Management Perspective: Wearable Technology Will Change Construction

As was the case with computer-aided drafting or building information modeling, adoption of wearable technology is happening selectively. In Pittsburgh, contractors are dipping their toes into the water or exploring the emerging technologies for the right application.

Mascaro’s Bill Derence was enthusiastic about the application of wearables for the jobsite, although he admitted that Mascaro wasn’t employing it yet.

“It’s going to have a big impact,” he asserts. “We had a company here from CMU, Sole Power, that makes a device that fits in the sole of a shoe that tracks that a worker is on the site. For safety applications, the device can check with the building model to see if the worker is in an area they should not be. We’re also looking at a similar technology in vests, which are easier to pass from one worker to another than something located in a shoe or sole.”

Wearable technology involves the adaptation of technology to the clothing and protective equipment worn by workers on job sites. There are a number of enhancements being used for workers today, many of which are low technology. What has construction futurists excited is the application of emerging technologies, like robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) or augmented reality to make construction projects run smoother and safer. For an industry that is facing a demographic black hole in its workforce, technology offers an enticing solution.

Today’s available technology in wearables appears mainly in smart helmets (including vision), smart vests and smart footwear. Among the low technology add-ons to construction clothing that are in the market now are almost exclusively improvements to worker safety. In some form, these low-tech wearables are already being used in Pittsburgh.

“Because of the silica regulations, we’re using helmets that have built-in respirators. It’s hard to think that we ever did things without these helmets,” says Brett Pitcairn, president of PJ Dick Special Projects Group. “There are also safety gloves with Teflon strips on the fingers to prevent cuts. They have a plastic skeleton in them that prevents injury. We require them of anyone in the field who is doing any cutting.”

With advancements in battery technology, manufacturers are introducing more heated and cooled vests for workers. These vests make workers more comfortable and, in extreme weather, reduce the risk of hypothermia and hyperthermia. Alert buttons are more commonly being added or integrated into vests to allow workers to signal an emergency or call for help.

The more intriguing enhancements to vests involve the use of sensors to monitor both the environment and the worker’s condition. Smart vests can include biometric sensors to alert field supervision about the health of the workers on the site. Monitoring heart rate or brain wave activity can warn that a worker is becoming drowsy or experiencing distress. Hydration and nutrition can be monitored to keep workers healthier and more productive.

Smart vests using tracking technology have a myriad of applications in the field. Tracking devices like Spot-R clips can be attached to the vest or made integral. Using global positioning satellite (GPS) information to track the vest allows supervisors to ascertain the number and location of the workers on the job site. Using GPS coordinates or a building information model (BIM), smart vests can give an alert when a worker enters an area that they should avoid or is unsafe. Workers can be warned when they are in danger of close proximity to heavy equipment or when the work environment has become hazardous for human health. Caterpillar has introduced Cat Detect for Personnel, which uses radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology to locate workers. Using RFID badges in vests or boots, Cat Detect is signaled when workers are within unsafe proximity to heavy equipment.

Smart helmets and glasses allow workers to use technology to have information about the construction site that would otherwise be unavailable except on paper. Smart helmets employ eye level displays that can give workers instructions about their tasks or guidance about the job site that will improve safety and productivity. This can include videos about installation or equipment operation, or drawings displayed. Integrated with the BIM model or CAD drawings, smart helmets can provide workers with the drawings that relate to where the worker is physically located in the building, along with any notes about field decisions or updates that have been made.

Smart helmets also represent the medium for using virtual reality (VR) or AR to bring the drawings to life for the worker. These two technologies are often confused as interchangeable, but each serves a different function. VR creates a visualization of a scene that does not exist while AR adds visuals to scenes that exist. Video games use VR to display the world in which the game is played. The Snapchat filter that lets you put dog ears or huge teeth on a photo is an application of AR.

