloud and delivering tech through the web browser, which had a huge impact on project management and enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, the second big impact [to construction] from technology was definitely mobility through the 2007 popularization of smartphones.”

 

All of a sudden, we were walking around with computers in our hands, unchained from desktops, and this ushered in a much larger capability and possibility for those working in construction. What was normally work that could only be completed in the home office or in a connected jobsite trailer, could now be done on the go, and field tasks historically completed with pen and paper could be logged digitally with more accuracy and wider-spread access.

“Then, in 2010, the mass production of smart tablets unleashed a torrent of new applications developed for construction companies that significantly aided them in their quest to automate and digitize field operations,” said Benham.

What followed was an outpouring of technologies that revolutionized the industry—building information modeling (BIM), virtual design and construction (VDC), drone technology, laser scanning, GPS tracking, robotics, modular construction and IoT, to name some major players. But you’re freshly familiar with this part of the story. You may even be using one of these technologies as soon as you lay down this issue and return to work from your break. The common theme among these technologies? Connectivity. The future? Hyperconnectivity.

What Lies Ahead?

“Those who have implemented [new tech] aggressively and completely have absolutely seen higher profitability and productivity. There are now ample productivity studies to prove this and to show that construction does not have to be a low-margin business if there is a significant focus at firms, from the top down, on using technology as an enabler for a much more profitable and lean production process,” said Benham.

But with all the digital tools now available to contractors, designers and engineers, it seems as if there’s no way to gain further ground technologically. It’s as if innovation has stalled—not because previous innovations have gone unadopted or because no one is left innovating, but because the industry has come so far. The focus now is not necessarily on the tools themselves, but how they can inform and improve future decisions and processes.

 

It’s no secret: Data is today’s most valuable commodity. And in construction, an industry reputed to lag years behind in terms of tech, making use of that data and the solutions that farm and maintain it is where contractors are beginning to close the gap. As such, contractors who aren’t using tech to gather as much data as possible won’t fare as well, if at all, as those who do—bottom line. But stopping at simply mining the data won’t work either.

Now, Benham said, “the big hurdle is analyzing all the data that’s been collected for the last decade, and that’s really where you see solutions that specialize in analytics coming to the forefront because of what they can do for the decision-making capabilities of construction companies.”

“We’re at the highest tech for now,” said Ouellette. “We have everything—the rubber hits the road when all tech connects together in a tech ecosystem, taking data from different providers and technologies and packaging them together to solve real-world business problems.”

Take, for instance, the process of digging into the details to truly to understand how your projected budget compares to your actual budget, using real-time updates to study current or future overruns, and saving more than a little time and money.

But it’s not only the bottom line that will be increased through this interweaving of big data through instant machine-to-machine and machine-to-human connectivity. With the ability to mitigate risks before they occur and communicate emergencies immediately and automatically, safety will also benefit. As a result, leveraging tech in 2020 offers contractors the power to enhance the quality of business, projects, jobsites and workers’ lives.

The last 20 years have brought with them advancements in technology that changed the face of building forever. But with such an influx of tech can come wasted energy and money for implementation, as well as gathered data and potential if those techs aren’t transformative of overarching processes rather than tasks alone. And this level of optimization can’t be reached without the connectivity of all your jobsite and office tech.

If you’re at a loss for how to reach this goal of hyperconnectivity, maybe your first move in 2020 is to dedicate time to the task. Or, perhaps, hire a construction technologist equipped to build and oversee your company’s technology initiatives. Whatever it takes, you will do well to embrace the challenge—and not with hesitation or skepticism, but, rather, with the knowledge that an eye to the future and a focus on realizing new possibilities is the only real way to see a true return on your investment.

After all, you’ve seen what can happen in merely a decade or two. Don’t wait until the next one comes around to try to catch up. You may not be able to.