First, he gets started on some work as he commutes. Ensure the prefabricated bathroom modules will be craned into place at the Quay at 3pm. Tick! Check the freelance drone operator is available next week. Tick! Schedule a virtual meeting on the Spark app to discuss a glitch with the GPS equipment tracking system at a remote mining site. Tick!
With that, he shoots off a quick text to pre-order a flat white from his favourite café so it will be ready when he gets off the train.
“The digital transformation of construction companies has been significant. These IT applications weren’t around five or 10 years ago when there were lots of silos and information streams broke down. Technology has really filled a gap and given us the ability to consolidate, report and see everything in real time. It’s adding a lot of value.”– Doug Zuzic – Information Systems Manager, Richard Crookes Constructions
The job …
With 20 years’ experience in the construction management game, Langer has seen some changes. By 2020, the days of managing checklists with clipboards and paper are over, with real-time data now available at the touch of a tablet.
This makes it possible for Langer to stay on top of multiple projects, with workers from each site keeping him updated by entering information into hand-held devices out in the field. Wherever he is, Langer can liaise instantly with administration teams, quickly collate data into reports to send to senior management and use the real-time information to fast-track decisions. As he says, “Technology has become the glue that connects the construction process, making it more efficient, safer and sustainable.”
“The 2020 construction manager – how they will differ is that they will be more informed. They’ll have more access to real-time information, whereas in the past a lot of paperwork was just filed away and wasn’t ever used.”– Doug Zuzic – Information Systems Manager, Richard Crookes Constructions
Langer thinks back to when he first started as a construction manager; how much time and effort it took to accurately plan and manage projects, ensuring each would finish on time and within budget. It wasn’t so easy to update schedules and budgets in real time in response to changing circumstances. However, he can now take advantage of the latest data-collection software and web-based document management systems – extremely useful and valuable for construction managers during any change-order negotiations.
Arriving at the café closest to his company’s Circular Quay project, Langer thanks the barista and takes a seat outside. With spectacular views of Sydney Harbour, it’s his favourite spot from which to work between site visits, away from the noise and the dust. Langer’s tablet pings with an incoming notification. Performance sensors indicate a backhoe has stopped operating before completing its current task at the Parramatta site and may have broken down. It’s one of many such performance alerts that Langer receives each day, part of an industry trend that the CSIRO had long predicted would become the norm in many manufacturing industries.
Despite doomsayers a decade ago predicting that digital disruption would wipe out jobs in the sector, Langer’s skills are in higher demand than ever. The rewards – and required skill levels – are high, with continual pressure to improve construction performance while complying with a myriad of client and regulatory needs. Langer notices his task list has automatically updated in response to the Parramatta backhoe issue, sighs, and texts through another coffee order.
State of the industry …
As industry leaders take stock of their challenges, they can reflect on a prescient World Economic Forum report from 2016, which forecast the likely state of play in 2020 and beyond. Titled ‘Shaping the Future of Construction: A Breakthrough in Mindset and Technology’, it noted that “multiple global megatrends” are shaping the future of construction, with 30 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions being attributable to buildings, and the population of the world’s urban areas increasing by 200,000 people per day. The report’s authors remained upbeat, though, suggesting that the changes present great prospects for progressive construction companies: “Companies themselves should spearhead the industry transformation. Tremendous opportunities are available through the application of new technologies, materials and tools.”
Just back from an international conference on construction trends, Langer is familiar with the options in an era when the focus is on IT applications, off-site manufacturing breakthroughs and the use of more sustainable products and materials. Innovations such as ‘smart’ concrete ‑ embedded with self-healing sodium silicate when cracks form ‑ are on the radar, along with automated bulldozers, excavators and scrapers.
He has no doubt that the use of 3D modelling of sites is transforming the approach to scheduling and project delivery, allowing construction to be more accurately priced from the beginning of the project. Building information modelling (BIM) allows designers and construction managers like Langer to visualise construction projects, and better assess and manage tasks such as structural engineering, electrical and plumbing systems and steel work. Langer has already used BIM and 3D modelling to keep project costs low and reduce on-site accidents by limiting the number of tradies on a job.
“New technologies in the digital space, for example, will not only improve productivity and reduce project delays, but can also enhance the quality of buildings and improve safety, working conditions and environmental compatibility.”– World Economic Forum report, Shaping the Future of Construction: A Breakthrough in Mindset and Technology.
Marshalling the troops at the $150 million Darling Harbour apartment construction site, Langer hears a buzzing noise overhead and looks up to see the new drone the company has commissioned. He marvels at the piloting skills of Charlotte Watson, runner-up at last year’s Australian Drone Nationals, who is making a name – and a healthy living – as a freelance drone operator.
Langer’s first drone a few years ago was little more than a toy, but these new drones add value to high-profile building projects around the country through aerial photography and more accurate site surveys. “I see Komatsu is using drones as the eyes for its automated bulldozers so they can plan their jobs better,” Langer remarks to Watson. “You’ll be richer than the airline pilots soon!”
Even the faces seen on sites across the construction sector have changed. Langer often hears younger workers discussing laser hair removal, as Baby Boomers and Gen X gradually make way for tech-savvy Gen Y and Z. As Langer told his superiors in his recent end-of-year report, “Handling change management during a period of significant generational transformation on construction sites will be one of our biggest challenges in years to come.”
Systems and technology …
“Crikey!” Langer yells as a driverless truck delivering materials crosses into his path. He dictates a note into his tablet to tell the tech team to recalibrate the radar sensors to avoid potential cases of virtual road rage.
Yet, Langer loves such technology advances, which are making the construction sector more interesting and cost-effective. Fleet-tracking software has enabled his team to better coordinate the use and repair of trucks and earthmoving equipment ‑ and it’s been a big fuel saver. Then there’s a new innovation allowing machine operators to receive a notification on their smartwatches when prefab modules are ready to be installed.
Demolishing some sushi, Langer calls a colleague for an update on his study trip to the United States. He is especially interested in his visit to Harvard University to check out Termes robots; four-wheeled devices programmed to work together as a swarm, trained to lift construction materials and build things. “So is it more than just hype?” he asks. “Their sensors detect the presence of other robots and they’re programmed to get out of each other's way,” his mate comments. “They’re very efficient. You see why they get their name from termites.”
It’s 3pm and, right on time, Langer watches as the first of the bathroom modules is dropped into place. Completely designed and fitted out off-site, these modules present many benefits ‑ time savings, no weather delays, fewer tradies on site and a reduction in injuries and defects.
Time to head home …
Back on the light rail after a productive day, Langer reflects that, in 2020, construction of major projects is more efficient and far less damaging to the environment than when he started in the industry 20 years ago. Satisfied, he checks the day’s headlines on his iPhone: there’s a breakthrough in the treatment of pancreatic cancer … Steve Smith has just scored his 33rd test cricket ton, pushing him past Steve Waugh’s total … and debate still rages about whether President Donald Trump’s controversial wall will be built on the US-Mexico border.
As Langer arrives at his stop, he wonders if those US workers will use laser-controlled technology to lay the bricks.