AR/VR and Wearables: Shaping the Future of Construction

Written BY

Emily Friedman

February 13, 2019

Bechtel, Caterpillar, CDM Smith, MacDonald-Miller Facility Solutions, Martin Brothers Construction, Brady Services, Rogers-O’Brien Construction… These are just a few of the engineering and construction players who recognize the potential for wearables, AR and VR to increase efficiency and productivity, facilitate better communication and collaboration, and improve safety on the job site.

When we last checked in on the construction industry, the difficulty of implementing wearables posed a great challenge. The devices weren’t robust enough, IT departments were unprepared, etc. Solution providers have since worked to make their products more suitable for construction environments, and companies are increasingly developing PoCs, setting up pilots, and thinking ahead. The construction industry is in need of disruption by wearable technology for a number of reasons:

Poor Safety

Safety is a top priority on every construction project and yet working in construction – as a laborer, equipment operator, steel worker, carpenter – is still one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. The most workplace accidents? Construction. One of the highest rates of fatal injuries? Construction. OSHA has even dubbed a nickname, the Fatal Four, for the leading causes of construction worker deaths: Falls, electrocutions, getting struck by an object, and getting caught in/between objects. Sadly, the number of deaths in this industry has been steadily increasing, but emerging technologies present new opportunities to make the construction site safer.

Rising Demand, Expectations and Costs vs. Shortage of Skilled Labor

Infrastructure and housing needs are growing globally; so too is the scale and complexity of construction projects as older infrastructure needs replacing and climate change challenges our communities. On top of demand, material and labor costs are rising; and customer expectations as well as the nature of contracting are changing: Customers want high-performing (sustainable) buildings, shorter timeframes, and less financial risk. E&C firms are being asked to adopt green construction practices and assume costs as contracting shifts toward public-private partnerships and lump-sum, turnkey contracts. Competition for bids is increasing, as well, as clients demand unbundled contracts in order to cherry-pick among subcontractor offers.

All of the above might be manageable if not for a serious labor and managerial shortage. Employers are struggling to staff job sites and to stay on schedule for projects. Several factors are contributing to this problem:

  • The industry laid off 40% of its workforce (2.3M jobs) during the last recession. Many of those workers did not return.
  • There is less emphasis today on the trades and technical training in schools.
  • Aging workers are leaving the job faster than they can be replaced.

And so, firms are forced to spend more money for slimmer profits; raising wages to recruit workers, shelling out healthcare and workers’ compensation costs, and paying higher prices for supplies.

Simply put, construction companies need to find and train skilled labor fast. They need to be more productive with less if, as the McKinsey Global Institute estimates, the world will have to spend $57 trillion on infrastructure by 2030.

Uncertain Times

In the U.S. and among America’s trade partners, there is a feeling of uncertainty under the current administration. Trade conflicts have already raised raw material prices. Will new immigration policies further weaken the construction labor force? Will there be steady federal funding of infrastructure projects? To say the least, E&C firms may have to quickly adjust to the whims of the White House.

Industry Trends vs. Old Ways

Although one of the world economy’s largest sectors, Construction is one of the least “digitized” and least productive industries. It’s also wasteful in terms of time, labor and materials; and very much stuck in its ways, including being slow to adopt new technology and underinvesting in IT and R&D.

A typical large-scale construction project takes 20% longer to finish than scheduled and comes in 80% over budget. This productivity problem is, of course, a result of the labor shortage but the nature of construction itself also impairs productivity: Construction projects are highly fragmented and unpredictable, with multiple parties and work crews involved and remote worksites that are constantly changing as building progresses. It doesn’t help that the industry still relies mainly on paper drawings, blueprints, orders, logs and reports. And then there’s the lost-in-translation factor: Blueprints are flat but structures are three-dimensional—a discrepancy that makes communication and collaboration difficult. With the architect of the building, the owner and the various contractors working off of different versions of reality; errors, order changes, delays and rework are inevitable.

Construction projects today are not being optimally coordinated, and the labor force is not being sufficiently developed or protected from harm; but there is tremendous value to be gained if only the construction industry would digitally transform. Emerging technologies including wearable devices are the answer to many of the sector’s ails; to realizing a more connected jobsite and enabling digital collaboration, and becoming more productive, timely, efficient and safe. Read on to learn how wearables are being applied in construction:

Top Applications:

Safety and Efficiency

Most construction project managers can’t tell you the number of workers on site or where those workers are located at any given time; and yet knowing where your assets are, including people, equipment and inventory, is half the battle in avoiding inefficiencies and keeping workers safe in construction. Eliminating paper from workflows (ex. taking building plans out of workers’ hands and putting them directly in their field of view) would address another major source of inefficiency.

