20 years ago, companies were figuring out how to get employees an email address and to teach them how to use it. You probably had a microwave-sized beige box that displayed green letters on a black screen that held a few NotePad files and whatever pokey software you were assigned. Now you’ve got a thousand times more information in just your mobile telephone (which has also decreased in size since the first one you owned). To generalize technology’s progression, you could say it started out belonging to nerds, progressed to curious individuals with enough money, and is now a social black hole and basic necessity for any business looking to survive.
A traditionally brick and mortar (literally) industry, it wasn’t until the last ten years that contractors, engineers, and architects were able to see the results in throwing away pens, paper, and bulky machinery for digital plan rooms and automated equipment. Think about what your company’s technology looks like now compared to ten years ago – now imagine what technology your successor will be using in 50 years. Scary, huh?
The technology we have now is mind blowing, and a lot of what is in the works is even further beyond our comprehension. But we have to at least understand that there are many technologies that hold great potential for the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) industry. From goggles that display the projected layout of a building to bulldozing robots, technology isn’t even close to being done shaping this industry yet. Let me explain…
You may have seen a printed 3D image before, or gone to an IMAX movie, sporting your snazzy 3D glasses/face masks, but what about holographic 3D images? The Department of Defense has been ordering holographic prints from Zebra Imaging in Austin, Texas for years. The prints look like nothing but a piece of dark plastic poster board, but when covered in the light from an LED flashlight, the images that were lasered into the plastic come alive. The Defense Department uses these prints to prepare soldiers for the terrain and cities they are going to fight in, they can literally walk through the 3D holographic images of streets and buildings in Iraq or Afghanistan before they even arrive.
Systems like CAD and BIM have been incorporating digital 3D imagery for awhile now, but the advantages of having printed 3D images are pricey, but truly valuable. The ability to display, outside of the confines of a computer screen, a building, set of buildings or city, from a portable, non-fragile piece of flat plastic could improve project proposals, board meetings, and soliciting investors. Not to mention these holographic images will allow architects, contractors, and workers to visualize and collaborate on a project without bulky scalable models and worrying about who has the appropriate software to view a file.
Now imagine where else these holographic images could be of use if only they could get to work on the human holograms like in Star Trek…or are they already on that?
Robotic Equipment – aka Automated Machine Guidance
It’s not exactly Wall-E building your next skyscraper, but automated machine guidance is the newest “golden child” of companies looking to speed up production time and lower production costs by relying on computer systems to keep machines and their operators on location and on time during their work. Linked with global positioning systems, heavy machinery can be outfitted to read site longitude, latitude, depth, height, etc., reporting this information to the operator and those back at the company tracking the project’s progress. The machine can report when it needs maintanence, when the job can’t be finished, when it’s broken, when a task has been completed, and much more. Imagine the implications not only for the quality assurance guys but also for the marketing, management, and investment teams who want current and accurate information on how their bread-maker is progressing. Not to mention with GPS Repeaters like those being pioneered by Roger GPS, it is now possible to receive uninterrupted GPS service indoors and in tunnels.
Now what if you could go a step further and take out the machine operator? While not widespread, there are companies who already use robotic machines to perform less complex jobs on construction sites – from painting to concrete floor finishing. In the future, it’s not unlikely that these machines will be preparing the site, pouring the concrete, and carrying in the steel beams as well. We can see the early stages of independent automated equipment in the “hydras” designed by a couple of Virginia Tech University engineers. These snake-looking robots are “designed to inspect bridges, construction sites and high-rise buildings, tasks that injure more than 1,000 people a year.” With alternating joints that allow them to move up/down and side to side, they can grip to poles previously climbed by tethered construction workers and gather important structural data via ultrasound scanners and digital cameras. Snakes on a Bridge, ladies and gentlemen. I mentioned technology is scary, right?
Between Lady Gaga’s new Polaroid sunglasses, the latest in luxury snowboard gear, and Google Goggles, construction workers could be looking at their site work from a whole new perspective. Polaroid’s new camera sunglasses take digital images that can be transfered via blue tooth to mobile devices or even displayed in the LCD screen embedded in the sunglasses’ lenses. Aiming for serious snowboarders, in October 2010, Recon Instruments introduced its limited production Transcend Goggles that display real-time feedback to the user including location, speed, distance, temperature, etc. You can even take them home after a day at the slopes, transfer the data recorded that day to your computer and retrace your runs via Google Maps. But what if a combination of these goggles could go online and pull information from a site, application or database and provide further information on what the wearer is seeing? Google Goggles, while not actually goggles (yet), allows its users to perform visual searches by taking a photo of their search query with their smartphone. For example, by simply taking a photo of the Empire State Building with the application (and putting in no further information) Google provides search results on the Empire State Building based on the image.
Imagine a construction site where Gaga and Google Goggles Transcend to display and collect real-time project data and display a ground floor’s layout and piping system to the sub contractor working on it. Exactly.
While some designs such as the floating, self-sufficient marine skyscraper seem far-fetched even for the 22nd century, there is no doubt that the challenge to develop more efficient building materials, meet federal regulations and create low-impact structures is driving industry innovators. A team of researchers in California recently developed glass as tough as metal, that could become a reasonable substitute if it is ever mass produced and the cost of production drops. MIT researchers have learned (from a snail I might add) that carbon dioxide can be turned into solid construction material, and therefore all the emissions causing finger-pointing around the world might be of some use.
And have you heard of piezoelectricity? It’s defined as “the charge that gathers in solid materials like crystal and ceramic in response to strain,” meaning, in 2008 a dance club in the Netherlands installed a dance floor of piezoelectric materials that generated it’s own energy (via the people dancing all night) to change colors and save on overhead lighting. These same type of materials are now being used in roads, subway systems, and parking lots to power things like checkout lines, traffic lights, and even homes. They say they will even be able to “harness energy from minute vibrations found in items like shoes and clothing. That means a piezoelectric-equipped shirt could charge up your mobile phone after a day of activity.” I think this calls
for some new uniforms and dance floors on construction sites…
In addition, the use of plant life to literally green up architecture may seem more of a fad now but time will tell how long it will take for us all to put some sod on our roofs for increased photosynthetic energy, rainwater collection or low-cost insulation. Architects are designing everything from fields of displaced grass to orchards of native trees across the roofs and walls of the world’s most eco-friendly buildings, making an impression and setting a standard future environmental regulations may someday come to enforce.
It’s Not All Fun and Games
You may have heard of Kinect by now – the “controller-free gaming experience.” The console lets users operate the XBox 360 gaming platform via spoken commands and body movements tracked by a camera – the ultimate virtual experience. Looking to move beyond the gaming market, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has been hinting at Kinect’s next move into the corporate world – integrating with Windows and turning commercial media into a whole new game. While the most obvious potential uses for this technology seem to be marketing and promotions, it could also be used in more hands-on operations. Imagine computers, project document-displaying screens, and even equipment operable by nothing more than spoken commands and an individual strategically moving their hands. This could be better than robots.
So that’s a lot to chew on. Some of it may never amount to much more than the hype – some of it could revolutionize the industry. The point is, new technologies are not done coming, and being aware of them means you won’t be shocked when the time comes for your firm to consider using them.