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Making Heavy/Civil Construction Tech More Accessible to Small and Mid-sized Contractors


By Jeff Drake, Construction Executive

While enthusiasm around construction technology may have been tempered early on, today there is a cultural shift happening among many engineering and construction companies in the way they approach every stage of the project lifecycle, from design and preconstruction to construction, operations and management.

Increased adoption surrounding construction technology comes from its ability to help contractors gain a competitive edge and to streamline daily activities on the jobsite. One example of this is in heavy and highway construction, where advancements around machine control’s usability is driving adoption. No longer are large general contractors the only market segment that can afford the training, tools and investment once required to leverage machine guidance technology, GPS site positioning systems or modeling software. The next generation of construction technology is much more intuitive and easy to use. This gives contractors of all sizes the ability to do much more with much less. For those looking to bid and win more jobs and to solve real business problems, it may be time to take another look at the newest generation of construction technology options today.


Construction technology is more accessible today, in part, because of its ‘building block’ approach to adoption. Instead of massive investments required upfront, contractors can scale the technology as needed. For example, one small Utah contractor that specializes in residential grading and excavation work started adopting construction technology incrementally more than 10 years ago.

At first his small team required only basic depth and slope functionality using a laser system. Several years down the line, however, they wanted to be able to take on more complex jobs and to free up crew members from running the rod and laser to check grade. The owner kept the lasers, but upgraded his other excavator with automated machine control with laser reference for expanded use around the job site. This allows crew members to start on other jobs and it gives the owner/operator the ability to work independently, even doing complex work.


Many construction technology systems have been re-engineered to be in line with what operators expect and to reflect how actual works gets done on the jobsite. Today’s software is designed to work the way operators think. Some machine control systems are using familiar operating systems, like Android, which instantly makes them more usable. Site positioning systems and grade control applications also now have more intuitive interfaces and touch-screen displays that are easier to interact with, which drastically reduces the time required to learn and become comfortable with the technology.


Technology is also closing the emerging skills gap facing the construction industry. When leveraging a new grade control system, less experienced operators can be more accurate on the first pass, creating smooth, flat, or sloped surfaces more easily. In addition, some new systems now offer “automatics mode,” which automatically controls the boom and bucket of the excavator according to the digital design. The system can then automatically adjust the boom and bucket of the excavator to stay on design. By getting more utilization from heavy equipment, contractors can save a significant amount of time because they don’t have to wait on the most experienced operator to complete complex jobs, machine wear is reduced and contractors can take on other work.


In addition to being more intuitive and scalable, new construction technology can also be deployed on smaller equipment. Contractors using compact track loaders to dig out basements, build sports fields or perform site utility work can now compete with bigger players with machine control because it makes their small teams-and smaller resources- go further. Small and mid-size contractors can place more competitive bids, even facing tighter margins and greater competition.


Although technology for heavy and highway projects is designed to be more intuitive, user-friendly and easy to use, having greater access to technical support is also a big plus. Advancements in today’s construction technology could not come at a better time. As construction projects become increasingly complex and owners are under pressured to eliminate bloated costs and cut project timelines, contractors should consider the impacts of more intuitive and accessible construction technology in their business.

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