Both AR and VR can be displayed using technology-enhanced safety goggles, like Microsoft’s HoloLens. Certified as protective eyewear, HoloLens can be used in addition to a smart helmet to have the user visualize how an unfinished space will look. The more practical construction application for the goggles is to augment the space as it exists by viewing elements taken – at scale – from the BIM model in their installed locations.

“We’re using AR in HoloLens goggles with the 3-D model built into the glasses, so you can go into finished space and see where the runs and chases are located,” explains Drew Kerr, business development manager for Turner Construction. “The other way we use it is to view finished interior studs to see where the mechanical and electrical systems are supposed to go. It can help with quality control to check how accurate the installation of the MEP systems have gone.”

Smart footwear is the third category of wearable technology that has gained a foothold (pun intended) in construction. Boots and work shoes are fitted with lights, RFID/GPS badges, sensors and communications devices. Pittsburgh-based Sole Power outfits its work boots with all of this kind of technology, plus a kinetic charger that re-charges the boot’s battery with each step. Like with other wearables, smart footwear can be used to track and monitor workers in much the same way as vests and helmets.

These wearable applications are gaining ground throughout the industry worldwide. A fourth category of wearables, exoskeletons and bionic suits, have fewer products in the market but also have enormous upside potential for the industry. There have been no adopters of exoskeletons or other bionic suits in Pittsburgh yet (or at least none that would admit it). Bionic suits or exoskeletons add mechanical strength to human activity, making it possible for workers to multiply their own strength on job sites. Bionic suits can increase a person’s ability to lift, reducing fatigue, improving the amount of material a worker can move, and making heavy tools feel weightless. Workers will be able to do more with better results, increasing productivity and decreasing work-related injuries.

The benefits of wearable technology are multi-layered. Workers in the field can gain dramatic increases in efficiency and productivity, while improving the safety of their working conditions. Companies can monitor their job sites to mitigate unsafe situations and optimize the environment in which its craftspersons operate. Wearables can enhance communications, minimize the time to solve field questions, alert first responders when an accident or other emergency occurs, and ensure that skilled workers have the best information available to complete their assignments.

A more nuanced benefit is the ability to collect data from the construction site, an opportunity to build a data set of all activities that occur on a job site. Over time – aggregated with the same kinds of data from thousands of job sites – managers will be able to predict job site behavior and isolate the activities that are most useful or most unsafe. Combined with advanced robotics, the data gleaned from tracking wearable technology may enable automation of many construction tasks, developments that could solve the workforce problem over the long haul.

There are a few hurdles to overcome between now and the full automation of the construction job site. For all the potential benefits of wearable technology, there are also intrusions. Biometric monitoring should be outside the realm of HIPPA but the worker’s right to keep medical conditions private has not been tested legally. Workers would also have to buy in to using devices or clothing that they may perceive as less comfortable, more confining or too intrusive. A generation of ironworkers had to be convinced that the benefits of tying off outweighed the perceived loss of productivity. Companies that collect and apply the big data that will result from just a few years of wearable technology performance will have to figure out what is proprietary and what should be shared for the good of the industry. Technology manufacturers are likely to have to defend the intellectual property of advances, maybe against their own customers.

“There are challenges to setting up the infrastructure,” acknowledges Hahna Alexander, co-founder and CEO of SolePower. “The first is actually worker buy-in. The culture between workers, supervisors and safety managers is critical. People don’t want to feel like they are being bar-coded."

“There there is the challenge of what connectivity solution will be used and that requires some level of investment by the company. There can also be transmission difficulties if the job site is near water or metal. The other infrastructure issue has to do with where the device is stored at the end of the day, how it’s charged and how people check in each day. A wearable device can be worn by different people day-to-day.”

These are but a few of the challenges that face the industry as it begins to embrace the advantages of job site technology. The upside of that embrace – fewer accidents, better productivity and quality, a deeper understanding of what works and what does not – is too attractive not to pursue. And if emerging technology has taught us anything during the past 20 years, it’s that technology pursued comes to fruition much sooner than expected. The time to plan for using wearable technology is now.

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Tagged Construction, Technology, Smart Technology