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Construction Innovation: Invest Early and Build Competence for Your Future

Jason Janning, Senior Vice President and General Manager, Hilti North America

Construction Innovation: Invest Early and Build Competence for Your FutureJason Janning, Senior Vice President and General Manager, Hilti North America

Greater Detroit, 2016.  A gorgeous spring morning.  A sales call on the operations leaders at Barton Malow’s Oak Park yard.  Our local team worked hard to support this key customer and we were pumped for the meeting.  When the customers, Kevin and Ryan, greeted us they were clearly in a great mood.  An auspicious start.

Following introductions, we began to talk business.  Together, we reviewed Barton Malow’s tool purchases and probed for opportunities to expand into other categories. We briefed them on upcoming new products and asked for support arranging demos to their key influencers.  The meeting was going well, though something seemed peculiar about Kevin’s and Ryan’s sideways grins.

As we set about to introduce Hilti’s service portfolio it became increasingly clear, they were distracted; we were losing their attention.  I began to worry.  Were we missing the mark?  Putting our agenda ahead of theirs?  Or, just failing to be interesting?

Unsure how to proceed, I decided to ask … “it seems y’all are preoccupied, what’s up?”  That’s when I learned about the newest piece of company equipment.  A just-off-the-delivery-trailer Tesla, Model S.

We’ll get back to that story in a few minutes…

Readers who work in commercial construction realize that 2021 brings some of the greatest challenges we’ve ever faced.  COVID-19, natural disasters, and economic disruption combined to disrupt our supply chain in unprecedented ways. 

According to the Associated General Contractors of America of America, “In addition to increased costs and lead times, contractors are experiencing delivery times that have stretched or become completely unreliable.  These problems have shown up at all points in the delivery chain.”

Ouch.  But it gets worse.

While material costs escalate from mid-double to low-triple digit amounts, bid prices on new non-residential construction have increased only 3.4%.  (Again, credit to the AGC of America’s chief economist Ken Simonson).  “This combination of steeply rising costs and nearly stable bid prices threatens to push some firms out of business and keep the industry’s unemployment rate unacceptably high.”

Double ouch! What can commercial contractors do?

Short-term actions include revisiting contract language and setting clear expectations with building owners.  But to thrive in the long term, contractors must embrace transformational technologies and prepare for future disruption.

Take, for example, construction robotics.

At Hilti we’re proud of JAIBOT, the first production robot purpose-designed for the put-in-place jobsite.  JAIBOT is a semi-autonomous overhead drilling robot that in nearly all cases is five times faster than a human crew.

This is a big deal because overhead drilling is a difficult task when you consider precise floor layout (even when using a total station), marking the concrete, transferring the point to the ceiling with plumb laser, then using a lift or ladder to drill overhead.  JAIBOT takes a task where one person can complete five to seven holes per hour to 25-60+.  Over the course of a complicated jobsite, this is worth weeks of time savings.  Not to mention health and safety benefits for workers who thus avoid repetitive overhead drilling.

Another benefit of jobsite robotics is greater accuracy and precision. 

When combined with BIM all the holes match the digital model, link more precisely to prefabrication, and better enable cross-trade collaboration.  This in turn maximizes productivity.

Sounds great!  So, why would any contractor with abundant overhead drilling hesitate to hire JAIBOT?  The brutal truth is that our industry is resistant to technology transformation.  Developing new workflows isn’t easy.  Tradespersons might feel threatened.  The financial commitment isn’t small.  There will always be reasons to snub new technologies.

Industry leaders cannot allow this to continue.

Which brings us back to the Tesla story…

Barton Malow builds great buildings and are industry innovation leaders.  To complete projects they need heavy machines, haulers, and trucks.  What role would an all-electric sport sedan play in their fleet?  I had to ask.

“Great question, Jason,” said Ryan.  His answer amazed me.  Barton Malow is led by curious innovators who seek opportunity in many new technologies.  Even if they are not immediately relevant to their work, their job as leaders is to bring the company along.  To foster like-minded curiosity in their employees.  To seek unexpected breakthroughs.

Someday, electric trucks will arrive at jobsites across our nation.  When that day arrives, I know of no general contractor who will be better prepared than Barton Malow. That’s why it’s no surprise that the first U.S. customer to see JAIBOT operating at a Hilti corporate jobsite in Europe – over two years ago – was the executive team of Barton Malow.

Now what?  Are you apprehensive of disruptive technologies including robotics, BIM, sensors, human augmentation, 5G, alternative materials, and artificial intelligence? Unsure how these will help your business today?  If so, you’re not alone.  But transformation is coming to our industry in ways we cannot always predict.

As a leader you must determine: how will you equip your organization with the skills and systems needed to thrive on technology-rich future jobsites?

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