Technology in Construction: Where We Stand Today

April 1, 2014
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The demand for increased productivity continues to be driven by the high costs of manpower and equipment, but other factors loom larger on the horizon. One of these is the impact that access to information via the Internet is having on our ability to make cost/performance comparisons as part of the bidding process, which in turn accelerates the demand for the right people having the right information at the right time. It’s little wonder that more and more contractors are looking to technology-particularly those featuring graphic display-for answers in meeting the challenge. Because of their growing acceptance in specialized appli-cations and their promise for the future, we intend to focus attention on emerging technologies that address productivity. We start here with computer-aided and/or controlled site-work systems such as Caterpillar’s Computer Aided Earthmoving System (CAES), Trimble’s SiteVision system, Spectra Precision’s BladePro Motorgrader Control System, and Topcon’s Touch Series Five automatic slope- and depth-control laser system.

The above appeared in our very first issue of Grading & Excavation Contractor, in 1999, in what amounted to a manifesto for the magazine in an article titled “Automating Your Construction Site“.

In the following issue (January/February 2000) we suggested:

The need to track every task as close to real time as possible predates the Pharaohs, and systems for doing so are a reflection of the technological leading edge of the time. Today, that leading edge lies in connectivity, where project information can flow seamlessly to and from every task element on a job site…and beyond. Connectivity will bring increasing visibility to all aspects of projects-from bidding to bill collecting-not only reducing the turnaround time in each task, but highlighting problem areas and sub-standard performance.

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Now fast-forward a decade-and-a-half to CONEXPO-CON/AGG 2014 and consider where such things stand today. After more than a decade during which a succession of changes in the machinery and productivity systems have led to their increasing integration, we’ve finally arrived at the point where the adoption of technology in our equipment and systems can no longer be viewed as optional. Indeed, as attendees entered any of the exhibition venues in and surrounding the Las Vegas Convention Center, they found display after display confirming that technology would have to be central to their work practices from here on out.

Over the last two decades, we’ve participated in a revolution affecting not only the iron and operating systems of construction machines, but also the manner in which we interact with them. Today we tend to view construction as a succession of discrete activities. Tomorrow, in much the same manner that computer operating systems have stitched together the numerous processes underlying the performance of our PCs, the entire construction process will be revolutionized not only by the incredible technological advances themselves but in our relationship with them. Increasingly, the construction process will be carried out seamlessly by systems based on what’s needed to accomplish the entire project…and perhaps beyond.

Certainly one of the keys to full realization of these and future technological advancements lies in partnerships between customers and the suppliers of equipment and productivity systems. Few, if any, of the users will have a capability for assessing data that comes anywhere close to that of the suppliers, who will be able to access information from hundreds or perhaps thousands of users.

Within the streams of little 1s and 0s lies the challenge of what to do with an untapped universe of valuable information waiting to be deciphered, organized, and acted upon. Tomorrow, these accumulated bits and bytes will lead to new machines and systems as different from today’s as ours are to those that were on the cutting edge at the beginning of the millennium.

Another challenge we all face lies in developing the skills and dedication of our currently underserved construction work force.

This point was brought into sharp focus in a Caterpillar-sponsored presentation by TV personality Mike Rowe, whose Dirty Jobs show has allowed him to see not only what people did, but also how many jobs went begging for lack of interest, industry, or awareness. While he believes school counsellors must create a renewed interest in vocational pursuits, for the time being the onus for this is in our hands.

Finally, there’s the deplorable condition of the nation’s once great infrastructure, which we’ve allowed to deteriorate to a point of near collapse. It’s a situation that calls for immediate and sustained action; if left unchecked, it will absolutely lead to a point of no return in which US business-the key to the lifestyle we’ve enjoyed for more than a century-will grow progressively noncompetitive, leaving us as spectators while others head down the fast lane on the road to the future.

The question is not whether we have the capacity to put our mighty economic engine back in play, but whether we have the will to do so at the expense perhaps of some of our more frivolous pursuits.

I believe that it can be done. And though my feet, weary of trudging to and fro among the Convention Center’s far-flung venues, might not be so disposed, I am already looking forward to CONEXPO-CON/AGG 2017, by which time our infrastructure recovery efforts should be well under way.