Wearable tech: The new tool for the modern construction workforce

 —  Article by Natalie Holmes
workers on a construction site
Image credit: Shutterstock

From exoskeletons to augmented reality goggles, wearable tech is coming to construction sites – and helping to improve safety, efficiency and morale.

The wearable tech market is booming, with production set to hit 135 million in 2018. Smart and constantly connected, wearables include devices such as fitness trackers, smartwatches, and health monitors, with more functions emerging all the time.

“Though the trend is still in its infancy, we’ll start to see wearable technology on constructions sites very soon,” says Ashley Perry, Senior Project Manager at JLL. According to Perry, augmented reality (AR) in particular holds the potential to transform practices both on-site and off.

Using glasses or a smart helmet visor to overlay digital detail onto the real world, AR allows for direct visual communication between everyone involved in the construction process. “The technology helps avoid misunderstandings and costly mistakes caused by the arcane process of printed documents,” explains Perry.

Construction companies are already using Business Information Modelling (BIM) cloud storage, apps and smartphones, and wearable tech is a logical next step in improving workflow efficiency and productivity. “AR means we can share everything the contractor needs to build the project in real time. That immediacy means more focus can be put on iterative design and the tangible aspects of assembly,” says Perry.

What’s more, with AR goggles, workers can view 3D building information models (BIM) onsite. “An electrical engineer could see cables behind a wall, for example, using technology such as Microsoft’s HoloLens” says Perry. Such a function is also be useful for maintenance work and refurbishment projects, where the building lifecycle is unclear.

Supporting workers to get the job done

The introduction of exoskeletons – bionic suits that use springs and counterweights to enhance human power and protect from injuries associated with heavy lifting and repetitive movements – is another innovation with huge potential. “The most experienced workers are in their 40s and 50s, and construction work can be onerous,” says Perry.” If you can reduce the physical impact of that work it clearly benefits both the worker and the industry.”

Following in the footsteps of industries such as healthcare and the military, a handful of other wearables have been specifically developed for construction sites. Wristbands that enable hands-free gesture control let workers interact with digital devices (including AR goggles) without downing tools. GPS-fitted safety vests warn wearers when they enter a hazardous area, while letting managers track movements to optimize workflow.

While much of the technology is currently being designed and implemented in North America, UK firms working within the construction industry are also beginning to get on board.

By reducing injury, improving safety, and transforming conditions on-site, wearables have the potential to boost morale – as well as alter the job profile. “Developments in technology will fundamentally change the construction worker skillset, and attract a different type of person,” says Perry.

New skills for a new era

One major associated challenge is sourcing workers with a combination of practical experience and technical know-how. “They’ll need to be familiar with standards from a delivery perspective, but also up to speed with the latest technology and its application,” he adds.

Other challenges include the relatively high cost of implementing wearables, the possibility of new technology causing a distraction, and employee resistance to being tracked.

Perry believes the benefits of merging man and machine are well worth the necessary problem-solving. “So far there’s been a focus on how technology can improve construction methods, but not on how it can help people on the ground,” he concludes. “This move towards augmented construction workers represents an important step in the modernization of the industry more broadly.”

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