Forget 3D printers for now think about wearables
There’s a lot of hype around technologies that will change the future like 3D printing an
21 October, 2015 3 min read
There’s a lot of hype around technologies that will change the future like 3D printing and advanced robotics. Talk of the demise of the construction worker is never far away from reports of printed skyscrapers and bricklaying robots.
But while technologies like 3D printing may eventually transform what it means to be a construction worker, there’s a very long way to go before conventional building practices are replaced by machines.
This is not because of the technology itself, but because you can’t just plug 3D printers and robots into a typical construction site. As MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee explain, change on this scale means redesigning the processes, skills and organisations that make up the very DNA of an industry. That takes decades.
Captivated by images of a technological revolution, it’s easy to lose sight of the technological evolution unfurling right now. One such change that has the potential to very soon affect the everyday working lives of construction workers is the advent of ‘wearable’ technology.
If you’ve heard of ‘wearables’ you’re probably thinking the Apple Watch, Google Glass and FitBit. These products, little more than fashion accessories, are the most popular type of wearables at the moment but haven’t yet proven their usefulness at significantly improving people’s daily lives.
More relevant examples to the construction industry are found outside the consumer space. The ABC reported recently on a group of Australian researchers who have developed a vibrating vest to help military helicopter pilots fly safer in dangerous conditions.
For several years now, the construction industry has been adopting smartphones and tablets to access and share project data from remote work sites. Wearable devices like smartglasses, smartwatches, and smart clothing are the next logical step in the mobile evolution.
Staple PPE items, like hard hats and vests, can be equipped with sensors, monitors and ID readers. Smart PPE can measure distances, display drawings, check work done and track location.
One early application is likely to be wearables that monitor key health and safety indicators (workers’ vitals, repetitive motion and fatigue) and transmit this data back to a site’s nerve centre where worker safety can be monitored in real time.
This is not science fiction. Companies like Human Condition are already developing the next generation of safety clothing for the construction industry that boasts many of these features.
Now, it’s easy to get excited about the possibilities. But these technologies need to crack some major dependencies before they can be mainstreamed.
For one thing, they rely on massive data capabilities that most contractors simply don’t possess. We all know that our industry still operates by old rules, and it isn’t quick to adopt a fad. This means wearable tech won’t be taken up unless and until workers believe it will help them build something.
Not only will the industry need to be convinced that wearables are in their commercial interests, they will also need to know they don’t need an IT degree to operate them. This points toward fully-managed, end-to-end solutions that are as user-friendly as an iPhone, (and don’t require an IT department).
On top of all that, tracking a worker’s position and activity at all times will bring ethical, privacy and industrial challenges.
Despite these barriers, wearables for the construction industry has great prospects. It may prove to be the top of a slippery slope for technological transformation of our industry – once accepted, a lot more will come.