Augmented reality: How technology is revolutionizing the world of construction

As Grand Rapids' skyline is forged higher and wider, construction firms, developers and designers are improving how they work with each new building. 
The rate new projects are being built in Grand Rapids only strengthens the notion that our construction industry doesn't take breaks, it only improves.

As our skyline is forged higher and wider, construction firms, developers and designers are improving their processes with each new building. Technologies are being integrated that offer a seamless and deep look at a finished project long before ground is broken, while elements of safety, access and connectivity can be monitored long after.

It may not be long before large-scale construction projects are carried out by completely automated crews. Researchers at Harvard have developed a crew of small robots that can build simple structures, their behavior based on a termite colony. Some day this technology may come in handy where conditions are too extreme or inaccessible for humans to work: other planets, for example. Until these micro-machines are scaled up to more practical standards, human hands are still the mainstay of construction projects in our locality.

West Michigan's largest contractors typically have several dozen job sites in operation simultaneously. With comprehensive software packages, progress on these jobs is not only tracked in real time, it's enhanced by equipping each skilled worker with the tools and the knowledge of every other professional on the site.

In this extremely dynamic industry, new hardware is incorporated as quickly as software. For every app or architectural interface, drones and wearable technology are being put to use, too. As long as the economy is expanding, innovation can be found in construction.


Tom McGovern, Chief Operating Officer at Rockford Construction, says the past 15 years have brought immeasurable advancement to development and project management, which his company has been quick to explore.

"Being an innovative company, we find ourselves dabbling in the technology to make sure we understand them," he says. "We don't necessarily implement them but we test them out to see how we might use them. We have drones; we've had some wearables; we've even had Google Glass just to see how we might use something like that."

One of the most promising areas of building technology is augmented reality. Gleaning measurements and notes from a projected or head-up display, a skilled worker can complete a task in much less time. When that project is something like the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, Grand Rapids Christian High School, or Saint Mary’s Wege Center, time is of the essence and the details cannot be spared.

"I actually saw at a trade show, someone framed up a room with only augmented reality as a guide," McGovern says. "The plans and everything were in his visual monitor, and he actually built the stud walls without measuring anything or laying anything out."

Necessity is the mother of invention. Whether applied to the claw hammer created by a frugal Roman hoping to save a few nails, or the excavating and reconstruction software developed by Rockford Construction's own information technology [IT] team, the maxim stands. Rockford Construction's platform, PlanGrid, helps the company access the plans and details from a tablet while walking around a project, as opposed to carrying plans around.

Most of the architects and trade contractors Rockford Construction works with are using the same software, which makes communication nearly seamless.

"It puts the right plans in front of people, allows them to communicate about questions and identify deficiencies very quickly. That's a huge move forward in efficiency," McGovern says. "If you're looking at a problem on a wall, you're the only one there to see it. Now you can drop a pin on a picture and send it immediately to the person that's probably going to start the job, and say, 'This is what I'm talking about.'"

Rockford Construction relies on its own Innovative Real-Time Information Sharing software for strategic metric analysis and project and field management tools. The company's property management team has created a web-based building management platform that allows specialists to monitor building systems, as well.   

McGovern, who graduated from Grand Valley State University with a degree in Facilities Management, says he learned the value of data mining and a stalwart IT platform while spending 14 years in retail before joining Rockford Construction. The trick is to ensure that the technology is providing the communication solutions and not a barrier, he says.

"It is amazing how much efficiency this has created for our technicians," McGovern says. "They can monitor and adjust building systems via real time connections to their smart phones and laptops. The continued advancement in the Internet of Things will only offer more monitoring points to allow for better client experiences. All of our properties coming online now are very advanced and efficient."

McGovern’s idea of a data-driven building, like other IoT devices, relies on sensors to monitor performance and usage. And while innovative, it’s hardly futuristic anymore, as more and more automated environments are rolled out every day. Rockford Construction’s own IoT enabled projects are based on the Tridium platform, which provides real-time insight and actionable methods to manage everything from energy costs to elevators, HVAC, and security.

“We create, working with some strategic partners, the dashboards and communication platforms to let the building tell us when there's an issue, instead of waiting for the client or customer to tell us,” McGovern says. “A lot of times, we know there is something we have to deal with before anyone else knows. That can mean not having an issue with heat before it gets cold.”

Where proprietary hardware and software packages had trouble communicating in the past, API interfaces, separating each software’s processes into a common language, eliminate this barrier and provide extensive views of data that's actually useful to managers and shareholders. Just as our social media channels connect to countless apps and devices providing seamless notifications, project management software can communicate with other construction tools and combine data from multiple sources in a cohesive report. Programs are now speaking to each other and sharing information that's relevant to the job.

"A great construction project requires a team of consultants, contractors and suppliers to be communicating very seamlessly," McGovern says. "The advancement of technology can be a great asset if all involved have a standard platform to communicate. Ultimately, we are a service industry, and these tools need to help great people work together as a team."

Exterior operations

As valuable as handcrafted tools and customizable software platforms can be, there are plenty of ready-made products that can provide just as much to companies.

Project managers at Orion Construction will no doubt recommend the SkySite software for examining construction drawings and plans, as well as marking them up, indicating call outs, and linking details. The software allows Orion to easily generate daily reports covering anything from the different subcontractors who are on site at any given time to the work remaining at each site, whether it’s electrical, plumbing, drywall, painting, or otherwise, depending on what stage the construction is in. The same reports can be accessed by anyone in Orion's project management hub.

SkySite is a project management system not only tailored to the construction industry, but facilitated through ARC Document Solutions, a data and construction document management company based in Grand Rapids, which means a support staff is not far away.

"Any of these other programs, you might be working with software developers based out in Mountainview, California. If we need help, they're across the country," says Orion Construction's Director of Marketing and Public Relations Cory Bixby. " We've got people here locally who are very, very knowledgeable. And they've relatable, ancillary services that we can make use of as well. They've got the document management side of things. They can also help us with printing closeout documents in large orders, or if we need some large scale signage on site, they do that."

From Bixby's office at 3200 Market, he's not that far from the 400,000-square-foot mixed-use space of Arena Place that Orion Construction spent two years on furnishing with apartments, restaurants, office space, retail and amenities. The work may have taken much longer had tablet computers not been introduced to the crew managers to help them handle operations more efficiently.

"On that project, you've got your project executives in the Orion office, but a project manager that straddles between office work and being in the field, and then you've got a project superintendent who pretty much lives at that site, overseeing that aspect of construction," Bixby says. "In order to coordinate all that stuff and be able to do it on the fly, they can't go back and forth from the job site to the trailer to open up plans."

For the last three years, Orion project managers have been using iPads to access plans on the work site. It's helped move work along tremendously, Bixby says. Workers are finding ways to be more effective at what they do, making decisions quicker and easier.

"Construction in its own right is already very complicated, so to increase ease of use with any one aspect of the job, making the superintendent's life easier, goes a long way," he says. "Now, it doesn't matter where you are. You could be in a six-foot trench, taking photos, hyperlinking the photos to the drawing itself, with callouts. Having this technology kind of erases barriers of time and location."

Rockford Construction is taking advantage of the same opportunities with the technology many already carry with them daily. Upwards of 70 carpenters may be on the clock at any one time, McGovern says. Using smartphones, they're able to report their work as it's completed, offering real-time analytics to any project manager accessing the PlanGrid dashboard. They can actually see how successful the crew is at keeping up with the pace anticipated, and maybe identify areas where someone might need some help.

While the technology that’s helped along these advancements in efficiency has been available for the better part of a decade, it hasn’t been until recently that prices have dropped into the practical range, McGovern says. Now that software developers understand the value of an open and cross-communicative platform, competition for construction business is leading to more options than ever before.

The most significant detail is that consultants and trade contractors can collaborate on the same communication platform. Not too long ago, the most crucial information was still being faxed to those who needed it. With modern day Building Information Modeling systems, Rockford Construction staff can confer on their plans for Blue 35 or the Grand Rapids Art Museum, accessing safety and efficiency metrics from the same cloud-based dashboard.

According to Triangle project manager Steve Datema, 3D point scanning and its integration with BIM provide an unmatched degree of foresight in the renovation and new construction markets.

“This emerging technology provides great opportunities for project teams to understand the environment they’re building in and any existing conditions they are inheriting that may not have been incorporated in the project’s documents through conventional planning,” Datema says.

As a construction engineer, Datema considers an exposure to emerging technologies part of his formal education. Born and raised in Grand Rapids, he has explored this field through the Michigan Society of Professional Engineers as well as a number of industry and tech conferences where current technologies are both demonstrated and extrapolated into future possibilities.

From Datema’s findings, modern construction crews are working smarter, but more importantly, they’re working safer.

“Whether it’s a smart hard hat, indoor GPS, or smart eyeglasses, field personnel have more access to information than ever before and a more informed worker, is a safer worker,” he says.

And the added efficiency is more than just a time saver, it’s helping businesses like Triangle, Orion, and Rockford Construction expand and take on more and larger projects with confidence.

“West Michigan continues to offer opportunity for many industries,” McGovern says. “We are builders of a changing world and we are careful to stay on the cutting edge of proven technology. Specifically, we see much opportunity in the education, healthcare and industrial markets. And we have great confidence in the work ethic that exists in our community.  West Michigan offers some of the best trades available in our industry.”

Interior details

Buildings are being planned and built faster than ever all over the world, and in Grand Rapids the introduction of new technologies to the industry is especially evident. Moreover, the development firms from this city represent work that's being carried out in working environments on continents thousands of miles away. From West Michigan, Custer, Inc. has been improving interior spaces for local corporations like Meijer, Gordon Food Service, Stryker, Kellogg, Amway, Alticor, and others.

Todd Custer, President of Custer Inc.The national reach has given Custer a solid trajectory upward, and an expanding legacy. Todd Custer, who became president on Jan. 1, 2017, spent five years working for Steelcase out west before returning home in 2007. He began with Custer, Inc. by leading the healthcare division, Custer Healthworks. In 2010, the company launched Custer Technology, and Custer was promoted to Vice President of Sales. And with his most recent promotion, assures that the company is still leading the charge to be as innovative as ever with intelligently designed workspaces.

"We were starting to see the trend of technology being integrated more into space, not only in the corporate world, but in small business, health care, higher education, K-12," Custer says. "In all the projects we're handling, we're seeing more of this technology integration. Visual collaboration, room control, room scheduling, telepresence, high definition video walls, signage, all that type of stuff is becoming more and more of a trend especially as people want to collaborate more in teams."  

That trend has dictated the approach Custer has taken to technology over the last few years. The option to incorporate face-to-face telepresence is incredibly popular for large companies with locations across the country and around the world, which poses the challenge of designing spaces to keep these satellites connected.

The visible result has been less private offices, less individual cubicles or workstations, and more collaborative areas, Custer says.

"More spaces where two or three people can come together and work as a team, sharing information," he says. "It doesn't have to be in a conference room, it doesn't have to be in a training room. It can be in a lounge area. It can be in a cafe. It can be in multiple different points throughout a space."

There are few better examples of a thoughtfully planned teaming space than Custer’s Worklab. Located in downtown Grand Rapids at 99 Monroe, members of the facility enjoy the benefits of working in a shared space with colleagues and other talented individuals, along with executive amenities like copy and printing services, food and beverages, and gym access.

Not all team workspaces are so eloquently crafted, but coming from Custer, the superlative is expected. The company has had the last 36 years to coming up with a decent plan.

Designing around the needs of people has led Custer to research how common spaces are used, from the corporate world, to healthcare  education, and industry. Doctors and nurses use digital displays and flat screen monitors in every room; teachers and students use touch screens and smart boards.

You may be using a robotic workforce and bricks made out of reclaimed carbon dioxide, but there's more to building a meaningful space than just putting up four walls and a roof. The right tools for the job, no matter how technologically advanced, still need humans to refine their use.

A rendered drawing can give you a detailed wide view of a proposed building, but virtual reality can take you inside to see how the furniture can be arranged. Just as a quick note on some architectural plans can indicate where electrical issues may crop up, cloud-based project management software can get everyone on the same page immediately, and prevent hazards later on.

New technologies are pushing us upwards, but some remain the same. A hammer is still a hammer. It's just being swung better.

This is the fourth article in a 12-part series highlighting the technological innovators and drivers in West Michigan. To see previous articles in this series, please go here. With this series, Rapid Growth will delve into the question: What are businesses and organizations doing to leverage technological advances to create an impact within our region, and what are the stories behind these agents of sweeping change in our society? This series is funded by Open Systems Technologies(OST), a Grand Rapids-based information technology leader that is delivering enterprise level solutions around the globe.

Matthew Russell, the editor of this series, is a writer, baker, inventor and mapmaker living in Grand Rapids. He enjoys bicycling and playing with his daughter as much as possible. You can email him at [email protected], or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

Photography by Adam Bird.