Kris Lappala, CIO, Kiewit
The current measure of efficiency in the construction industry is in units of millions of dollars of revenue per man year. That benchmark has been $1M/MY for the last 20 years. What the industry has realized, much as the automotive industry did when faced with the same issue, is embracing technology can lead to dramatic efficiencies and ultimately deliver game-changing ways to change the industry for the better.
An Approach that Makes Sense
Much of the construction industry is still based on tribal knowledge or “gut feel”. Fifteen-year-plus veterans “just know” how projects are running and what “good” and “bad” looks like. However, in order to improve efficiency, the industry finds itself needing to be more data driven and more predictive.
Then there is the recruiting and people side of the business. Today, young engineering grads and craft workers have grown up using technology and more specifically mobile technology. They not only expect their employer to embrace mobile technology, they demand it. The existence of mobile solutions in the construction industry is going beyond its use purely for efficiency gain. It is becoming a necessary recruiting and retaining tool for top employees.
Not unlike other industries, construction has gone down the path of standardizing and digitizing data and processes, including ERPs, big-data analytics and the cloud. To gain the true value from technology solutions, the construction industry must put the data and technology in the hands of the people who make the money for their companies—those in the field. However, the issue only grows increasingly complex at that point. Connectivity to job sites is a three-part problem: 1. Connectivity to the job; 2. Connectivity at the job; and 3. Timely delivery of connectivity to the job sites.
Delivering of Connectivity to the Job
The first issue is connectivity to the job site. Most agree that the “Internet of Things”—i.e. all things with an IP address connected to a network—is coming and will continue to change the way companies do business. Mobile devices in the hands of workers, and network-connected sensors on bridges and in concrete, will give the industry data that it has never had before. It will provide the foresight to change and improve on traditional processes and drive efficiency in business. However, the issue the construction industry has is connectivity. The Internet of Things only works if there is an internet. Technology only gives true benefit if it is put in the hands of the industry’s employees. In the case of construction, that is the workers in the field. The locations where the construction industry conducts its business are often remote and in harsh conditions. As Shale Oil Exploration, Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) and remote infrastructure jobs become more and more prevalent, the delivery of the bandwidth to run mobile apps and put technology in the hands of the field becomes an more burdening hurdle to overcome.
“Technology only gives true benefit if it is put in the hands of the industry’s employees”
In addition to the locations, the dynamic aspect of the construction industry adds to the issue. The mobile nature of the business requires set-up and tear-down times not currently possible with many of the telecom carriers. Even when jobs are in well-populated locations, connectivity is difficult to get in the time frames demanded by the owners.
This problem is part technology and part process. Changing the 120-year-old mindset of telecom industry that it takes 45 to 60 days to deliver a circuit to the suburbs of Dallas is no longer acceptable. Delivery of the same circuit to the swamps of British Columbia for LNG facilities is a discussion regarding whether or not it can be done at all. Over the last five years, the telecom industry has revamped its infrastructure, moving from traditional TDM based circuits to Ethernet offerings. This issue appears to be getting closer to a solution.
The construction industry looks to borrow solutions from the military and the oil and gas industries. Satellite is an option that is being used today but has the drawback of high latency.
Using microwaves for connectivity as an alternative is being adopted as well. In populated locations, this becomes a viable alternative to traditional telecom connectivity. Many companies have microwave facilities at their locations available for lease. Microwave is an alternative for remote locations purely from a technology perspective. The issue becomes the time and the cost of building microwave towers in rugged and remote locations.
Connectivity at the Job Site
Localized LTE connectivity is becoming one adopted solution. However, this requires erecting semi-permanent cell towers. The cost of materials and the time to erect the tower are the downside to this option, and this solution still requires back-haul connectivity to the corporate office. In addition to the time and cost, private LTE networks must be licensed by the FCC. In an industry where time is money, time spent on paperwork and regulations is an inhibitor.
Still, with these options, it isn’t cost effective to provide wireless coverage across a job site or lay-down yard that is hundreds of acres in size. This issue will continue to get better as the price of outdoor wireless solutions evolves. Non-technology solutions can help solve this problem. Applications are written to work offline and synchronize at the end of the day when the workers return to muster points for a wrap-up. Other solutions include outfitting vehicles that typically travel across the job site with wireless bridges, serving as mobile hot spots.
Finally, an alternative that is getting consideration is weather balloons equipped with Wi-Fi or LTE antennas.
Dark Fiber and Carrier Hotels–Beginning to Control Your Destiny
Some construction firms are turning towards creating their own dark fiber or private fiber networks that terminate in “carrier hotels.” A carrier hotel is a physical location where numerous national and local carriers share the facility and have a presence. Connecting to the last mile is almost as quick and easy as “dragging an Ethernet connection across the floor.”In addition to the speed and ease of the connection, customers are usually given access to a lot more choices for last mile carriers.
This model overcomes several barriers currently faced by the construction industry. It puts companies in charge of their own destiny. The time it takes to provision circuits shifts to days rather than weeks or months, dynamic bandwidth adjusts as the needs of the job change, and finally, overcoming the biggest delay–the dreaded last mile.
So what does the future hold? Until connectivity to the job sites and at the job sites becomes ubiquitous and commoditized, the technology solutions in the construction industry will continue to be more one-off solutions than standard. Mobile applications will continue to be developed to run in an unconnected state for most of the day. The good news is that dark fiber for lease or sale is becoming more prevalent than ever and the trend should continue. Carriers continue upgrading their infrastructures to accommodate circuit delivery in days and invest in connectivity options to remote locations. Dark fiber/private networks and carrier hoteling just might be the way of the future, too. One thing is a certainty: Once this hurdle is successfully cleared, the benefit of technology to the construction industry will take a big leap forward.