When Mitch Hughes walked into his cell phone carrier’s local storefront on a recent Saturday, he wasn’t expecting much. He was there to upgrade his phone’s SIM card so he could access next-generation 5G connectivity. But because 5G has mostly only existed in marketing campaigns to this point, he didn’t really anticipate anything new.
“To my great surprise, when we left and went to dinner, I was sitting in the restaurant and had 5G,” says Hughes, who was simply checking his email but immediately noticed a difference in his download speeds. “For a moment, I thought I was on a really good Wi-Fi connection with almost instant response but then realized it was a cell data signal. The difference in speed was so noticeable that it shocked me.”
For Hughes, the experience went deeper than just a tech-smitten consumer accessing the latest buzzy breakthrough. As CEO of Peachtree Corners, Ga.-based construction virtualization software provider ViZZ, it brought home the profound promise of 5G—the technology is already 10 times faster than existing 4G LTE networks with just a fraction of the latency—for construction sites, typically the biggest bottleneck for data in the homebuilding and construction space.
“The reality is, 5G is coming,” says Hughes. “And when it comes, it’s going to proliferate incredibly fast.”
Hughes’ personal, first-hand experience with 5G, the new wireless standard that’s currently being rolled out by carriers such as Verizon and AT&T, underscores the anticipation, promise, and challenges of adopting this next-generation tech in the construction and homebuilding industry.
While industry observers say it will be a year or more before 5G is a reality beyond just core “NFL cities” in the U.S.—Verizon’s 5G ultrawide band network will be live in 30 test markets by the end of 2019—tech savvy pros within the construction industry say the time to get ready for its rollout is now. For them, 5G technology, which uses wider bandwidths, new antenna technologies, and many more “small cell” antennas placed closer together to increase overall system capacity, has the potential to fundamentally change how construction work gets done on a daily basis.
Almost-here breakthroughs include not only autonomous and remote-controlled equipment run from an off-site control center but also foundational leaps that will provide up-to-the-second access in the field for the latest iteration of 3D BIM models. Tapping remote, distributed computing power can liberate today’s augmented reality programs from the data shackles that have held them back to date. That, in turn, should reduce the need for more powerful—read expensive and heavy—phones and tablets to do that processing on-site. Rounding out the promise are thousands of internet-of-things (IoT) sensors, installed on-site and in workers’ gear, to help with everything from clocking in to project monitoring to field safety. Finally, once buildings are completed, built-in sensors will help owners monitor asset performance and operations at their properties.
“The construction site of the future is going to be one big video game,” says John Dolmetsch, founder and CIO of York, Pa.-based network and software consultant Business Information Group, which specializes in construction tech. “In a few years, you’ll have workers in a remote location using mixed reality to stand in the middle of a construction site.”
The current jobsite’s data bottleneck creates efficiency roadblocks.
According to Dodge Data & Analytics, 80% of contractors now use mobile phones to collect data, while 9% employ sensors and 4% have adopted wearables on-site. But to appreciate the potential that 5G’s big jump will enable, consider the data roadblocks that are currently in place on most construction sites today.
“We deal with very large documents, whether it be a 3D model or a 2D drawing that has hundreds of sheets,” says Nick Kurth, virtual construction manager in the Denver office of Edmonton, Canada-based PCL Construction. “Right now, we’re beholden to those download speeds in the field, where a lot of times you’re just sitting and watching that 4G pinwheel spin. So if my signal isn’t strong enough and I’ve got two foremen waiting on me for a document, how much is that costing me an hour? You can literally quantify that dollar figure.”
What that means, in reality, is that a lot of construction pros begin their days by caching as much information as possible in their phones or iPads before going out to the site. “Right now, in the morning, our field teams start the download process and then go grab a cup of coffee,” Kurth says. While that takes time itself, the real problem is the data they save is out of date as soon as someone makes updates to the master file. For Kurth, that’s where the promise of 5G becomes especially pronounced.
“If I can access information in real time as quickly over the web as I can with a local, cached file, that will change how we do everything,” Kurth says.
Another sobering perspective on construction’s current connectivity hurdles can be seen in the initial steps companies take when starting a project today. For example, Kurth says he’ll often need to spend time setting up a local network on-site before work can even begin. “There are times where you don’t have any cell phone signal on a project site at all,” Kurth says. “To mitigate that, we put up little white temporary Wi-Fi nodes so our guys can access the web, because all the drawings and models today are being driven by web-based solutions. You have to be able to access them.”
In a 5G world, however, the need for those workarounds would disappear.
5G ensures the flow of data doesn’t stop at the construction site.
Indeed, while BIM and construction project management and scheduling software have proliferated throughout the industry over the last decade, the widening of construction’s tech stack, in many regards, is still woefully one-sided, with technology reigning and being leveraged in the offices of designers and sometimes in the construction trailer but not so much on construction sites themselves. Noting the construction industry’s obdurate productivity gap and the fact that most projects still go over budget, Hughes lays blame at the feet of these on-site connectivity issues.
“The use of BIM has helped some,” says Hughes, who points to cost overruns in the industry going down on average in recent years as a positive impact of using tech. “But building information stops in the design process and doesn’t go out to the field. That’s what we’re really trying to address, and 5G does that.”
In fact, the proliferation of 5G may help residential builders bring more technology on-site as well, as the cost of connectivity shifts from builders to the carriers themselves.
“Maybe the most important aspect of this is that the things that are only available for very large projects now—because they’re the only ones who can afford to set up a dedicated network in the field—all of a sudden become available to homebuilders or the little guy building a small hotel,” Hughes says. “One of the great advantages of 5G is the fact that things that are only available to the few in construction today can become available to the many.”
Cloud computing capabilities could shape our physical world.
