July 15, 2024

Advancing Business Excellence

Pioneering Corporate Success

Buildings will always get built. AI and new tech are changing how

EDWARDS, Ill. (NewsNation) — Many may see construction as a muddy boots profession, but as the industry faces an ongoing and chronic worker shortage, artificial intelligence and other technology are changing the way work gets done.

For every five construction workers that retire, only two new workers emerge to fill those openings, according to Jim Barrett, the chief innovation officer for Turner Construction, the nation’s largest building company.  To fill the void of new workers, construction companies are leaning into high-tech solutions.

Drones equipped with AI technology help companies map out building projects and predict obstacles to keep them on time and on budget.

Artificial intelligence is used to train robots that transport and lay bricks at otherwise traditional job sites as construction company owners and site managers seek new ways to make up for smaller workforces.

The new tech helps engage a new generation of construction workers. Barrett says in his encounters with trade school students, that technology helps to bring a modern twist to what many consider an “old-school” trade.

“Cool and construction don’t always go in the same sentence,” Barrett told NewsNation. “(But) I think the cool factor is increasing very significantly.”

Cat Command Product Specialist Matt Magness demonstrates the use of Caterpillar’s Cat Command technology during the company’s Construction and Technology Days at its testing ground facility in Edwards, Illinois. (Jeff Arnold/NewsNation)

Joystick generation construction

Matt Magness is seated in a swivel desk chair inside an air-conditioned room at Caterpillar’s demonstration grounds in Edwards, Illinois just outside of Peoria.

His hands navigate a pair of controls just beyond the chair’s armrest that navigates a multi-ton piece of construction equipment in Tinaja Hills, Arizona — some 1,643 miles away.

A collection of video monitors and microphones provides Magness with a point of view similar to what he would see if he were actually in the cab as well as the actual sounds of the jobsite as if he were there.

Another screen offers a control panel that mirrors the one inside the cab of the machinery.

The technology is called Cat Command, technology that can be used either remotely or in the line of sight using a portable, over-the-shoulder control station.

With the flip of a switch, Magness can power down one piece of equipment in Arizona and move to another job site in North Carolina, which now appeared on the screen in front of him in downstate Illinois, thanks to technology that allows one person to operate to five pieces of equipment in multiple locations as long as a reliable WiFi connection exists in each location.

Caterpillar officials say technology has opened up jobs to many — including veterans — who otherwise could not work on physical job sites, where slip-and-fall accidents are commonplace.

Cat Command technology is an effort, company officials say, to make the industry safer and more efficient.

“It’s an incredible thing when you see it for the first time,” Shay Stutsman, the president of Stutsman Gerbaz Earthmoving in Aspen, Colorado, told NewsNation.

“As you get into it and see the value of what you’re able to do with having the real-time information available to the operators, it’s incredible what they’re able to accomplish in a day’s time.”

A Caterpillar employee uses a shoulder-harnessed Cat Command remote system to operate a piece of construction equipment at the company’s testing grounds in Edwards, Illinois. (Jeff Arnold/NewsNation)

Caterpillar has spent $2.1 billion on the research and development of product innovation in 2023, according to a company spokesperson.

Lonnie Fritz, Caterpillar’s senior market professional for construction, said that the technology has been introduced gradually by a company that is “trying to walk before we run” when it comes to fully autonomous equipment.

Caterpillar first developed prototypes for autonomous mining trucks 30 years ago and has continued to develop the technology. The company will continue to move toward “full-blown autonomy” if that’s where the industry is going, Fritz said.

How technology is addressing fewer workers 

The construction industry has struggled to come back after the COVID-19 pandemic. About 383,000 jobs remain open as of April, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Ken Simonson, the chief economist for The Associated General Contractors of America, told NewsNation that labor shortages have remained a chronic problem in construction for decades.

While other professions have made allowances for remote and hybrid work opportunities, construction has been slow to address some of the work-life balance concerns raised by potential employees.

New technology could help afford that balance for workers while allowing companies the ability to work more efficiently and out of harm’s way.

Despite the shortage of workers, Labor Bureau officials estimate that 8.1 million Americans remain in the construction industry that Barrett, the Turner innovation officer, says is often dominated by the field’s largest players.

The cost of doing business

The cost associated with implementing AI and other technology is a clear barrier to companies looking to update their systems, especially smaller companies.

While some companies may be priced out by some of the higher-tech tools offered by companies like Caterpillar, the willingness to invest in some level of technological advancement has become necessary in allowing companies to remain competitive for larger and more technical projects.

Barrett argues this technology would put small-to-medium-sized construction companies on even footing with their larger competitors.

“Artificial intelligence will transform our industry more in the next 10 years than any other innovation has in the last 100 years,” Barrett said.

Technology enhancements have helped boost the number of young people who have followed a path toward skilled labor rather than college, as the introduction of new types of tools has caused others to adapt.

According to the National Association of Home Builders, the median age of a construction worker in the U.S. is 42 years of age. However, the number of construction workers under the age of 25 jumped by 1.8% between 2015-22.

Meanwhile, the proportion of industry workers between the ages of 35 and 42 dropped from 71.8% in 2015 to 67.3% in 2022.

There’s also the concern new technology could replace humans doing real construction jobs. Although Barrett says the industry will ultimately be about bricks being put on top of bricks to construct complex structures that often take on a life of their own.

Barrett said technology is necessary to allow companies to tackle more expensive and advanced projects being put in front of them with seemingly no end in sight to the industry’s job shortages.

The 30-year veteran at Turner Construction expects AI to only gain more traction over the next decade. However, he said that construction managers have to walk a delicate line in convincing that technology isn’t being used to take someone’s job, but instead to make current employees’ jobs easier.

“AI can be put in the hands of the average person to enhance and augment their capabilities,” Barrett said. “You don’t have to rely upon specialists, you don’t have to hire expensive software developers, You can place tools like Chat GPT in the hands of less-skilled, less experienced people, and suddenly, they can do things that you wouldn’t expect other than from someone with 10 years more experience.”

But if that mission can be accomplished, it creates a certain level of buy-in for some of the industry’s more traditional workforce who may be averse to shifting their mindset to a more high-tech way of doing things.

“There’s always a little apprehension moving forward,” Curtis Blank, the director of maintenance and engineering at Associated Terminals, told NewsNation. “But once they get exposed to the project and the product itself and how reliable it is and how efficient it is — and not only that — but how much it changes the day-to-day role.”