How Technology is Helping the Construction Industry Face a Shrinking Workforce

By Poornima Apte, Contributor

The construction industry has a serious problem: chronic labor shortages. A whopping 94 percent of industry professionals surveyed found it difficult to recruit construction workers, according to the 2019 USG + U.S. Chamber of Commerce Commercial Construction Index.

In an industry that has always valued tradition and rigor, technology is increasingly being seen as a way to mitigate labor shortage issues.

Colorado-based construction company Hensel Phelps has felt the effects of this pattern, as well, and it’s using technology to deliver efficiencies wherever it can.

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Technology for Efficient Training

If a construction site is bristling with hazards, most workers—through efficient training—can easily identify and avoid them. The problem is when the site changes often or when hazards are more insidious, says Jeremy Sibert, director of technology at Hensel Phelps. No amount of tutorial, classroom-based training can fully prepare a worker for a situation that is constantly in flux.

That is where mixed reality (MR) comes in. MR, usually engaged with through a headset, overlays virtual objects onto the real-world environment. Case in point: Hensel Phelps is experimenting with plugging the 360-degree photos it takes of job sites and incorporating them into a 3D model. This model is then uploaded to an MR device like the Microsoft Hololens.

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An onsite worker who wears this device will see the construction site, as well as pictures of the hazards overlaid onto it. The worker can then “play” with various scenarios in order to familiarize themselves with potential hazards; this will trigger associated video training tutorials depending on the hazard at hand. “By putting those [hazards] in a MR environment, we can simulate any number of those conditions at any stage of construction, from earth work through finishes,” says Sibert.

Customizing such models for each and every site, however, would be time-intensive and expensive. Consequently, Hensel Phelps is looking to create more general models that incorporate every kind of potential hazard. Since these classroom models are not site-specific, they are less expensive and faster to produce, and are good enough to train workers with. The MR will complement—not replace—video and classroom training.

Sibert says that Hensel Phelps registers a significantly lower worker accident rate compared to the rest of the industry. “All our low-hanging fruit is gone, so we’re looking to technology to drive the last few accidents—even finger scrapes—out of our company,” he says.

Technology for the Design Process

“Businesses want more complex buildings faster, and construction schedules are getting shorter. So we’re [using technology] to deliver efficiencies on our projects to offset the declining labor force available to us,” Sibert says.

“Businesses want more complex buildings faster, and construction schedules are getting shorter. So we’re [using technology] to deliver efficiencies on our projects to offset the declining labor force available to us.”

—Jeremy Sibert, director of technology, Hensel Phelps

Many construction companies, including Skanska and Skystone, are turning to building information modeling (BIM), a faster and more transparent process that captures every datapoint of a construction design. For example, BIM will have information about how many columns a building will have, their placement, materials, the types of nails used to anchor related elements, the distance between columns, etc. Furthermore, BIM captures the interdependencies between disparate pieces of data. If the design engineer moves two columns two feet further apart than they were originally designed, for instance, the related parameters—such as the load on each column or the number of trusses needed—will adjust accordingly.

Such computer simulations model what-if scenarios more effectively and faster so teams can identify which design is best. Engineers don’t have to redo all of the math every time they change a single parameter—BIM will do that technical work for them.

Technology to Aid the Sales Team

Equally exciting, notes Sibert, Hensel Phelps uses BIM as a sales tool.

Traditionally the company would build precise and costly physical brick-and-mortar mock-ups of models—a surgical operating room, for example—so healthcare customers could walk through and approve or suggest changes.

Now Hensel Phelps relies on BIM and virtual reality (VR) instead. The company uses Dell’s precision line of computing workstations to process BIM software models and upload them into VR headsets. Potential clients can wear these headsets and see what the construction will look like.

The cost savings of such an approach can be hard to quantify. “But it’s easy math to realize that otherwise we would have to build several hundred-thousand dollar mock-ups that we’d later have to destroy,” Sibert points out. “That physical construction and demolition is a lot of waste.”

Technology to Accurately Count Labor Hours

When construction takes place, effectively counting private contractor hours can pose another business challenge, Sibert explains. Traditionally, a radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag attached to a helmet or badge can be scanned by a reader when a worker walks in and out of a job site. But the process is not very efficient when the points of entry onto a site are not well-defined. If, for example, a job fence does not form a clear entrance, workers often squeeze in from multiple locations, bypassing RFID scanners.

Heavy-duty computing resources are helping Hensel Phelps implement technologies that deliver efficiencies with every step of the process—from worker training to design approval.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) algorithms that are trained to identify and detect humans can provide a more accurate headcount. First, AI and ML algorithms are programmed against a large dataset of pictures so they can learn what humans actually look like. Second, cameras are positioned so that they create a virtual “fence line.” When movement is detected across the line, the camera assumes a worker has passed through and takes a picture of that person. The technology compares that picture against its existing database to identify the worker.

For now, the technology can only identify humans and count them. “The next, harder step would be to identify the company they work for,” Sibert says. Since each job can involve multiple workers deployed from various contractors, counting heads this way gives greater transparency into billable hours instead of relying solely on filed reports.

Heavy-duty computing resources are helping Hensel Phelps implement technologies that deliver efficiencies with every step of the process—from worker training to design approval. “When we take all of those together, we really start to see the efficiencies add up,” Sibert says.

And that’s just what the construction landscape needs. “Our hope is that as an industry, technology will help us overcome the challenges with a lower labor force,” Sibert says. “With technology, we’re already seeing how we can do more with less.”