But while speed and access are obviously important, 5G’s potential for construction goes well beyond its zippiness for fast data. Because of its low latency—or lag—5G in construction opens up the possibility of using computing resources that are nowhere near a construction site to actually process the data itself.
For Burcin Kaplanoglu, executive director and innovation officer at software giant Oracle, that means the prohibitive price tags that still hang on a lot of interactive construction field technology should come down.
“Let’s say you want to use mixed reality on-site and you’ve got the Microsoft HoloLens or Magic Leap. All the processing is done on the device today, which makes those headsets expensive,” says Kaplanoglu, noting that costs can range from $1,000 for an entry-level headset up to $10,000 for more powerful equipment. “Five years from now, you’ll be able to afford these devices because with 5G connectivity you don’t have to do the computing on the device locally. It will actually be done in the cloud.”
The impact of that low latency also means that the devices that field personnel carry can be lighter, both in terms of their processing power and their actual weight.
“The iPad’s heavy,” Kurth says. “It’s kind of a pain to carry around. We have many, many foremen who have iPads, and they put them where they need them, but they’re not necessarily going to cruise around with those things attached to them all day.”
Indeed, at ViZZ, field personnel are issued tool belts with tablet pouches built in to help carry the load. “Our people in the field all have iPads on their hips,” Hughes says. “It’s got a spot specifically for tablets.” But if devices no longer need the processing power on-site to run the tools construction pros need, that will lighten the load. Other prices could come down, too.
“This is a tremendous change,” says Kaplanoglu. “The architecture of the devices we use on-site will improve. Your phone isn’t going to cost $800 or $900 anymore. It actually may be just $80, because you’re not processing the data on the phone anymore.”
Like remote surgery, autonomous construction equipment is one potential application for steadier data streams.
On a broader scale, 5G’s low latency, combined with that kind of “edge” computing potential, has been highlighted as possibly allowing surgeons to operate on patients remotely or to control 18-wheelers traveling at 60 miles per hour.
In construction, the abilities that can be unlocked by low latency are a little more down to earth. For instance, while equipment manufacturers such as Volvo have already been developing autonomous vehicles and dirt-moving equipment, 5G’s steady data stream means those machines could be overseen remotely.
“When we have the bandwidth and real-time data capability, suddenly you can have a professional operator sitting inside a control center operating as many as four vehicles at a time on different sites,” says Business Information Group’s Dolmetsch, who thinks a bonus to those advances would be easing construction’s labor crunch and image problem among young workers today.
“If you go to a 23-year-old college graduate today ask him if he’s interested in a job as a backhoe operator, he’s going to say ‘No way,’” Dolmetsch says. “But if you say you’ve got a position for an engineer-operator where you’re in charge of a fleet of autonomous vehicles at a construction site, all of a sudden it becomes a white-collar engineering position he’s interested in.”
The free flow of data will also allow many more IoT sensors to operate on-site—perhaps millions per square mile. All of those sensors will be used on-site not only to help remote-controlled equipment but also for safety and risk mitigation. Think sensors that can detect carbon monoxide or airbags built into vests that self-inflate in case of a fall.
“Right now, a lot of construction sites have a ‘man trap’ where people sign in via an RFID [radio-frequency identification] tag on their hardhat,” says Peter Marchese, Senior Technical Evangelist at Microdesk. “But from a safety standpoint, you might not know exactly where they are on-site at any given time. What 5G lets you do is know if they go into a sensitive area where there may be dangerous gases or, if you’re doing blasting, know where everyone is beforehand.”
Wait for it…. Wait for it… and get ready NOW.
But while the possibilities of 5G are fascinating to ponder, according to the pros interviewed for this article their actual arrival on construction sites is still at least a couple years out. Indeed, one telltale sign is the fact that Apple doesn’t plan to release a 5G-capable iPhone until at least fall of 2020.
Nonetheless, these observers say the time to get ready for 5G is now. One of the reasons why is because when 5G becomes an everyday reality, it will instantly release all the pent-up data that construction sites already generate while simultaneously propagating more of it .
“You think you have a lot of data today?” Kaplanoglu asks. “Wait until you have amazing connectivity and you can collect hundreds or thousands of times more data in real time on your site. What are you going to do with it? Right now is the time to figure out the strategies you’ll need to collect it.”
Also, by teaching team members to think and work in a data-oriented environment, you’ll actually give yourself a leg up when it comes to change management and dealing with the new technology down the road.
“We need to alter our practices now and work in these collaborative environments, even if they’re not perfect or at the speed we want today,” Kurth says. “We need to be downloading documents and synching them the minute we have a strong signal so that it becomes standard operating procedure within the organization. Because when 5G comes, and it removes all the acrobatics we have to go through now to get the information we need, you’ll be able to tell people they don’t have to do that anymore. That’s when their ears perk up. Instead of an ask, you’re removing one more thing they have to do.”
Kurth’s point about standardizing procedures around data is a call that’s increasingly heard in construction today. “We’re no longer talking about just collecting data from the field. We’re talking about thousands of sensors on the worksite, autonomous equipment, and terabytes of data from models,” Kaplanoglu says. “Companies really have to start working on how they standardize their operations.”
Or, as Hughes puts it, “The way 5G is going to impact people in their daily lives, both at work and at home, is going to be astonishing. And the biggest and brightest companies in the world that we’re talking to are aggressively preparing for it, because they realize that if they don’t, they will be left behind.”
Sounds like another reason why even though 5G is still a ways out, the time to get ready for it is now.
Joe Bousquin has been covering construction since 2004. A former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and TheStreet.com, Bousquin focuses on the technology and trends shaping the future of construction, development, and real estate. An honors graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, he resides in a highly efficient, new construction home designed for multigenerational living with his wife, mother-in-law, and dog in Chico, California.
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