About a month after the COVID-19 pandemic forced millions of people indoors, a yellow mural emerged on a building in downtown Santa Monica, CA. Emblazoned with two outstretched hands – a reference to Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam –
the mural read, “After The Plague Came The Renaissance.”
The bubonic plague was the most fatal pandemic in human history, causing upward of 75 million deaths in less than a decade. But this terrible period gave way to the Renaissance, a time characterized by previously unimaginable innovations in art, science, philosophy and technology. The Renaissance alone gave birth to tools like the printing press, eyeglasses, the mechanical clock and the compass, dramatically increasing human productivity and furthering the advancement of global economies.
We may look to the Renaissance as a source of inspiration in the face of the first major pandemic in our lifetimes. The COVID-19 pandemic may have forced major lifestyle shifts, including an immediate rush toward remote and hybrid work, but it also ushered in an era of digital transformation that wasn’t set to begin for another decade or so. As the pandemic tapers off, the emergence of new technologies is sending us into an age of cutting-edge digital transformation. Companies have implemented many of these new tools to adapt to their changing circumstances, and economists predict that about 75% of the increase in remote and hybrid work associated with the pandemic will persist into the future.
The shift to remote work has been witnessed across industries, including construction. While carpenters and bricklayers remained on job sites, construction companies sent a slew of other employees home, from engineers to estimators. Now, a surge of innovations in cloud-based and remote technology have created opportunities to supplement work that traditionally could only be accomplished on site.
The pandemic certainly accelerated the construction industry’s adoption of cloud-based and remote technology. It also showed us there’s a lot more work that can be done remotely than we’d previously thought. But even as the pandemic wanes, these technologies won’t. Cloud-based and remote technologies are here to stay, and they will play a huge role in shaping the future of the construction industry.
The Case For Remote Work In Construction
Companies’ reticence toward remote work in the past has been rooted in the belief that it would lead to wasted time and low productivity, imagining their employees kicking back on the couch instead of engaging in collaborative work. However, this old-fashioned stigma has been proven incorrect.
Remote work actually yields greater productivity rates , which is good news for both employers and employees. Offering a flexible work schedule that enables work from home allows employees to work during the hours they naturally feel most productive while minimizing outside distractions. Additionally, eliminating tiresome and lengthy commutes increases employee energy and satisfaction while creating opportunities to find the best talent, whose geographic location is no longer an issue. According to the U.S. Census, construction workers face the longest commute times of all professions and are more likely to commute by car.
Technologies that empower remote collaboration, change management, risk management, safety and quality have immense potential to make construction jobs easier and safer. For example, empowered by smart cloud technology, Intergraph Smart® P&ID software develops and manages piping and instrumentation diagrams. Connecting tasks between engineering, construction, and operations, all engineering information is remotely kept up to date to accurately reflect the as-built plant, empowering swift and accurate decision-making that greatly improves the quality of work.
Similarly, HxGN SDx® Operations makes efficiency and transparency possible for all project stakeholders, creating a digital thread running across all phases of a project to provide a comprehensive, sharable digital twin of the project. This digital project is seamlessly handed over to operations, where SDx Operations empowers safe and efficient operations in facilities by putting the power of standardized, easily accessible information in the hands of workers. Whether they’re on the job site, in an office, or hundreds of miles away at a conference, workers have access to the information that enables them to make informed decisions, reduce risk and streamline operations.
Remote Training Is The Trend Of The Future
Remote tools can also optimize the training process, providing a safe and valuable opportunity for employees to understand the intricacies of the job without stepping foot on the job site and gain skills that can be applied across projects.
One remote tool that has enabled safety and training is the digital twin. As engineers create the next generation of nuclear reactor facilities, the use of digital twins provides reactor operators with an unprecedented level of monitoring, control, and security. Instead of relying on a predetermined maintenance schedule, a digital twin can assess maintenance needs in real time and notify operators when maintenance is required. This significantly improves worker safety while increasing efficiency and reducing costs through predictive measures. As digitalization becomes more commonplace across industries, remote training will support the streamlining of work and enable employees to feel confident and safe when performing tasks.
Employees can also gain training and exposure without ever setting foot in the field through the use of robotics. By remotely controlling robotic arms, for instance, employees can gain training and exposure to specific tools without ever setting foot on a job site.
Ushering In The Era Of The Remote Construction Site
Historically, the integration of remote solutions has been considered incompatible with construction sites because of the variable, complex nature of the work. Over the past decade, however, the construction industry has started adopting digital solutions that address basic needs and increase design capabilities.
Digital collaboration tools have become increasingly essential for contractors, architects, engineers, and suppliers to work and collaborate digitally across geographic boundaries, from video-call site meetings to filling digital orders. Other tools, such as 3D modeling, process simulation and virtual learning can improve the quality of work and help employees navigate the training process and transition to remote-based work. Using robotics and automation at the construction site can also improve compliance and quality control while reducing potential safety risks to workers and increasing efficiency. Autonomous or remotely controlled robotic devices can make construction safer by handling large and heavy loads and completing dangerous or repetitive tasks. The use of drone-mounted laser scanners and RFID tracking can more accurately and quickly report on construction progress, therefore delivering higher quality forecasts on productivity, and final cost and schedule.
The advancement of remote technology will also have an indirect impact on the construction industry. While construction work probably won’t ever be completely remote or autonomous, a number of parallel industries, such as shipping and transportation, will be impacted by an era of autonomy. Cars, UAVs, industrial vehicles, trains vessels and more will be enabled to operate safely, securely, reliably and efficiently thanks to solutions that provide assured autonomy and positioning . The effects of this will be felt in construction as well – and likely for the better. Cloud technologies and remote work processes streamline operations across the supply chain, making construction processes more efficient and cost-effective.
Remote Technologies: Renaissance 2.0?
The mandate for change and technological adoption in construction has never been stronger. Developments in remote technology have supported flexibility and productivity across industries, facilitating innovation and project success. New tools such as robots, AI, remote monitoring and remote training have shone a light on both the productivity and data visibility challenges facing construction players and the opportunities to increase efficiency, productivity and worker safety. It’s clear that this is a win for both employers and employees.
The fluctuations we’ve witnessed throughout the pandemic have highlighted humanity’s capacity to adapt and innovate, introducing major changes in the way people work. Perhaps the tapering-off of the COVID-19 pandemic will unlock another Renaissance – one in which we’ll witness the rise of digital construction tools previously unimaginable.