Perspective: Feet in the dirt

Step into any high-tech manufacturing facility today and you’ll see CNC machines shaping components with speed and precision while robotic welding arms dance back and forth at a superhuman rate. Behind the assembly line, computer algorithms guide the logistics, bin filling and just-in-time delivery. Factory managers use data from computers and insights from line workers to relentlessly find and eliminate waste. From the front office to the product delivery, it’s a symphony of coordinated effort.

Now look at your typical construction site. Survey stakes get knocked down. Materials are delivered in the wrong spot or in the wrong quantities. Change orders go out to some subs, but not all. Dozens of trade specialists show up at all hours of the day and swarm the site with very little coordination. Every delay drives up costs and pushes out deadlines.

Declining productivity
Construction – even though it employs five percent of the country’s workforce and generates nine percent of our gross domestic product – is the only major industry other than agriculture that has not taken full advantage of computer-based automation. And it shows. Since 1964 productivity per worker in every other industry has increased 250 percent. In construction during that same period productivity per worker has decreased 25 percent.

That’s something Ray O’Connor, president of Topcon Positioning Systems, would like to change.

Topcon supplies precise positioning systems (lasers, total stations, GPS and GNSS) to the construction and agriculture industries, but the way O’Connor sees it, GPS and similar positioning technologies are just the first step construction contractors need to take to begin to match the efficiency of their peers in other industries.

What contractors need to visualize is the fact that they too are in the manufacturing business, O’Connor says. “In construction we manufacture buildings, roads, pipelines and bridges,” he says. The only difference is that construction jobs are usually custom and sometimes done in remote locations. “Otherwise they’re the same,” he comments. “You’re bringing men, machines and material together to create a finished product, while trying to keep costs low and productivity high.”

GPS as CNC
“What a contractor does is essentially machining the surface of the earth,” he says. “The dozer or the motor grader is the equivalent of the CNC machine and the GPS system is the computerized control.”

But efficiently machining the surface of the earth is just the first step. If the construction industry is to realize the productivity gains enjoyed by manufacturers, contractors need to also start practicing lean manufacturing, O’Connor says.

The principles of lean manufacturing are fairly simple: examine all your processes and reorganize people, tools and the job to drive out inefficiencies, downtime and waste. Build quality-control teams that give all the workers a voice in the process. The Japanese, led by Toyota, have turned this into a way of life. And in the practice-what-you-preach department, Topcon instituted a lean manufacturing regime that managed to double the output of its Livermore, California, facility without any increase in factory floor space.

Information enables efficiency
Turning large construction sites into lean operations presents challenges a factory doesn’t face. But high-speed network communications systems such as Topcon’s SiteLINK are beginning to emerge that tie together machine automation with truck-tracking telematics and project management software. With these new products anyone in the company can access real time information about everything going on at a site or multiple sites nearby or across the planet.

Last year several vendors introduced products with similar capabilities, and many equipment and truck manufacturers are designing their hardware to feed information into such programs. In 2001, Topcon created a joint venture with Sauer Danfoss to better integrate its machine control technology with electro-hydraulic components. O’Connor compares the move to chipmaker Intel’s philosophy to supply chips for every computer, regardless of brand.

And it’s not just contractors and equipment and truck manufacturers who are synchronizing their efforts with the GPS vendors. Many states and state departments of transportation are mapping their infrastructure on a GPS grid and allowing contractors to access the database. “There is going to be a lot more sharing of data like this,” O’Connor says. “The end-product, the as-built, will become a database.”

The connected jobsite
There’s no generic term for such programs, but they’re often referred to as supporting a “connected jobsite.” O’Connor compares this type of system to the military’s North American Aerospace Command or NORAD, which links a global network of radar and communications systems to create a real time image of military and aviation activities worldwide. The same “global” view of equipment assets is what’s going to drive new efficiencies in the construction industry, O’Connor says, and bring it up to the standards of the manufacturing industry.

Once you have this level of information, the efficiencies become easy to identify and act on. Technicians won’t have to diagnose a machine problem in the field and then drive back to get parts. The system will issue an alert the day before and tell the technician to stock the part before he leaves in the morning. If a mission-critical machine goes down, you can tell at a glance if a substitute machine and a truck and trailer are available. For estimating and planning purposes you can also study the efficiency and usage of each machine on previous jobs and adjust your mix of machines and trucks to get the most bang for your equipment bucks. Change orders can be broadcast to all participating subcontractors instantly.

Infrastructure challenges
For the contractor, the advantages of creating a connected jobsite are obvious. He’ll be able to do more work in the same amount of time with less labor, and experience fewer delays while consuming fewer resources. Bottom line: he can bid more work and bid it cheaper. But there is a social good emerging from all this as well. Governments at all levels are under pressure to improve infrastructure, and after the Interstate 35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis this has taken on some urgency. Yet with tight budgets and rising material prices, the only hope in sight is for construction work itself to become more efficient.

“A lot of work still needs to be done in that regard,” O’Connor says. “I think the tragedy in Minnesota is going to put pressure on the government to take steps. If the U.S. economy is going to stay competitive, we’re going to need it.”