Wearable tech has implications for construction safety, productivity
Construction sites aren’t what they used to be. Walk by any building under construction today and you could see everything from virtual reality goggles on workers to drones whizzing in the air. However, one of the most notable new technologies is a little more subtle. An increasing number of construction companies have outfitted their workers and personal protective equipment with wearable devices that can obtain and deliver important safety, environmental, motion, location and biometric data.
While some say the construction industry is notoriously slow to adopt leading- and bleeding-edge technologies, data suggest there’s a robust market for these devices. The wearable tech industry is projected to reach $54 billion by 2023, according to GlobalData. To learn more about this emerging technology and where it stands, we spoke with Triax Technologies CEO Robert Costantini. Triax produces the Spot-r system of wearable and sensor devices that, according to the company, allow site supervisors and offsite managers to assess safety and location activity across an entire project portfolio in real time.
Why does it make sense for construction sites to be connected?
Costantani: More job sites are becoming connected for a variety of reasons. One of them is to manage their construction timelines, schedules and workflows. These things are starting to really morph into the electronic world. Most of the large sites are using electronics or digitization of their basic tools to get the job completed. There are these ancillary technologies like ours which have just focused on workers and using a wearable clip and now integrating into these components.
The amount of technology now that is coming to the job site from a variety of players is giving contractors real insights into successful projects. They can now understand how this data can be used on new projects and be able to be more efficient with things like equipment utilization, how they manage access on and off the site, and scheduling.
Construction sites are also helping companies gain insights into productivity. Can you explain the connection between wearable technology and productivity management?
Costantani: Productivity benefits are easier to understand once you have visibility into workers and what they're doing, how they're interfacing with each other on the job site and how they might be interacting with the equipment that they are trained or not trained to operate. Things like how much time they're actually spending on various projects, where they're spending that time. Is it in the tool room? Is it in the lay down yard where equipment and materials are aggregated? Do you see a bunch of workers aggregate in a spot where maybe productivity is not evident because they're all trying to sort out a problem?
Another aspect of productivity is to see where the equipment that contractors need to be productive is located. A lot of times we hear, “I needed a scaffold” or “I needed a ladder” or “I needed some kind of a scissor lift and there weren't enough onsite,” when in fact, a job site supervisor can see where that equipment is located because we can tag it.
Could wearable technology play an increasing role in risk management and construction insurance?
Costantani: There's a strong ROI and profitability link between safety and risk management technologies that insurance companies clearly see. There are some really innovative ones, such as The Hartford and Travelers, where they're building labs focused on bringing technology that mitigates risk to their clients. The hope is that they can create this virtuous circle where technology is helping mitigate risk, and therefore, the insurance aspects are more favorable for both the client and the insurance company because they've got fewer claims to pay out.
The insurance companies have a strong influence on what customers are thinking with respect to adoption of technology. And we're working with the insurance carriers for that very purpose. It's not just for managing risks, but also the safety of workers, workers' lives, their ability to get back to work and be healthy. So there's an important societal component to it as well.
This technology seems like it has immense potential not just regular job sites but also smart cities. Is there a correlation between the growth of smart cities and the growth of wearable technology that people use while building them?
Costantani: There's definitely a correlation because cities, by definition, are places where large numbers of people aggregate, right? You want to be able to understand how your systems interact with the populace. I definitely see a clear linkage between where folks are generally, monitoring location and insight as to what people are doing and where they're moving, and how smart cities are going to be able to deliver on the promise of that investment. For example, there are sensors that can detect when somebody is in a room to turn lights on or off and maybe engage with the HVAC system. But that can actually be more about where the worker is. If you have maintenance people running all throughout a building and a system's down, where is the guy that should be addressing this?
You can't mention construction technologies like wearables without talking about drones. What’s the practical connection between wearables and drones?
Costantani: Drones, in my mind, are used on job sites mostly to provide visibility and understand progression of events that are happening on the job site. They generally provide insight and provide visibility over a progression of time, so it's a good technology to cover large spans of geography. All video now is time-stamped, whether it's through a fixed camera or a drone. Digital technologies generally can be synced up with time and date stamps so you can manage safety. For example, we're managing visibility in terms of worker flow and worker safety on a site now that's over 800 acres. So it makes sense to couple the breadth of the drone and its visibility with wearable technology.
What do you see as some of the biggest challenges to the growth of this technology?
Costantani: The first challenge is change management. You've got to do something completely different than what you did before. Or maybe it means reallocating resources instead of using two people with clipboards and boots on the ground to go out and count the number of workers you've got. You have a chance to reassign them.
The other one, frankly, is inertia. That's always a part of every technology cycle, and it's just a matter of time before more people become comfortable with it and use it. In terms of wearables, we like to think that we're pioneering the industrial wearables space as opposed to what most people consider the consumer or the retail wearable space. Just about everybody I know has a Fitbit or an Apple Watch or something that's monitoring some health or fitness benefit. This is an extension of that just for the work site. It’s robust and it's got the characteristics that make it relevant on a work site as opposed to a Fitbit. It's all moving in that direction.
Evan Milberg is SmartBrief’s infrastructure editor. Prior to joining SmartBrief in July 2018, he served as the communications coordinator for the American Composites Manufacturers Association for three years.