The Electronic Umbrella of Construction

I started my career in the construction industry with the United States Navy Seabees in the mid 1990’s. Since then the industry has evolved to become more akin to a science fiction movie… or has it?

Today terms like BIM, 4D, 5D, and yes even XD are rife in almost everything you read in the industry. The question you must ask yourself is; “Has this really changed how construction is performed in the industry?” Like many questions, there are two answers to this.

First, yes. Innovation in construction technology has transformed the industry. It has made things faster, more efficient and cost effective.

And in some ways, no. Does a new hammer change the intended purpose of driving a nail? No; it improves the process, yet you still need a carpenter to swing the hammer. In other words, you still need a competent, experienced individual to put the new tool to good use. Let’s look at a few examples; the old timers reading this are going to have a few flash backs.

Take, for instance, estimating.
Do you remember opening and evaluating bids on bid day from subcontractors? Along comes the innovation of the fax machine. All of a sudden bids were coming in mere hours before the bid turn in. What about now? Email allows us to receive bids and cuts mere moments before the bid is due. Did any of these innovations truly change the way a bid was evaluated? A competent estimator still needs to evaluate the bids received.

What about actual “boots on the ground” construction?
We have seen great innovations there. To name just a few, we now have GPS, Total Stations, and BIM – each has definitely reshaped our industry, or have they?

Back in the day, site layout involved checking elevations with stakes, transits, and theodolites. Basically, two competent surveyors were sent out into the field to take measurements and place stakes. Now, with the advent and adoption of GPS, this tool has taken over the industry. This allows for one surveyor to do the work of two. They can take their GPS module and stakes and have the area staked out and checked in a relatively short amount of time. Even the big dirt moving machines have become automated where the GPS can adjust blade height and location automatically. Yet, there is still a need for a competent surveyor and equipment operator to be out on site.

Total stations, now that really changed how we do building layout, I think. For years the industry used transits for layout and some still do. Two carpenters or surveyors go out on site look at the plans and shoot their 90’s and snap chalk lines. Now with the total station, especially the robotic total station, the device is setup in line of site and the surveyor goes out with his device to take measurements and place marks. Did total stations really change the way we layout? We still need to look at the plans and know which wall we are laying out and where it starts and ends.

I think I am starting to make my point; but let us look at the next big thing BIM. Yes, BIM that industry game changer with terms like 4D, 5D, XD, and beyond. Since the dawn of time projects have had schedules and owners have always wanted it faster. Did 4D change how we schedule a project or is it just another way to show the owner the project schedule? Yes you can look at the schedule now in 3D and say, “I want to start with these columns here and then these.” Yet you could do that with 2D plans as well; what you really need is someone who knows how to schedule a job.

Now 5D that is really something. It’s possible to see the building under construction and also see where major costs are going to come into play. That has got to be worth its weight in gold right? Maybe, but maybe it’s just another way of presenting the information visually so all involved, including the owner, can more clearly understand and track progress of a project.

Innovation in the construction industry has been nothing short of amazing over the past several years. From preconstruction to project closeout and the electronic operation and maintenance manuals that have the potential to live on for years – you’d be hard-pressed to find a phase or stage of a project today that isn’t touched by some sort of technological advancement. Where it has increased efficiency and enhanced the ability for teams with different responsibilities to collaborate, the reality is that no matter how much technology can do, the one thing it can’t do is replace the need for a true builder to see a project through from the first handshake to the day the keys are turned over. Understanding this, true builders embrace new innovations as tools that are elevating the entire industry and enabling those who work in it to save their valued clients (and their own companies) money through increased quality, time savings and much more.

Don’t get me wrong. When new technology emerges in the construction industry, we’re all a little like kids in a candy store, wide eyed with excitement to see what they’ve come up with now. But once the newness wears off and we get accustomed to using them every day, those tools are placed right alongside the others that have been offered under that skilled construction company’s umbrella of capabilities all along (albeit now a little faster and maybe with a few options that weren’t presented exactly in the same way before). After all, an umbrella is just a tool, when you think about it.

It may sound ho-hum to some, but to a true builder, a tool that becomes as familiar and reliable as the hammer or screwdriver – is a rare and powerful thing. Think of it this way: if you’ve ever been stuck in the driving rain with no umbrella – or one that turns inside out with the slightest gust of wind – you know that the thing about a good umbrella has always been and will always be that even though the climate may be unpredictable, it can always be counted on to keep you (and your company) out of the rain.

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