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Construction technology labs: 3 examples of a new (and exciting) trend

In my more than 14 years in construction technology, one challenge has always been difficult to overcome: introducing new technology on an active job. Unless the team, or one dedicated team member, is excited to try something new and take on the work sparked by trying out the new tech, the day-to-day pressure to deliver projects and change existing team processes are significant barriers to getting technology tried out in a meaningful way. Also, it’s often hard to measure the new technology’s value because the focus is on delivering the project, not on updating or measuring its methods.

New tech is often the last priority for project teams

Some construction companies are addressing this issue through dedicated innovation teams that identify and experiment with new technology. This improves attention and measurement, but doesn’t help the fundamental issue of needing somewhere to try the tech. Simply put, to try construction tech, you need construction sites. And most sites have enough safety, cost, quality, and schedule risks without introducing technology and process risk as well.

Unfortunately, the result is a slower adoption cycle for construction technology than seen in other industries. New technology has to wait for the right project to start, break ground and finally start building. What if the answer to accelerating tech usage in construction isn’t just more innovation headcount, but…more construction?

Enter the construction tech lab

Suffolk, Obayashi and Oracle host construction tech labs, mockups of construction in process, which help integrate new technology to job sites. Instead of facing the challenges of bringing tech to a site, companies can see the tech in action at a lab. Each organization takes its own unique approach to the concept.

Oracle’s Construction and Engineering Innovation lab is a testbed & showcase for Oracle and it’s partner technologies

I’m just back from visiting Oracle’s new Construction and Engineering Innovation lab, located north of Chicago. It launched in late summer of 2018 and replicates a jobsite from the doublewide trailer (complete down to a paper plan table and desks made from doors) to mockups of various phases of construction in a fenced off site (excavation, structural steel, and more). The purpose of the lab is to allow tech-curious AEC companies to see and physically try out a number of different technologies, all in a controlled environment. Visitors to the lab can see Oracle construction tech in action in one of a variety of flows, including partners tech such as Triax, Reconstruct and others. Notably, the focus is on how partner technologies integrate with the Oracle solutions to bring the best value to joint customers. According to Oracle Construction and Engineering, Innovation Officer, Burcin Kaplanoglu, the lab has been absolutely jammed with visitors, with some prominent innovation leaders showing up over an hour early to the opening (you know who you are). 

Oracle Innovation LabGetting a tour of the Oracle Innovation Lab from Burcin Kaplanoglu (middle) along with Newmetrix vice president of products, Dmitry Grenader (right).

Obayashi’s Silicon Valley Venture Lab (SVVL)

Late last year I had a couple of opportunities to visit Obayashi’s Silicon Valley Ventures Lab (SVVL). Obayashi, a $17B USD Japanese builder and #15 on ENR’s International Contractor list, has made technology R&D a core part of the company strategy. Some projects are “far out,” such as a space elevator (!). Down here on earth, Obayashi is taking a practical approach: building a lab and hosting a competition to engage the construction tech startup ecosystem. The SVVL, like the Oracle lab, has a physical space (in this case, a warehouse) for trying new tech at scale. It features a full section of rebar in various states of placement and tying. Cool fact: the rebar came from Japan to exactly match the tolerances required for that market.

For all the startups out there, check out the SVVL challenge. The 2018 competition is now over, but all signs point to a new one happening in 2019.

Suffolk’s regional SmartLabs

Last but definitely not least, Suffolk, a ~$4 billion builder based here in New England, recognized the construction tech challenge in November 2017 and launched a series of regional SmartLabs for the company’s offices around the country. The spaces feature giant monitor walls, live feeds of jobsite data and some small site mockups. SmartLabs serve multiple purposes, including being a technology showcase for internal teams, training center, and collaboration space for work with trades, owners and partners (like Newmetrix). We recently finished some product collaboration with Suffolk in one of the SmartLabs, and it was really productive to be surrounded by Microsoft surfaces for display and note taking and awesome to see all of the project data streaming in.

Suffolk SmartLabNewmetrix running safety AI on site imagery in the Suffolk SmartLab video monitoring wall

Will labs accelerate technology adoption?

To me, the answer is a clear “yes.” Oracle’s lab is exposing hundreds of companies to technologies they would never get to see without a long process of project identification and trials. Obayashi is using its lab to field test cutting-edge technologies, like AR workflows for rebar QA/QC. Suffolk’s SmartLabs help internal and external teams use their tech stack daily. It’s a sign of the construction world’s maturity that these labs exist--we’re starting to address the factors that have slowed the industry’s technology adoption rate.

Where does it go from here?

In the future, new construction organizations will launch lab environments. Autodesk already has a lab infrastructure, originally built for manufacturing with the company’s investment in build spaces--perhaps those will convert to also host construction work areas. Trimble is known for doing site mockups in parallel to construction technology conferences, and Procore could create a jobsite testbed next door to its offices--giving companies yet another reason to visit Carpinteria, CA (in addition to the weather, food and surfing).

Do you know of other labs or physical spaces to try technology? Let me know - I’d love to check them out.  

Written by Josh Kanner

Josh Kanner has been involved in enterprise-focused software startups since 2000 with a focus in the AEC (architecture, engineering and construction) industry since 2005.

Most recently he was co-founder of Vela Systems, a pioneer in the use of web and tablet workflows for construction and capital projects. There he led the company’s product, marketing, and business development functions. Vela Systems grew from bootstrapped beginnings to include over 50% of the ENR Top Contractors as customers and deployments all over the globe. The company was successfully acquired by Autodesk in 2012 and has been rebranded as BIM 360 Field.

Prior to founding Vela Systems, Josh was responsible for product management and strategy at Emptoris (now part of IBM), a web-based strategic sourcing software company with customers including Motorola, GlaxoSmithKline, Bank of America, and American Express.

Kanner graduated from Brown University and earned an MBA from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. He still gets excited to put on a hard hat and walk a job.

View more posts by Josh Kanner.

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