6 Ways to Go Lean with Construction Technology

This post originally appeared on the Lean Construction Blog.

The Lean movement is gaining popularity in the construction world, and with good reason–it's about cutting out waste and increasing value-added activities. Who wouldn't want that?

Among a myriad of other benefits, removing waste from the process drives greater profits, reduces risk, improves safety, shortens schedules, and improves relationships. Some types of waste as defined by Lean including: 1) Excess Transportation, 2) Inventory, 3) Unnecessary Motion, 4) Waiting, 5) Overprocessing, 6) Overproduction, 7) Defects and 8) Under-utilized Talent. A previous post covered this topic greater in depth.

In addition to tackling these wastes with typical lean processes such as the Last Planner System, 5S, Value Stream Mapping, etc., how can you leverage technology to reduce waste? Below are six categories of technology that you should be looking at.

1) Web and Mobile-based Project Management / Collaboration Software

While this may be the least sexy category of technology, it is arguably the most necessary. A professional's day in the AEC industry comprises of up to 55-65% waste1. So much of this is from looking for information, double data entry into multiple systems, aggregating data from multiple systems, creating endless spreadsheets for tracking logs that (should create themselves automatically), slow connection speeds, not having the information in the field when you need it, etc.

If you're still using Excel and Outlook to manage your projects, or old server-based technology that doesn't give people all the information they need on any device at any time... it's time for a change.

2) Virtual Design and Construction (VDC) / Building Information Modeling (BIM)

While there are some nuances between VDC and BIM, the two terms are used interchangeably to refer to 3D model-based design and coordination tools. Hopefully your superintendent can look at a 2D plan and see the finished space in his head, but the truth is that most people can't. Having a 3D model for the project will allow the client to get a much better sense of the final product and be able to make better decisions before construction starts. This cuts down on late-stage change orders and rework.

If you take the next step into using clash detection to model and coordinate your MEP systems along with the architectural and structural models, you can really improve productivity, enable prefabrication, and drastically cut down on waste from field coordination and field modifications.

You can go a step further even, into 4D modeling (against the construction schedule) and 5D modeling (which brings in cost information), but for most non-mega projects, you get the most bang for your buck with 3D models and clash detection. Tools are coming out now that automate the MEP modeling and routing in a clash-free manner, further removing waste from the process.

3) Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR/VR)

Augmented and Virtual Reality are to 3D models as 3D models are to 2D drawings. In truth, the jump to AR/VR visualization may be even more extreme than the jump to 3D models in its ability to let anyone visualize the space.

The really exciting thing about this technology is that you don't only visualize it, but you can interact with it. If you're designing a new operating room in a hospital, doctors can virtually walk through the space and grab equipment like umbilical arms and move them around virtually to ensure they have the proper clearances and working room. You can enable multi-player experiences with AR where many people are walking around inside the same model, seeing what each other are seeing, and updating the models by pushing walls with their hands. You can create an RFI, obtain the official response, and update the design documents all within a single collaborative AR session. That sure beats the typical 10 day turnaround time!

4) Worker Enhancement / Replacement

We're seeing exoskeletons hit the market that can do a lot of the grunt work for you. They'll allow you to pick up hundreds of pounds, they'll hold tools such as large drills so that you can just point them at a concrete wall while they take all of the force and effort of drilling the holes. Other tools are location-aware and know exactly where to cut as long as you keep them close to the right location.

Besides human labor, entire structures are being 3D printed now and various companies are making automated brick and cinder block-laying machines. Technologies like these are enhancing the human potential–you could be producing much more work with much less effort.

5) Sensors and Wearables

You know that your crews are wasting time walking and searching for what they need when they could be getting work done, but do you know how much time they’re wasting? If you were tracking them with current technologies you'd be able to see exactly how much time they spend working and how much time they spend making trips. Besides how much time, you could also find out how far they walked, how many trips they took, what times they left and arrived, etc.

This would make any issues immediately apparent–showing you exactly where you need to optimize the workspace, and in the meantime, your timecards could be automatically created.

Beyond that, what if you knew everyone's heart rate at any given time? You'd know who is getting fatigued and could respond accordingly. What if you knew the temperature, airborne particulate counts, and other hazardous atmospheric conditions for every location on the jobsite with automated alerts to workers and supervisors?

6) Automated Scheduling

You think you're pretty good at scheduling, eh? Well, did you analyze 15 million possible schedule configurations based on quantities pulled from a BIM model and crew size and productivity information? When the model changes, can you automatically analyze another 15 million configurations and pick the best one? Didn't think so. Technologies are coming out that automate scheduling, removing the labor to create a schedule while also removing the waste of inefficiencies in the schedule.

Conclusion

Construction technology is a rapidly changing field with the potential to remove incredible amounts of waste from the construction process. Top companies will achieve dramatic efficiency gains over their competitors through technology. Top talent, especially young talent, will want to work at the companies with the most innovative systems and processes.

Do the lean and profitable thing and make technology a priority, not an afterthought.

Josh Newland

I love all things construction, technology, and especially construction technology! Also a big DIY fan and find myself at Home Depot at least three out of four weekends a month..