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Technologies to Watch in 2021

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Although the future is uncertain—especially when it comes to emerging from the global pandemic—one thing is clear: technology that enables remote collaboration, agility, machine automation and better decision making has helped contractors survive 2020 and will remain a top priority in 2021. In the past, many of these tools have been considered a nice-to-have, but these days, they fall firmly in the need-to-have camp. Many of the new ways of doing business that have been adopted out of necessity this year will help ensure business continuity and resiliency into the future. 

The following five technology segments will play a defining role in the future of construction.

Enabling Agility

Technologies that allow contractors to work nimbly, with the ability to ramp up, ramp down or change direction with ease are getting a closer look now and will continue to grow in popularity. Running a resilient, agile company has always made good business sense, but this year has really driven home the importance of being able to pivot.

For the construction industry, this means increased adoption of the “as a service” payment model. The “as a service” model gives contractors the ability to purchase certain hardware and software solutions for a set monthly price and get full technology assurance, including hardware upgrades, throughout the agreement. Although the model is mainstream in some industries, it is relatively new to the construction sector—but it is here to stay, in large part because it provides just the kind of flexibility contractors need to build resilient businesses.

Doubling Down on Data

There’s a lot of talk these days about the need for “data democratization,” which really just means that everyone—including non-technical people— should have easy access to the data they need to make business decisions. Gone are the days when digging into data requires the help of an IT person. Whether it’s data about utilization of a specific piece of equipment; drone data about stockpile management; cut/fill data from a machine control system; or a fully integrated ERP system that helps contractors manage their entire businesses, data is driving the construction industry forward. 

Construction technology is helping to provide contractors with meaningful and actionable information and analysis from a sea of unstructured data. At the same time, technology is also making internal company data—from a single piece of equipment to an entire enterprise—easier to gather, access, analyze and share. Better decision-making from better data will continue to propel construction businesses into the future.

All Eyes on Autonomy

Machine control, and the forward march toward autonomy, has been on the “trends to watch” list for years and remains firmly entrenched as one of technology segments that is having the greatest overall impact on the construction industry. 

Today’s earthmoving machines and road-paving systems incorporate telematics, machine-guidance, both 2D and 3D machine-control systems and/or on-board wireless connections to transmit site data with ease from the jobsite to the office. They almost immediately make new operators good and experienced operators great by improving accuracy, speed, efficiency and job satisfaction. Autos functionality, in-cab augmented reality and intuitive, easy-to-use systems are increasing safety, productivity and transparency.

Watch for the continued adoption of machine control technology by users, and for the continued investment in machine control and autonomy by technology providers in 2021 and for years to come.

Extending the use of Extended Reality

Like autonomy, COVID-19 has accelerated the pace at which mixed, virtual and augmented reality tools will transform the construction industry. While each of these tools plays a slightly different role in construction, they all provide a clearer view into concepts that are otherwise hard to envision. 

Innovation that puts augmented reality in the cab of an excavator or a 3D mixed reality look at a road, rail or site design on a phone in the hand of a field worker helps make complex construction concepts simpler. It also helps reduce trips to the jobsite and makes it easy to communicate new designs or changes, check grade or production productivity, and identify potential problems—all while limiting the number of people working together in close proximity. 

When it comes to extended reality in construction, the future is now. Watch for more of this over the next 12-18 months, and for continued technology enhancements into the future.

Remote Control

Digital collaboration will continue to take on greater importance, especially as managers and foremen have seen over the past few months how easy it is to share actionable data, monitor job activities and troubleshoot problems without physical interaction.

“These tools are limiting our need to be on site to troubleshoot, train and transfer files,” said Britton Lawson, Director of Construction Technology at Minnesota-based specialty contractor Veit & Company, who is seeing increased value from the use of remote assistance and remote file transfer. “We have used remote technology for years in our day-to-day activities, but the functionality is really showing its benefit in this new normal.”

Change to Count On

Hindsight is 20/20, but foresight is also 20/20 when it comes to the proliferation of technology in construction. Although many contractors were pushed out of their comfort zones this year, the fact is that many of the tools that have been adopted to help with business continuity during the pandemic will also help with resiliency, efficiency and productivity into the future. Contractors who embrace these changes will set themselves apart from the competition, as they emerge from the impacts of the pandemic and well into the future.

Reprinted from Construction Executive, Dec. 9, 2020, a publication of Associated Builders and Contractors. Copyright 2020. All rights reserved.

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