The Emergence of Construction's Digitally Connected Worker
Updated: Nov 4, 2022
From augmented reality headsets to GPS-enabled wearables, construction professionals are benefiting significantly from the rapid advancement and deployment of connected industrial technology.
The Connected Worker
The adoption of Industry 3.0 and 4.0 brought forth technological advancement within the Construction Industry in the form of computing, automation, modeling, analytics, machine learning, cloud-based infrastructure, and cyber-physical systems. While these advancements have resulted in undeniable benefits to the realm of construction planning and execution, there is recent discussion suggesting that we are reaching a plateau in their effectiveness
There is an increased need for construction projects to adapt to disruptions (as evidenced by the COVID-19 pandemic) and contribute to sustainability initiatives; models that perform construction tasks effectively, but also provide environmental, social, and economical value to stakeholders and the surrounding community. This paradigm shift is marked by the need to introduce (or re-establish) the power of human ingenuity, adaptability, influence, and connection in the construction industry – a shift that aligns with the foundational concept of Industry 5.0.
Technology is not going away. It will continue to be developed and utilized on construction projects, but there is a need for stronger human interaction and integration. Industry 5.0 is a human-technology symbiosis, and the concept of the digitally connected worker is an important step in achieving that state.
The “connected worker” is described by Tulip as a worker that is integrated into their environment by connective technologies, which actively exchange data within a working system. They are embedded within instrumented, responsive systems, leading to enhanced information, better decisions, improved project outcomes, and safer workers. The composition, benefits, and challenges of a connected worker environment are described in the following sections.
Building the Connected Environment
The connected worker environment is built on a combination of software, hardware, tools, workflows, and procedures. The technology that is implemented and put into practice generally consists of the following:
The primary digital ecosystem and centralized information hub, serving as the technological foundation and back end for other components of the environment.
Typically includes a cloud-based management system or common data environment (CDE) that hosts required project data.
May include integrated BIM or digital twin capability that combines project information and metadata with interactive digital representations of physical assets.
Applications / User Interface
Front end providing connection, access, and navigation between the main platform and the various devices capturing construction data.
Information may be created, assigned, processed, or managed by users.
Applications of various functional capabilities exist and can be added or removed as required based on project needs. Applications may be in the form of platform modules, APIs, or standalone software.
IoT Devices / Wearables
Gather construction asset and worker information in the field and transmit it to a centralized platform to be processed/analyzed.
Can include sensors, monitors, GPS, audio/video, AR/VR, and more.
Provide remote access to platform applications, increasing connectivity and accessibility to the required information in various project locations.
Workflows and procedures provide a defined structure to how information is gathered and exchanged between different technologies, or between workers and technologies. The connected worker concept is not just limited to workers in the field, however. Connected technology also links supervision, engineers, managers, executives, and other external stakeholders with project status, KPIs, and other metrics in real- or near real-time so they can stay informed and proactively address project challenges.
Applications in Construction
The connected worker concept has already been adopted in several industries. Perhaps most notable is industrial manufacturing, which has seen several connected worker platform solutions developed in recent years, to improve safety, quality, and efficiency in manufacturing facilities and production floors. By most measures, this has been successful, with platforms like Augmentir publishing case studies and reporting metrics such as 37% productivity improvement, 76% reduction in training time, 76% decrease in rework, and 27% reduction in downtime.
The construction industry itself has traditionally been slow to adapt to the changing technological landscape, only placing ahead of agriculture in terms of digital transformation. Construction projects are unique, dynamic entities with shifting scopes, resources, personnel, timelines, budgets, and geographies. They are arguably more complex than manufacturing floors, which exist in largely self-contained ecosystems. However, this presents substantial untapped potential for the connected worker concept to have a positive impact. Potential use cases and benefits of connected workers within construction include:
Connected workers have direct and immediate access to safety resources, safety data sheets, FLHAs, emergency operating procedures, emergency contact info, etc.
Connected workers have direct lines of communication with emergency resources.
IoT devices and wearables can monitor GPS location, provide audio/video feeds, and track health/vital statistics of workers, alerting workers and responders to developing hazardous situations.
Quality documentation is digitized and readily available in the field during inspections and system walk-downs.
Quality documentation is rapidly uploaded to centralized cloud servers for record keeping.
Digital workflows are more streamlined and automated than traditional manual or paper-based methods, reducing administrative time and effort.
Centralized CDEs, databases, and Building Information Modelling (BIM)/digital twin capabilities make information readily accessible.
