OP-ED: How technology is changing communication in construction

By Dan Mehls 

Dan Mehls, Vice President and General Manager of Mortenson Portland's quarterly OP-ED piece for the DJC Oregon.

It’s no secret we’re experiencing a construction boom. Portland alone is experiencing rapid growth in hotel construction, with an estimated 900 rooms coming online in the near future. On a national level, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in March that there was an increase of 36,000 construction jobs in January. However, with strong employment figures pointing to industry strength in the near future, those firms need to monitor for possible inflation that could push material and labor costs higher.

Even given the current boom and risk of increased labor costs, the construction industry has always been slow to adopt new technologies. According to McKinsey, as these projects grow more complex and larger in scale, the need for environmentally sensitive construction means the industry’s traditional practices must be enhanced – and technology plays a large role in this.

Five areas have been identified that will help create a digital construction organization. They are: 1, higher-definition surveying and geolocation; 2, next-generation 5-D building information modeling; 3, digital collaboration and mobility; 4, Internet of Things and advanced analytics; and 5, future-proof design and construction. Over the years, Mortenson has looked for opportunities to improve upon processes through technology in the aforementioned categories.

Prior to virtual drawings, construction offices used to be two times larger so that project teams could lay out design plans on desks to review. Now, with virtual drawings, multiple people are able to review changes together and incorporate edits easily on a computer.

Previously, jobsites had to be surveyed manually. This was a time-consuming activity that lacked precision. With the availability of surveying tools such as total station, these processes have become more streamlined.

Modeling scanners also have proven to be helpful in the surveying and design phase of a project. 3-D scanners make it possible to provide real, lifelike images of a piece of land, location or existing building to make well-informed calculations. Now there are 4-D virtual models that account for the project schedule and show all construction phases. There are also 5-D virtual models, which reveal how project costs will be impacted by design changes.

Technology has dramatically changed communication on the jobsite and created a more collaborative working construction environment. These days, our teams are out in the field using texts and radios to stay in touch. All foremen are equipped with iPads so that they have immediate access to drawings, schedules, time sheets and emails at all times. Our teams also utilize programs like Bluebeam to make annotations and comments within scale drawings simultaneously.

The planning process has vastly improved due to new software available. Before, basic spreadsheets were the best way to map out the construction schedule. This not only was time-consuming but also required constant maintenance if adjustments needed to be made to the timeline. With scheduling programs like Primavera, teams can map out project schedules that take into account building environment constraints. Then, with clash detection software, all architectural, structural, mechanical, electrical and plumbing plans can be inputted into the system where they are merged, and conflicts are identified. This prevents unnecessary changes in the field, which could lead to safety hazards, delays and costly mistakes. Clash detection software has enabled our teams to take a prefabricated approach to the work we do. It allows for a higher quality of work and an efficient layout that is ultimately more cost-effective.

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technology have played a large role in improving traditional construction practices. With the use of VR and AR, the need for physical mock-ups has been eliminated, reducing project costs and design phases significantly through increased communication efficiencies. We are able to draw design plans and create mock-ups virtually and share them with teams instantly, providing open access to project information for key stakeholders.

The ability to experience and evaluate the spaces early averts many costly reconfigurations during and after construction, accelerating project delivery and shaving costs along the way. Inside the VR environment, all users are equipped with a virtual pen to draw comments and suggest alterations in real time. Video and images of each VR session can be captured and shared, and changes can be cataloged for the project team to reference.

The advancements in technology that have enabled us to share information with multiple people with great speed have been extremely beneficial to our teams. Mortenson has always been dedicated to adapting new forms of technology to improve traditional industry practices. The ability and desire to digitize these processes helps troubleshoot problems before construction begins, which keeps projects on time and on budget.

However, while technology has streamlined and improved the way we deliver projects to our clients, it does not replace relationships. As technology continues to advance at a rapid pace, it will remain paramount that project teams continue to work together and communicate to produce the best possible products for customers and the communities we serve.

Dan Mehls is the vice president and general manager of Mortenson Construction’s Portland office.