Illustration: Greg Mably
The construction industry can be a mess. When constructing any building, there are several steps you must take in a specific order, so a snag in one step tends to snowball into more problems down the line. You can’t start on drywall until the plumbers and electricians complete their work, for example, and if the drywall folks are behind, the crew working on the interior finish gets delayed even more.
Developers and general contractors hope that by adopting Internet of Things (IoT) solutions to cut costs, build faster, and use a limited labor pool more efficiently, they can turn the messy, fragmented world of building construction into something more closely resembling what it actually is—a manufacturing process.
“We’re looking at the most fragmented and nonstructured process ever, but it is still a manufacturing process,” says Meirav Oren, the CEO of Versatile Natures, an Israeli company that provides on-site data-collection technology to construction sites. The more you understand the process, says Oren, the better you are at automating it. In other conversations I’ve had with people in the construction sector, the focus isn’t on prefabricated housing or cool bricklaying robots. The focus is on turning construction into a regimented process that can be better understood and optimized.
Like agriculture—which has undergone its own revolution, thanks to connected tech—construction is labor intensive, dependent on environmental factors, and highly regulated. In farming today, lidar identifies insects while robots pick weeds with the aid of computer vision. The goal in agricultural tech is to make workers more efficient, rather than eliminating them. Construction technology startups, using artificial intelligence and the IoT, have a similar goal.
Oren’s goal, for example, is to make construction work more like a typical manufacturing process by using a sensor-packed device that’s mounted to a crane to track the flow of materials on a site. Versatile Natures’ devices also monitor environmental factors, such as wind speed, to make sure the crane isn’t pushed beyond its capabilities.
Another construction-tech startup, Pillar Technologies of New York City, aims to reduce the impact of on-site environments on workers’ safety and construction schedules. Pillar makes sensors that measure eight environmental metrics, including temperature, humidity, carbon monoxide, and particulates. The company then uses the gathered data to evaluate what is happening at the site and to make predictions about delays, such as whether the air is too humid to properly drywall a house.
Because many work crews sign up for multiple job sites, a delay at one site often means a delay at others. Alex Schwarzkopf, cofounder and CEO of Pillar, hopes that one day Pillar’s devices will use data to monitor construction progress and then inform general contractors in advance that the plumbers are behind, for example. That way, the contractor can reschedule the drywall group or help the plumbers work faster.
Construction is full of fragmented processes, and understanding each fragment can lead to an improvement of the whole. As Oren says, there is a lot of low-hanging fruit in the construction industry, which means that startups can attack a small individual problem and still make a big impact.
This article appears in the June 2019 print issue as “Deconstructing the Construction Industry.”