In the current business climate, some people hope for a brilliant light at the end of the tunnel—a tunnel that seems to get longer and longer. But the construction industry will probably grow slowly when the economic climate does finally begin to change, and the booming construction activity of 2006 and 2007 won't return for a very long time. So with lower volumes of work in a slower construction market, companies are challenged to be smarter, better organized, and more productive.
Construction equipment and software manufacturers focus on helping the industry become more productive, especially manufacturers with funds to devote to research and development. Connectivity between the office and the field is another fast-growing area, even between the office and construction tools. Some of these innovations are currently on the market, with a host of others under development.
Manufacturers zealously protect the work of their R&D divisions to prevent the competition from knowing too much. But companies are willing to talk about future product developments in general terms, and where the industry innovation is headed.
Layout and machine control
Advanced layout tools include GPS, total stations, robotic total stations, and 3-D laser scanners, which gather information from the field. Connected to the office via radio, cell phones, or other wireless devices, these tools transfer information from the field to the office to create computer assisted drawings (CAD) for instance, or integrate with GPS services for the purpose of plotting layout points.
The development of better software is a prime component of layout technologies. Ken Shawler, building construction segment marketing manager, Trimble, Sunnyvale, Calif., says the goal for software development is to make programs easier to use with less time required to learn. Trimble understands its technology is used increasingly by contractors who are neither surveyors nor engineers, so programs are tailored for their use.
Trimble's current focus falls into two areas: solutions to improve workflow and ways to connect the office in real time to the jobsite. The company currently has products on the market that enable staff from a central office to communicate directly to layout instruments or devices that control construction equipment, providing revised instructions seamlessly without halting work.
More general contractors and larger concrete construction firms are using 3-D laser scanners due, in part, to onboard software. According to Geoff Jacobs, senior vice president for strategic marketing, Leica Geosystems, Sunnyvale, Calif., their goal is to develop more productive hardware and office software that is easier for users to learn. But these products also are shortening the time it takes to provide usable information for other applications. At the same time, new software is able to digest very dense information faster. Many companies are developing software that allows users to do very specific tasks, such as downloading large files into AutoCAD.
Jacobs says that 3-D laser scanners are beginning to deliver information from the jobsite to the office. By downloading construction site monitoring data from scanners, engineers in Seattle are monitoring tunnel construction impacts in virtual real time and comparing the project's progress to the original plans.
Contractors are using Building Information Modeling (BIM) technology to help bid projects, locate conflicts between building elements, and help workers visualize their tasks better. The goal is to develop software that can take information from instruments, such as 3-D laser scanners, import data into BIM software, facilitate layout work onsite, and keep updated records of actual construction results. Using BIM technology is changing everything and its impact on jobsites will only grow.
Using lasers and GPS to automatically control the movement of machines is perhaps the fastest-growing technology in the construction industry today. Three-dimensional shapes for subgrade and finished concrete elevations can be created to very tight tolerances, even for machines such as backhoes with two or more articulations to control the depth and slope of a cut. Shawler says that by adding sensors to construction machinery, office personnel can cost account a project in real time and calculate the percent completion of a job function or project. By adding other sensors, the office can monitor service requirements, on and off run time, fuel consumption, and inventory.