Construction Tech Transformations and Tradeoffs

Posted by Matthias Geiken, Product Manager on 5/26/16 10:05 AM

My 30-year background in construction has made me a spectator to the rise of some great technologies, and the decline of some not-so-great technologies. Throughout my career, I have made an effort to try just about anything. Whether or not I adopted the new tech is an entirely different story. I have seen everything from the introduction of the power saw, to lasers for leveling, to pagers, PalmPilots, and most recently the Smartphone.

The cordless drill was the first significant adoption of new technology I experienced as a carpenter. When I started out as an apprentice in 1986, the corded drill was the standard for woodworking. If you haven’t used one of these, it’s hard to describe how difficult they are to manage: Imagine dragging a garden hose across your backyard and multiply that by about one hundred. I would lug the drill 100 feet from the outlet, across the job site and up a ladder only to realize someone had unplugged it. When it wasn’t getting unplugged, I was losing the chuck key. At the end of the day, I had the thrilling job of wrapping the cord which was absolutely filthy from dust, spit and chewing tobacco.

I remember the day I was given my first cordless drill. It was a 7.2 volt Makita with a fixed battery shrouded in an unusual orange plastic housing. I was thrilled at the prospect of something that could replace the old corded drill, but quickly realized it wasn’t good for anything except installing small screws and drilling small holes.

Two years later, the more powerful 12 volt version was introduced. There were still some limitations: The drill was expensive and had a poor power to weight ratio. But it had one very critical advantage: It did not require a cord.

Workers, including me, chose freedom from cords over poor performance and it quickly became the industry standard.

Matthias working with a cordless drill on a roofing project.

Thirty years later, I have gone through the same decision-making process over and over again with the introduction of new technology.

In the mid-90’s, I received my first company pager that was meant to serve as a better way to stay connected to clients. The problem was most of my communications involved referencing paper drawings and contract documents, which required a fax machine.

The pager helped me know when someone wanted to talk, but it still required trips back and forth to the project trailer for any meaningful communication.

I bought my first laptop computer with a 9600 baud modem and AOL in 1996, and quickly saw the potential it had for client communications. I bought another one to bring to the job site, and it replaced the need for a fax machine overnight because I could use it to to view, markup and email PDF documents.

The laptop made me an integral part of conversations happening between the designer, the architect and the workers. But it still had limitations. For one, it required a reliable connection for communications, which meant going to the project office when I needed to use it. Once I had what I needed, I would still print out documents to take with me to the work face. Later on, we did get DSL, but it still required a corded connection.

When the Nextel phone came around in 1998, it replaced my pager, but it still didn’t give me full connectivity. I remember once when I needed to talk to a project manager about some plans and was having trouble finding good reception.

The plans were on my laptop, and I was talking to him on my Nextel phone. I climbed to the top of a ladder with my phone to get clearer reception, while dragging along my laptop — still plugged into the DSL line — so I could get the emails he was sending me. It was ridiculous, but it was what I had to do to make things work.

For me, the Smartphone was the technology that changed everything.

It brought together the programs and features that I loved so much about my laptop with the connectivity and mobile experience of a phone.

I bought an iPhone the day it came out and started using it immediately. I loved having the ability to send and receive email, view PDFs, respond with marked-up photos, create simple sketches, get product specs from the Internet, and so much more from wherever I happened to be on the construction site.

I no longer had to go to an office because the office was in my pocket, and I was free to be wherever the project needed me to be.

That was nine years ago. Since then, mobile technology has taken off in construction and in so many other industries. Rhumbix is one of many companies leveraging the flexibility and connectivity of mobile technology for construction, and I’m thrilled to be part of a team working on creative solutions.

There is still a long way to go before we see widespread adoption, but one thing is clear to me: The Smartphone is the platform for innovation of all kinds of construction-focused tools, and the more companies out there working on solutions, the faster adoption will happen.

Topics: Construction Technology