The construction industry has a track record of being slow to adopt the latest technologies. But once new technology is introduced, particularly new tools and processes that improve safety, momentum tends to build.

Numerous studies have documented the financial benefits that can accrue from accident- and injury-free project sites. Construction companies understand that safety is more than just the right thing to do. Safe job sites can often mean the difference between a profit and loss on any given project.

AZCO, a Burns & McDonnell company, is investing in new technologies and equipment that not only make us more efficient — they make the work environment safer for everyone. As a direct-hire specialty contractor, AZCO aims to do what we can to make construction sites safer through technology and by the nature of what we do.

AZCO recently purchased four new remote-control, GPS-enabled pile drivers that we have already deployed on a construction site for a new utility-scale solar facility. Because they are controlled remotely with GPS tracking, we no longer require operators for this equipment. They are improving safety, efficiency and speed on a job site normally requiring thousands of repetitive tasks related to digging and installing posts, panels and related equipment.

In the fabrication shop, we also recently purchased a state-of-the-art plasma beam cutter that is essentially a robot that can cut, drill, weld flanges and perform many more tasks in minutes instead of hours. This is the same technology employed by Tesla, and the potential benefits in safety alone make it worth the investment. Factor in efficiency and increased production capacity, and the return on investment becomes even better.

Both the pile driver and beam cutter will reduce density of craft and tradesmen needed in the shop and in the field — a key factor in reducing risks of accidents and injuries.

As another example, we are modifying drones with artificial intelligence and flying them over job sites to feed real-time data on available construction materials and equipment to project managers, procurement professionals and material vendors. The aim is to reduce safety risks on highly congested job sites while improving supply chain efficiency with just-in-time deliveries. These drones also could be programmed to spot whether construction crews are wearing hardhats, safety vests and other personal protective equipment (PPE).

Wearable devices are another example of technology making construction sites safer. New wearable glasses, deployed by Burns & McDonnell in partnership with RealWear Inc. and Manitoba Hydro, essentially are voice-activated computer tablets. Instead of walking around hazardous locations with hand-held devices, tape measures and the distractions that come with them, users face far fewer risks of slips, trips and falls because they can keep situations around them in view at all times. For field data collection needed for construction documentation, these wearables are proving to be extremely effective in collecting data while protecting users.

Other technologies being piloted in the construction industry could make project sites even safer. Think about laborers wearing exoskeletons, similar to those being used in manufacturing, to perform the hundreds of repetitive tasks requiring lifting, bending, pulling or pushing in the field. The risks of injuries would drop to almost zero. AZCO is in discussions with third-party vendors about the possibility of pilot projects utilizing various types of exoskeletons.

However, advances in technology alone will not result in real gains in safety unless they coincide with improved processes on construction sites as well as in the shops. Most of our engineer-procure-construct (EPC) or design-build projects are large and complex jobs with lots of customized phases that have many unique elements.

As a specialty contractor, AZCO brings a level of control and quality to critical phases of complex construction projects through processes backed by technology. By deploying crafts and trades with highly specialized skills, a safer work environment is the result on the job site and in the shop.

For example, AZCO brings the element of modularization of many specialized components in constructing industrial or power facilities. This plug-and-play feature reduces the risk of variability and takes pressure off construction crews in the field. With many prefabricated modules and piping on industrial facilities produced in controlled environments off-site, then scheduled and sequenced to provide a balance of predictability and efficiency, fewer on-site craft professionals are needed. This is especially important in regions experiencing acute labor shortages, which is a growing issue throughout the industry.

The usual argument against investing in technology — in construction or any other industry — is that it will cost jobs. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The facts are that tech investments we are making today and in the future will create jobs, not eliminate them.

In the post-COVID-19 future, we believe the days of tightly packed, congested job sites will be a thing of the past. As we strive to maintain one of the best safety records in our industry, we are confident construction technologies will make us even better.

 

Wearable assisted reality technology improves productivity and benefits a wide range of industries.

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by
J. Brett Williams is president of AZCO, a Burns & McDonnell company. AZCO is a heavy industrial construction and fabrication solutions provider building critical infrastructure that keeps communities and industries thriving.