The construction jobsite is a hectic place, with multiple contractors and their crews working at the same time, so inefficiencies can go unnoticed; but strategic use of robust sensors could make a big difference. Some companies are already turning to IoT solutions like drone surveying and automation to improve site operations. Real-time visibility into jobsite operations is the ultimate goal, giving project managers the ability to make intelligent decisions based upon real-time information. After all, how can you build smart buildings if the building site itself isn’t smart?

Real-time information comes from tracking workers (GPS and EHS sensors,) tracking inventory (RFID tags,) and monitoring equipment health and repair status. All this data yields actionable insight through advanced analytics—insight that can be pushed to the right person at the right time via wearable devices to optimize the jobsite.

Sensors in a variety of form factors can track workers’ biometrics and surroundings (ex. heart rate, fatigue, gas exposure) along with their location and movement (ex. proximity to danger zones, falls, bad form.) To this end, a number of companies are making construction safety clothing and gear “smart” with embedded sensor technology. The data can be relayed from the jobsite to determine unsafe working conditions and notify workers when dangerous levels are reached or there’s potential for injury. In addition to displaying glanceable safety info, wearables can also have a panic button feature enabling the user to call for help.

Tracking workers keeps them safe. Live location and status information also improves efficiency: Knowing where crews, materials and equipment are and how these assets flow through the work site, knowing when inventory stocks are running low, and knowing when equipment is on the verge of malfunctioning improves project coordination and jobsite organization.

A change in ergonomics would further boost safety and efficiency. Exoskeletons are a rather extreme example that will nevertheless empower construction workers to manage physically demanding tasks with less risk of injury. More practical today are smart Augmented Reality glasses: Constantly looking down at paper plans or BIM models on tablets is dangerous. –> Wearing smart glasses (or an AR helmet,) a person can look at a BIM model overlaid onto the built environment while remaining heads-up and hands-free. Conducting inspections with a checklist in hand, holding up a camera to take photos, and taking written notes is slow and not very accurate. –> Smart glasses allow for hands-free documentation of building progress (including voice memos,) the ability to annotate and update blueprints in the field, even view automated dashboards from live field data. AR glasses, and even more so Virtual Reality headsets, can also be used for faster, safer and more effective training on heavy equipment; and to visualize where assets should go in planning staging areas, supply deliveries and equipment storage.

Of course, taking the data collected from different devices on the jobsite and turning it into quality, actionable information that gives a manager or worker greater context or situational awareness is not easy. Additionally, employee tracking can be a sticky issue due to privacy concerns. And deploying digital solutions at scale, across construction sites that are geographically dispersed and essentially “shared” among firms of varying size and sophistication, is also problematic. None of this is going to get any easier, however, so waiting doesn’t put a company in a better position down the road. The time to overcome these challenges is now.

Design Visualization, Communication, and Productivity

The rise of Augmented and Virtual Reality signals a new era in design visualization. Better visualization capabilities improve communication, speed up decision making, shorten the project lifecycle, and reduce material costs. Thus, companies are developing BIM- and CAD-based design and construction solutions for AR/VR platforms.

Buildings today are usually planned out on flat screens and pieces of paper, yet 2D drawings and scale models of an architect’s 3D vision are hard for project owners to interpret, and not a foolproof guide for contractors either. The leap from 2D blueprints or even 3D models on a computer screen to the real built environment is great enough to cause misinterpretations and errors requiring changes to be made after construction is already underway; but what if you could virtually walk through a design or interact with digital content in the physical environment? That is the power of AR/VR in E&C.

Virtual Reality is useful for design conception and group design review. Multiple users wearing VR headsets, regardless of their location, can interact within the same virtual environment, identifying issues and making necessary changes before building begins. VR can also be used by project owners and builders to visualize the final space or structure. During construction, workers can use AR glasses to view schematics and detailed specs like electricity floor plans overlaid on top of the building site for guidance, helping them work faster and avoid mistakes.

