Virtuality Check: 3 Ways Cloud Technology in Construction Can Solve the Skilled-Labor Shortage

by Soo Song
- Aug 16 2016 - 5 min read
Image composite: Micke Tong

It’s the morning jolt many urban dwellers dread: the whirring saws and pounding hammers of the building going up next door.

But that sound is a sweet one to an industry finally roaring back to life. Construction demand today is sky-high in major cities like Chicago and Denver. It’s an almost unrecognizable return from the Great Recession of 2008, when the economy starved workers of projects and forced many to leave the industry permanently.

Cloud Technology in Construction
Visualization of construction at Penn State. Courtesy Mortenson.

Even so, the construction industry is realizing it can’t breathe comfortably just yet, with another problem derailing its future: a shortage of skilled labor. With it comes the equally concerning reality that construction’s current workforce is aging. Of those retiring, few millennials are taking their place.

“As the workforce in the 55- to 60-year-old range starts to retire, we actually have a tremendous opportunity,” says Anthony Colonna, senior vice president, innovative construction solutions at Skanska in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. “We need to attract young talent with diverse and sometimes nontraditional construction backgrounds.”

Now, more than ever, the construction industry is realizing it needs to get creative with fresh techniques and tools that can attract qualified talent and better equip those in the field. In this area, two construction firms are leading the way with one tool in particular: cloud. Here are three ways they say cloud technology in construction is key to fixing the skilled-labor shortage.

1. Cloud Appeals to Millennials Because It’s Part of Their Digital Language. “We just had about 65 interns around the company come in for a two-day event and asked them what had attracted them to Mortenson,” says Ricardo Khan, senior director, project solutions at Mortenson in Minneapolis. “One thing that came up was our use of mobile technologies. Obviously, they talked about the use of an iPad and phones, but those are just the hardware. What supports all of this is the cloud.”

CloudTech1FINAL
Use of touch-screen interfaces and mobile hardware. Courtesy Mortenson.

The excitement around mobile hardware is unsurprising, given that millennials have grown up with (and expect) technology at hand. Unlike generations prior, they enter the workforce already well-versed and invested in digital tools—not to mention cloud applications, like Dropbox and Google Docs, that they used in school.

“My daughter in college has been designing buildings and virtual worlds with games like The Sims for years, and she’s very comfortable working in a 3D environment,” Colonna says. “The next generation has already embraced not only the technology but also visualizing and thinking in 3D. For example, in the past two years, Skanska’s Innovation Grant Program has supported pilot projects that integrate augmented-reality platforms and 3D gaming engines, which rely heavily on cloud technology, into the way we work.”

To capture millennials’ attention, the construction industry should first understand how the new generation workforce speaks. As more studies report fewer millennials entering the construction sector—through traditional apprenticeship programs or otherwise—cloud-based technologies and progressive processes may be key to attracting them.

2. Cloud Enables Workers to Practice on Screen Before Building in the Real World. “If you consider the product-development process in manufacturing, there is typically a series of design and production ‘verification builds,’ so you essentially practice the construction of the end product before the final version goes to market,” Colonna says.

Cloud Technology in Construction
Courtesy Mortenson

But for construction, Colonna says, the game is completely different. Each project requires its own design, essentially forcing construction companies to build a prototype every time they get to a job site.

This is why collaborating and modeling in 3D has been a boon for the industry: Now, thanks to cloud-enabled applications and services, construction workers can simulate the way buildings come together—quite a change for a field that normally leaves little room for mistakes.

“While we’re not completely replicating the manufacturing model, we’ve learned from experience that actively collaborating with our clients and our design partners helps to solve problems virtually before they happen in the field,” Colonna says. “As for the cloud, we couldn’t achieve a high level of collaboration without it—the nature of these applications mandates that they reside in the cloud to facilitate collaboration across enterprises and achieve the kind of performance we need.”

3. Cloud Can Send Instructions to the Field, Teaching People in Real Time. To say the future of construction lies behind a computer would be false. Colonna emphasizes that technology is just one dimension of how Skanska and the industry as a whole succeeds; at the end of the day, most of the problem-solving happens on-site, where innovation must occur. According to Mortenson Senior Integrated Construction Manager Michal Wojtak, labor is an expensive part of the construction process, and to use labor only for processes that could be automated, like remote file management, would be a waste of valuable resources.

Cloud Technology in Construction
Use of Redpoint Positioning location system for real-time tracking of people and assets. Courtesy Skanska.

But the power of cloud can be used in the field directly, thanks to the explosion of touch-screen interfaces and mobile devices in recent years. Mortenson demonstrates this with its video work instructions: The videos offer real-time guidance on how to assemble systems like solar panels—becoming the workers’ new and much more helpful digital clipboard.

“This dramatically improved productivity with new talent on our projects,” Khan says. “Based on feedback from the crews in the field, we can continuously improve our video work instructions to meet the system’s changing needs.”

Mortenson first adopted cloud applications in 2006 to share knowledge internally and connect its design and trade partners. Since then, the company has come a long way—getting onboard with tools enhancing project coordination, such as Autodesk Navisworks, BIM 360 Field, and BIM 360 Glue.

At first, Wojtak says, many people were asking what “cloud” even meant. “A lot of those questions showed us that people didn’t necessarily understand cloud, so there was a lot of effort on our side to train people and provide guidance on how to use the solutions properly,” he says.

Cloud Technology in Construction
Sample view of a model. Courtesy of Skanska.

The investment was worth it, now that it’s improving the productivity of existing workers—and potentially attracting new ones. But just as construction companies are hoping to entice younger workers with existing cloud applications, it’s only a matter of time before a new generation of tools comes to the fore.

“As we move into the future, we’ll see another transformation with the use of augmented reality and wearable technology,” says Khan, who believes there’s only more to come. “The ‘Internet of Construction Things’ is going to use cloud technology to track assets, manage people, and deliver knowledge—all at the exact place of work.”

And that workplace, whether it’s a job site or an office, will likely be abuzz with a whole new generation.

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