MCERF's RFID use study is just the tip of the iceberg for technology potential.

MCAA’s Mechanical Contracting Education and Research Foundation (MCERF) recently came out with an interesting study showing how mechanical contractors could realize significant cost savings through the use of Radio Frequency Identification Devices (RFID) for tracking tools, equipment and items such as gas bottles on jobsites. You can download the 20-page write-up of the study for free from the MCERF Web site at www.mcerf.org.

The study is limited in scope but draws attention to a construction industry issue that has not received as much attention as it deserves. That is, construction lags behind most other industries in the application of technology.

Let’s define some terms. Advances in computer technology most certainly have had a big impact in construction ranging from CAD-CAM to Internet-based project management. Communications technology likewise has steadily improved, and the green revolution now underway aims to lower energy costs by improving efficiency, although greening up a building tends to increase rather than reduce initial construction costs.

When critics speak of a lag in construction technology, they refer mainly to automating jobsite functions. Prefabrication is construction’s equivalent of Henry Ford’s assembly line, but there have been no stunning advances in either prefab or field procedures leading to dramatic reduction of construction costs. Quite the opposite, owners and contractors constantly swim upstream struggling against the expense of putting up buildings.

Google fails to reveal much published about this subject in recent times. Going all the way back to 1990, researchers from Texas A&M University published a tome titled “Research & Development in the Construction Industry: A Comparative Study of International Competitiveness.”

The Texas A&M study lamented the U.S. construction industry’s tiny investment in R&D, which lagged behind Europe’s construction industry and was about half that of Japanese construction firms that were perceived as a big competitive threat at the time. That threat never materialized to the extent predicted, which may in part explain why U.S. construction technology has been slow to develop. Simply stated, foreign competition has not forced the issue.

An even earlier study dating to 1984 by the now defunct federal Office of Technology Assessment was titled “Technology and the Future of the U.S. Construction Industry.” Though dated, this study reveals some insights that help explain construction’s lag in technology.

  • U.S. construction firms tend to be providers of services and brokers of technology rather than technology developers. Contractors are constantly constrained by having to conform to specifications developed by other parties who do not seek the potential benefits that can be derived from the contractor’s experiences.

     

  • Contractors tend toward conservative choices in construction approaches, being primarily concerned with producing on time and under budget. They have little incentive to perform beyond the minimum standard.

     

  • Construction’s cyclicality makes participants hesitant to invest in R&D that has long-term benefits. Industries prefer to put their money away to carry them through the hard times rather than use it for R&D.

     

  • Because there is little vertical integration in construction, no single manufacturer has a strong interest in the interface of all the materials in a building. The result is that it has not been profitable for private companies to perform integrated research.

     

  • Many construction products have few substitutes, which reduces the incentive to invest in R&D.

    Back to the present and future, we applaud MCERF for ignoring these excuses and striding forward to investigate a new technology with now demonstrable benefits for mechanical contractors. This research grew out of a 2004 MCERF study that analyzed “Five Key Trends for the Future of the Mechanical Contracting Industry.” Those trends included other technological breakthroughs in areas such as nanotechnology and sensor diagnostics.

    With skilled labor in dire short supply, and with building costs escalating beyond reason in many cases, mechanical contractors have new incentives not envisioned in the 1980s and ’90s to employ new technologies on the jobsite. This industry is lucky to have an organization like MCERF identifying construction technology as an issue of concern and tackling it with an eye toward practical applications.