Drones, 3D printers, and hard hats: The role of technology in construction

From drones to 3D printers, construction is just as enthralled with cutting edge tech as the next industry. It has been said that 'time is money," and technology is helping construction companies conserve time by increasing accuracy and adding to bottom line profit margins through the implementation of cost and quality controls.
Technology is something we tend to take for granted, yet every industry is moving at the speed of technology. This is particularly true of the construction industry, which itself has undergone a metamorphosis driven by technology. Today, construction companies are measured by the speed and accuracy they employ in completing their various contracts. On many job sites, you may likely see a construction foreman using a laptop computer to review job progress, communicate with the client and the home office, keep work-related notes including any changes to the project, monitor inventories, review payroll, and control costs.

It has been said that "time is money," and technology is helping construction companies conserve time by increasing accuracy and adding to bottom line profit margins through the implementation of cost and quality controls.

Job site safety is also impacted by technology. Recently, there has been a move to implement safety technology to protect workers. More significant is the effort to protect the job site itself using the latest in sensor technology, utilizing a point cloud, a set of data points in a three-dimensional coordinate system.

In a three-dimensional coordinate system, these points are usually defined by X, Y, and Z coordinates, and often are intended to represent the external surface of an object. Point clouds may be created by 3D scanners to monitor the construction site for fire, water, and mold damage. These sensor systems offer both alerts and detailed analysis to help reduce long-term risk. The end result of this use of technology has been cost savings through reductions in construction site mishaps and building damage from natural causes.

Consider some of the latest in technology applications for the construction industry. The first is Building Information Modeling (BIM), a 3D model-based technology process for creating and managing project information. This technology has been most associated with the design process. However, BIM can be used before, during, and after construction.

A 3D BIM model is a digital description of every aspect of the build, and objects embedded in the model can be linked to related information such as photos, specifications, or manuals. BIM technology can benefit construction professionals by helping them create better design plans, produce faster results, and stay within budget, leading to less risk, more profit and better, faster implementation.

Another example of technology application in construction is the use of 3D Laser Scanners that capture a physical object's exact size and shape and input the data into a computer as a digital 3-dimensional representation, again utilizing point clouds. Once completed, the point cloud is outputted to a computer as a data file. This point cloud represents the set of points that the device has measured. As the output of 3D scanning processes, point clouds are used for many purposes, including to create 3D Computer Aided Design models for any number of visualization, animation, renderin,g and customized applications including those used for construction.

The construction trades are also making good use of drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. In the simplest terms, a drone is a pilotless aircraft whose flight path can be automated using a predetermined route or manually controlled using a mobile device or remote control. Drones help construction professionals conduct site surveys and can be used to track project progress in real-time by generating aerial photos, maps, and 3D images. In addition to monitoring activity at the job site, drones can be used to improve worksite safety and overall productivity.

Many construction firms are employing the use of Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality Technology (VR/AR) as well. VR/AR technology enhances collaboration among project stakeholders before building begins. VR/AR technology allows construction teams to detect problems ahead of time and to avoid costly mistakes by improving job site safety, allowing site managers and workers to model job site conditions without subjecting them to actual safety hazards.

With VR/AR, steakholders are able to walk through a digital rendering of a model job site.

In the greater Grand Rapids area, construction companies are making good use of the available technology to control costs and improve customer satisfaction.

Calvin College alumnus Eric Timmer is the Director of Virtual Design and Construction for Allied Mechanical Services, Inc. As the focal point of his job, Eric uses tech to determine the best ways and methods that can be used to build a structure. Principally, Eric uses 3D Building Information Modeling, along with the data outputs or "point clouds" from 3D laser scanners. Utilizing BIM allows him to virtually create a full model of any building or project well in advance of construction.

3D BIM allows Eric to determine all the components that will be needed to complete a particular project and the use of 3D laser scanner provides an accurate look at existing conditions within a site structure, including mechanical and electrical systems. “Technology is changing rapidly and Allied Mechanical is on the cutting edge on what the latest tools can do,” says Timmer.

Eric Timmer explains how Allied Mechanical use their 3D Laser Scanners to streamline the construction industry.

Brian C. Knapp, creative director for Externa CGI 3D, a GR CGI firm, uses animation and virtual reality to plan for construction projects. “Utilizing 3D animation and drone aerial footage, Externa CGI is able to produce detailed 360-degree footage of any room, allowing consumers to virtually navigate a home or office prior to construction or purchase,” says Knapp.

This 3D technology can even adjust the lighting levels within a particular space to reflect the time of day in addition to the sun placement in the sky and any shadows. This allows for a more natural view of the space that can help facilitate better planning and decision making in advance, resulting in the potential for enhanced satisfaction of the construction on the part of both owners and tenants. One person who engaged in a virtual demo of this technology told of being “teleported” to a waterfront condo where she could enjoy not only the view but also move virtual furniture.

Brian C. Knapp

Steve Datema, project manager with Triangle Associates Inc., utilizes much of the aforementioned tech on a daily basis “Construction technology has changed more in the last five years than in the previous 50,” says Datema. "At Triangle Associates, drone technology is used to remotely conduct a site investigation. Doing the site investigation via drone helps keep costs down by not putting any individual in harm's way and also allows for maximum efficiency."

For existing buildings that are being remodeled, repurposed, or refurbished, Datema cites the use of 3D design packages that allow him to see building composition and how any of the existing steel, electrical, or mechanicals may overlap and pose a problem.

Steve Datema

The effect of technology on the construction trades is wide-ranging and dramatic in its ability to improve building quality, increase efficiency, save time and money, and make projects more efficient, accurate, and safer for workers.

Construction companies are no longer simply the assemblers of the bricks and mortar that go into a building; they are serving to preserve and expand the use of technology by building better buildings and managing better projects. By using technology and applying it to its best use every day, the construction industry is making life safer and more productive.

“Constructing the future” is a new 12-part series from Rapid Growth that will explore issues facing, and related to, West Michigan’s construction industry and the numerous organizations, trends, and innovations seeking to create positive advances in our community. The series is sponsored by Triangle Associates, a West Michigan-based construction company that provides construction management, design/build services, general contracting, integrated project delivery, and more to projects locally and across the country.

Ken James, the editor of this series, is active in the community and committed to issues surrounding growth, development, opportunity, and access. He has been in West Michigan for 23-plus years. Ken enjoys spending time with his family while enjoying what West Michigan has to offer. Email him at [email protected], or follow him on LinkedIn.

Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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