Versioning control ensures that the information provided is the latest and most accurate (i.e., a single source of truth).
Workers that have sufficient access to required resources or information perform more productively and collaboratively. They are not hung up waiting for information to become available or accessible.
Task monitoring, progress, and benchmarking can be achieved with greater granularity and real-time updates, filling in the gaps of traditional work progress reporting, which typically only addresses the start and end of a task.
Various communication methods are available to connect employees, including audio/video, messaging, file annotations, and interactive VR sessions.
Knowledge sharing and collaboration supports continued learning and the facilitation of training programs.
Data / Analytics
Worker data is generated, collected, processed, and analyzed to provide trend visibility into safety, productivity, quality, and more.
Improved access to real-time data and accurate project information drives more objective, fact-based, data-driven decision-making capabilities.
Accessibility to worker feedback, performance data, and analytics supports efforts of continuous improvement for both construction projects and the associated connected worker program.
Embracing the Connected Environment
The technology and process requirements for supporting a connected worker philosophy have been discussed so far, as well as the benefits it can bring to the construction industry. However, these components cannot fall into place effectively without the acceptance and adoption of digital culture by all the stakeholders involved – especially the frontline workers who are directly affected by the implementation. The adoption of an effective digital culture is essential to the success of the connected worker environment.
Digital culture is a culture that embraces the state of digital technology, the tools that support it, the practices and procedures that govern it, its integration within the workplace, and its potential for future growth and innovation. The attitudes and behaviors of an organization’s employees will reflect the state of the organization as a whole – for better or for worse – and workers who do not embrace the digital shift will cause friction in the adoption and effectiveness of the connected worker philosophy.
Adopting a digital culture begins with a guiding framework and strategy established by the organization’s leadership team, which not only reflects the intentions and direction of the organization but also accurately addresses employee perspectives and empowers employees in their workplace.
Organizational culture plays an essential role in worker satisfaction, adaptation, and acceptance of the change. Employees will be hesitant to change when it presents a threat to their way of life. There is a stark difference between convincing an employee to adapt to a technology that may eventually replace them versus a technology that will improve their safety, productivity, and overall job satisfaction. The connected worker concept, and its place within Industry 5.0, embraces the role of the worker, which will translate to project improvements down the line.
Addressing Privacy Concerns
It is estimated that by 2025, there will be 175 zettabytes (or 175 trillion gigabytes) of data generated by systems supported by IoT across all industries. This is a substantial amount of data to store, analyze, and gain insights from, and it requires environments with appropriate data practices and cybersecurity in place.
An ongoing concern surrounding the adoption of digital technology and increased connectivity is the reduction of privacy – or perhaps more specifically, the gathering and use of personal data for unintended or malicious purposes. IoT and mobile devices can monitor productivity statistics, location coordinates, messages, video and audio feeds, biometrics, and even an individual’s health characteristics.
Companies in the EU are required to comply with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which ensures that the data gathered has a legitimate purpose and that the company gathering it has a genuine need for the data. It also provides individuals with the power to have personal data removed. Other regions or countries have similar regulations in place, such as the CCPA in the United States, or are planning to follow suit.
Full transparency into the usage of worker data must be provided by organizations, and consent must be consciously submitted by the worker. Explaining this requirement and promoting it within the guiding framework of the organization’s digital culture (as well as outlining the benefits previously discussed) is an appropriate first step in addressing the connected worker’s potential privacy concerns.
Future of the Connected Worker
The construction industry is in a transformative state. It is only beginning to fully embrace the application of Industry 4.0, but as this is occurring, there is increased recognition of the need for improved human connection and involvement. Human ingenuity, adaptability, and influence will play an important role going forward which computing, automation, and immense amounts of data cannot simply fill by themselves.
The COVID-19 pandemic recently highlighted how a lack of connected infrastructure can bring projects to a standstill in the wake of disruption. The response by organizations to shift workers to remote settings was a monumental undertaking, requiring complete overhauls of work processes, hardware, and software; but, it was largely successful. Now, as the world responds to further disruptions, sustainability, resiliency, and human intervention are notions that have taken up residence in the minds of much of the population, and for good reason.
The connected worker concept is just one piece of the puzzle moving into the future of construction, but it is undoubtedly an important one. There are challenges; adopting the right culture, building and maintaining the incredibly complex infrastructure, providing ample cybersecurity, and ensuring that workers’ privacy, job security, and best interests are maintained. If these challenges can be overcome, the benefits of the digitally connected worker will help bring the construction industry into a new and exciting era that positively contributes to our societal progress.