AR and VR also enhance communication, as does instant documentation and sharing of information enabled by hands-free wearables. Disagreements, mistakes and delays arise on a construction project when not every stakeholder is able to envision the design and provide feedback; information sharing is slow and imprecise; and different contractors use different platforms for design and project planning. Everyone involved, from the architect/engineer to the end user, needs to understand the design; and contractors need to be able to communicate in a standardized way, providing updates on building progress, cost and schedule.

Smart glasses present a quick and accurate way to capture, view, update and convey jobsite information. Visual information is universally understood—smart glasses can take photos and record video via voice command; and that data can be integrated into live building models and workflows, and shared with off-site decision makers and remote experts in real time to more effectively explain and respond to issues.

AR/VR in the design process and to share ideas increases productivity, with virtual reality having a bigger impact on the design side (facilitating group design, expediting design review) and augmented reality helping out on the construction site. Smart glasses help construction go smoother and faster in several ways:

  • Augmented work instructions and other (real-time) task-based information in one’s FOV: On-the-ground crew can access information while working with their hands, wearing gloves or using tools.
  • Direct, hands-free connection to remote experts and supervisors: Live photo/video/audio streaming allows for faster issue resolution and decision making; and with expert oversight lesser-skilled workers can be as productive as experienced ones.
  • AR inspections: In addition to smart glasses-enabled remote inspections, managers and contractors can wear AR glasses to view a 3D model of a building over the as-built environment, comparing the two as they walk through the site.

Despite the high implementation costs, leveraging AR/VR in construction can have tremendous ROI. The industry actually has somewhat of a head start in taking advantage of new realities thanks to advancements in visualization software like BIM and CAD; but to adopt new solutions capable of converting those platforms to VR simulations, E&C firms will have to increase IT spending.

Training and Recruiting  

Construction companies could use VR headsets to design better, make the jobsite more connected with a variety of sensors, and give AR glasses to workers to reduce errors; but that won’t be enough to make up for the fact that the skilled labor workforce is shrinking rapidly. Along with attracting and training new talent, E&C firms must harness the knowledge of industry veterans and even prolong their careers if possible.  

Augmented and Virtual Reality present new paradigms for training employees to perform complex procedures and physical tasks, including emergency safety procedures, operating a crane, etc. It has been shown that experiential learning is more effective than using written or video material to transmit skills. Virtual Reality immersion is the next best thing to hands-on learning in the field, and a more ideal method for preparing workers for real-life situations on the jobsite than the static, standard training most construction workers receive today. And new tech like AR/VR is attractive to Millennial workers who are able to transition skills learned in virtual reality to the real world more easily.

Thanks to smart glasses, new workers can also train on the job without risking the integrity of the project (i.e. without making rookie mistakes and hurting quality.) Following step-by-step instructions in a heads-up display and receiving real-time remote guidance from older, more experienced workers—that’s learning by doing, and it accomplishes training while also contributing to building progress.

Exoskeletons might help extend the physical careers of aging workers, but smart glasses offer a more realistic, immediate proposition for preserving these employees. By wearing smart glasses to record their work from a first-person point of view, older workers can capture their knowledge for the next generation, creating training material for new recruits to reference on the jobsite using the same devices. And, of course, the most experienced workers can continue to provide remote support, viewing the jobsite through another’s eyes (or smart glasses) once the physical demands of the job become too much. So instead of a mass exodus of talent, smart glass technology could help transfer the value of older skilled workers from the construction site to a central planning office.

Much of this technology is expensive, especially the Augmented Reality helmet and exoskeletons, and challenging to implement given the rugged conditions and remote locations of most construction sites. But consider the productivity and safety gains, weighing these against the rising costs of workplace injuries; need to grow and empower the workforce to balance out the loss of retiring workers; new design possibilities, etc. From sensors embedded in familiar PPE to strength- (and safety-) enhancing robotic suits, perhaps the most attractive potential benefit of wearable technologies in construction is the cost savings. Better trained workers have fewer accidents; more informed workers make fewer errors; a connected jobsite eliminates inefficiencies; and wearable-enhanced communication prevents common hiccups. The result is less injury-related costs, fewer expensive building delays and rework, projects completed on time and within budget, more satisfied customers, and more profit. That’s the bottom line.

photo credit: dmitryzhkov 2_DSC8644 via photopin (license)

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