Construction technology

A 21st century approach to bolstering productivity

Just after sunrise, a construction crew gathers around a 45-inch display screen, coffee cups in hand. The site supervisor delivers a presentation outlining the day's plan. Employees with questions after the presentation quickly access their daily or weekly targets, instructions, and which materials they'll require, printing out information as needed. Fully prepped for the day's tasks, everyone gets to work.

It's a vision for the future, incorporating technology on the work site to improve communication and increase productivity. The technology, called the Information Booth, has been tested on sites as part of the Top 10 Targets of Improving Construction Productivity project, headed by Janaka Ruwanpura, director and associate professor of project management specialization at the University of Calgary's Schulich School of Engineering. The results of this project have been positive.

Initial testing showed an increase in productivity that varied from 7 to 18 per cent after implementation of the Information Booth. That percentage translates into a three-week payback period for investing in the technology if there are approximately 20 people working on site.

Finding a construction company in the province that isn't interested in increasing productivity on site in today's economy would be a difficult task. "We're on a collision course where stuff is just not going to get built unless you improve the way you increase your productivity in the field," says Kees Cusveller, branch manager of Graham Construction. Graham, along with PCL, EllisDon, Ledcor, CANA, Stuart Olson, Revay & Associates, and the Calgary Construction Association are collaborating in the Top 10 Targets study.

But innovation and the adoption of technology ”whether in the form of IT, advanced materials and processes, or robotics” hasn't been seen on a large scale on the field. The construction sector lags behind other sectors in technological innovation, particularly on the work site.

A March 2007 report put out by the Canadian Construction Innovation Council (CCIC) states that previous studies have found that the industry only increased labour productivity by 10 per cent since 1961, compared to an increase of 60 per cent by the business sector. More alarmingly, a 2001 study cited in the CCIC document reported that labour productivity in construction has declined by 30 per cent since 1981, whereas productivity grew by 25 per cent in the business sector.

"In the field, the way we've built things has been pretty much the same as it has been forever," says Cusveller, adding that while equipment may be bigger and better, the actual "art of construction" has remained the same over time. "You still build a house by pouring footings and then pouring basement walls and framing it, all manually."

There are a number of reasons for the slow adoption of technology and the lack of innovation on construction sites, but the primary cause is the risk posed to the integrity of the structure, which may not be noticed for decades.

"When you're looking at the challenges for adopting technology, you've got to look at them on the basis of a continuum," explains Gerry Meade, executive director of CCIC. "If there's a mistake, how long does that mistake sit there hidden before it comes up, and who's going to bear the risk?"

It's a classic Catch-22. Owners and contractors shy away from unproven technologies because the risk of something going wrong is perceived to be higher than the benefits. But reducing the level of risk requires that the technologies be used and tested.

Alberta's overheated economy may prove the perfect breeding ground for an increase in the utilization of technological innovations. Rising costs, the labour shortage, and jam-packed schedules have contractors, trades, and owners taking a harder look at ways to get the job done faster and cheaper. Reducing required manpower and staying on schedule were factors in CANA Construction's choice to utilize a new technology in the construction of the Calgary Courts Building. The timeline for construction of the 125-metre concrete structure was tight, with CANA required to turn over one floor each week.

The building required three separate circulation areas—one for the public, one for prisoners, and one for judges—each with it's own core to house elevators. "Having three cores as opposed to the usual single core meant that the standard method of construction using the typical forms wasn't going to cut it on that project in terms of meeting that schedule," says Fabrizio Carinelli, project manager of CANA.

Varying floor form heights and the downtown location, which didn't allow for the use of more than two cranes, posed additional challenges. CANA quickly realized it was going to have to explore non-traditional methods to get the job done and chose to utilize a self-climbing form system that had proven successful in the construction of single core office towers in the United States.

The technology involves constructing the forms as a unit, placing them on the individual cores, and using a built-in hydraulic jack system to elevate them. CANA didn't need an overhead crane system and the manpower required was reduced.

While CANA anticipated the rewards of using a self-climbing form system, it was also very aware of the risks inherent in utilizing a new technology. The company sent a team to visit sites where the system had been used and worked with form supplier EPFO until it was confident the technology would work in the application.

A backup plan was also developed. The forms were created so they could be used as a standard form system, just in case the technology didn't work out. "But that would have meant utilizing a lot more crane time and probably wouldn't have helped our schedule much," says Carinelli.

Convincing owners to allow the use of new technology is another barrier to implementation and adoption in the field. CANA has begun using Insulated Concrete Forms on a regular basis after seeing the benefits of the new technology. The company has built four warehouses using the forms and is currently constructing a large concrete structure with them, but still runs into resistance from owners who aren't familiar with the product.

"Change is a difficult thing to implement," says CANA president John Simpson. "When you come up with a better idea that will save the owner 60 to 70 per cent of their operating costs, but will cost five per cent more initially, they'll want to go back to the old technology that is tried, tested, and true."

Adoption of technology by the construction industry is most prevalent for in-house management activities. It's easier for companies to incorporate technological solutions to streamline administrative processes and improve project management because the move doesn't affect the integrity of the final products. "It's something that could cost the company money, but it's not going to leave them with a potential long-term liability," says Meade.

But the risk/reward equation still comes into play in achieving employee buy-in. When Graham introduced the Graham Toolbox in 2000, there was some resistance to the technology, particularly from older employees who didn't grow up with computers as part of daily life. Seeing the benefits of the software, which integrates Graham's core business systems, convinced everyone to get on board.

With the Graham Toolbox, the days of file folders and data duplication are gone; project members can get the information they need at the tap of a return key. "It does a lot for you," says Cusveller. "If you set up a job properly to begin with, it's a breeze to do your costing, billings, and any project administration. It's all there."

Achieving employee buy-in can be even harder on site. "Most of the field personnel, including supervisors, grow up in the field," says Cusveller. Using tried-and-true methods of construction becomes second nature, and because the methods work, there is resistance to attempts to fix what isn't broken.

Meade advocates communication and training to break down resistance to new technologies. "You've got to take the time to ensure people know what's going on and understand the benefits of them doing it that way," he says.

Ph.D. student Kasun Hewage, who developed the concept of the Information Booth, overcame resistance to the technology by involving site workers and management in the development process.

"He went on kind of a philosophical journey with the workers to find out what they wanted," says Ruwanpura. Workers were questioned as to their familiarity with technological hardware and software and then asked how the technologies could be adapted to the work environment. Managers were asked about technology adaptability concerns and how much they wanted to spend, and technology developers were interviewed to determine whether the needs of the workers and of the managers could be effectively met. "You can't just say, There's a red ball. Adapt it," says Ruwanpura. "We got opinions from the people, then we went and implemented something and it was highly practical."

An increase of a minimum of 20 per cent in worker satisfaction after implementing the technology, combined with increased productivity, proved Hewage's method of development to be effective in overcoming employees' perception of risk.

As in all business sectors, the key to innovation and utilizing new technologies lies in balancing the risks and the rewards. The challenges facing Alberta's industry could result in the provincial industry becoming a leader in the adoption and creation of productivity-enhancing technologies.

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