The building industry has evolved at a rate that few of us could have imagined years ago. New materials, new tools, new building systems, and even new modes of communication are being adopted at what seems an exponentially accelerated pace.
For example, one only needs to look at how fast wireless communications moved from “nice-to-have” to “mission-critical” on jobsites to appreciate the speed of change and the impact it has had on the trades.
Some of these jobsite changes are responses to code updates, cost and schedule pressures, evolution in building designs, changes in commodity prices, and the like. However, there are also larger technological and demographic shifts at work beyond the jobsite, such as the rise of the Internet and increasing diversity in the trades.
It is not enough for tool designs to evolve simply at the rate of change, like a raft floating on a river that is carried along by the pace of the current. Tool manufacturers must power downstream faster than the pace of the current. This can be difficult to do. Sometimes new technologies are not as robust as their tried-and-true predecessors.
Moving faster than the pace of change requires diligence and focus. You have to stay true to the basics, such as dependable tools for tough jobsite conditions, while constantly scanning for technologies that can deliver real benefit. Navigating these dynamic waters can be a daunting challenge, but also exhilarating when tool innovation overlaps changing user needs without sacrificing basic reliability.
Simple To UseThe explosion of the Internet over the past decade, driven to a large degree by its intuitive design, enabled many to learn point-and-click navigation on the fly. This was a huge leap forward for all who had dealt with complicated software programs accompanied by massive owner’s manuals (often not read or even discarded) and complex configurations.
Given the Internet’s proliferation and unprecedented cultural adoption, haven’t we all come to expect that electronic devices must be simple to use when getting started?
The evolution of pipe inspection and locating technology offers an example of how this changing expectation for simplicity has played out on the jobsite. After needed advances in ruggedness brought camera technology to sewer inspections more than 10 years ago, tradesmen needed a simple way to locate the camera before excavating.
Sonde locators, which located the transmitter inside a sewer camera, had been around decades but were not simple to use. These extremely complicated devices required extensive training and deep knowledge of electromagnetic theory before the user could accurately interpret locator readings. In addition, traditional locators could produce an inaccurate reading if the user did not follow the correct procedure, or was simply unaware of the locator’s orientation to the sonde.
These devices worked well enough when understood and used carefully. But most companies had to rely on a single employee to run the system due to the steep learning curve and because much was at stake when pinpointing the camera before excavating.
This limitation constrained use of locators on jobs where they could add accuracy and potentially more business.
What was needed was a more intuitive tool, one that almost anyone could learn to use quickly. So a much simpler, but also more powerful, new locator has been created that is very easy for users to operate. It’s not sensitive to angle or direction, and its LCD screen displays a simple numerical progression. Walk toward the underground target and the number on the screen increases; walk away from it and the number decreases.
No matter how you approach it, the largest number pinpoints the exact location of the transmitter. It’s a little like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. Only this way, users snap their fingers and make the “hay” disappear to find the target.
A system this easy to operate means any number of employees can use it, which greatly improves efficiency. This increase in locating simplicity also did not sacrifice dependability, as the tools that deliver this information have proven themselves over the years.
Now piggybacking these advances are easy-to-use locators that trace buried wires and pipes. These tools allow tradesmen to bring all of their employees along the utility-locating learning curve quickly, thereby reducing training time and increasing accuracy.
DiversityThe need for simplicity has never been greater for tradesmen as the makeup of the trades becomes increasingly diverse, including workers for whom English is not their first language. We also find more women attracted to the trades these days who sometimes approach problems differently than their male counterparts.
In the wake of the famously aging baby boomer workforce comes a general sense that we now or very soon will lack sufficient numbers of experienced construction workers. This likely will attract young people back to the trades, which is always good news.
But these demographic shifts also raise the stakes as they create chances for misunderstanding or miscommunication - never a good thing on a jobsite. So the need for “point-and-click” simplicity is doubly important.
Another representation of significant change again can be attributed to recent technological advances, such as GPS navigation, that offer the ability to do and know more than ever before. Many of us remember the days before GPS, when the best way to navigate involved putting both hands on a fold-out map while one knee supported the steering wheel. Now we have access to real-time answers to our questions so we know in which direction to go.
Applying this concept to the trades, look at the new, behind-the-wall mini-cameras that are now available to let you do and see more. You can view and reach “unreachable” nooks and crannies in wall cavities, ductwork, utility boxes and hundreds of other dark, hidden spaces. The lighted probes are 3 feet long, which is usually all it takes to locate critical features, but can be lengthened to more than 20 feet. Not only can you explore hidden spaces, but the probe behind the lens can be fitted with a hook, magnet or a mirror to see around corners.
So where do we go from here? While not all change is good change, there is recognition that technology flowing at these speeds can never reverse course. Looking forward, here are the forces we see at work: