How the Internet of Things is Impacting the Construction Industry

New technologies, such as telematics, have been growing in the construction industry for years leading to better performing systems and decreased downtime

The phrase the Internet of Things (IoT) means any object or machine component can have sensors installed to monitor operating conditions, performance levels and/or physical states. In the construction industry, this commonly refers to telematics.

The Internet of Things isn't just permeating the construction industry. Rolls Royce, for example, installs up to 25 sensors in its commercial jet aircraft engines to measure things like temperatures, pressures, shaft speeds, vibration levels, metal content in the oil and more.

It could also mean that a worker on the manufacturing floor wears “smart glasses” that project a heads-up display with work instructions. It tells him torque specs on all the fasteners he’s tightening, or how to customize the next unit coming down the line, or lets the user create videos to train other workers on correctly performing a process.

IoT in construction equipment

As you may have noticed, right now there’s a lot of speculation and hype surrounding these new technologies. But don’t be misled — there are many companies actively using some form of machine-to-machine (M2M) communication, but they’re not raising a big fuss because why telegraph all your competitive advantages to your competitors?

When we look at the construction industry, the major equipment manufacturers are all highly invested in these concepts. At this stage of technology maturation, most applications are still harvesting the low-hanging fruit like machine hours, fuel consumption, GPS tracking and idle time. These types of data let equipment owners schedule preventive maintenance, determine optimal operating procedures, prevent theft and misuse of equipment, and more.

More sophisticated systems measure and track information like engine load, fluid temperatures and pressures, and other operational parameters. Depending on the software, you will receive varying levels of analysis to help you use the data for decision making. Better data and analytics can lead to less downtime by enabling more predictive maintenance, so you only change oil when its physical condition has deteriorated, for example. Predictive maintenance helps owners make repairs only when truly necessary.

European equipment manufacturer Atlas Copco has developed a service program for customers called RigScan. Atlas Copco technicians perform comprehensive diagnostic audits using mobile devices, testing equipment such as thermal imaging cameras, embedded sensors and other tools to essentially perform a health check-up for that particular machine. The final result is a report of all the parts and services needed to keep the equipment running within factory specifications.

For some of their customers in Canada, Atlas Copco has gone even further, integrating eCommerce functionality from software developer Digabit to build an itemized parts list and submit an order.

Equipment manufacturers plan for IoT

The growth of “intelligent machines” has been quietly happening for several years. Incremental changes every year lead to better performing systems, with users gradually growing accustomed to the new ways of doing things.

Buy or lease a new machine from Case, Komatsu, Caterpillar or others and, depending on the model, it will come standard with a package of telematics sensors and some form of software where you can see the data being gathered.

Case, for example, gives buyers a free 3-year subscription to SiteWatch, a service that offers data and reporting via website, mobile app and email. Is one of your operators using 25% more fuel than the others? Do you have a machine that has unexpectedly left the jobsite? You’ll know about it, whether you’re 10 or 1,000 miles away.

Where is this all leading? Just like your car, the manufacturers will update the technology and integrate it into the machines whether you want it or not.

What the technology can do for contractors

It’s all about total cost of ownership (TCO). How much does unscheduled downtime cost when a machine breaks down? Why does one of your operators use 40% more fuel than the average? Which parts or consumables can wait longer before being replaced? These are questions you may be able to answer if you look at the available data.

One thing you shouldn’t do is ignore the new technologies. Install the free app or log in to the manufacturer’s website, maybe you’ll glean some bit of information about your machines and operators that makes a big difference. Just think, if you have 10 machines running and can save five gallons of fuel per machine every day, that adds $25,000 to your annual bottom line.

And if you’re in the market for a new machine, you have one more set of criteria to judge before putting down your money. Right now, only machines made within the last several years have telematics installed from the factory, and mostly in larger models with the highest operating costs. Retrofitted systems are available, so you might consider that option if you own a large fleet of equipment. Consult with a solution provider if you need help figuring out the return on investment before jumping in.

The future state of IoT in construction? It’s still really up to the imagination at this point. Maybe your excavator will send out a message that it needs a new hydraulic control valve, and a self-driving service truck will arrive at the jobsite and fabricate the part on its mobile 3D printer. One thing's for sure, the Internet of Things will definitely be an area to keep an eye on.

Alan Sage, CEO of Digabit, Inc., started his first company during college and moved into the software industry in the 1990s, leaving a trail of profitable business ventures in his wake. He is a licensed pilot and Colorado native.