6 min read / January 27, 2021 / Andrew Heckman
The construction industry continues to face a critical shortage of heavy equipment operators. In January of 2020, an analysis of government data by the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) showed that construction employment increased by 151,000 in 2019, with 20,000 of that in December alone. Contractors expected increased hiring in 2020 but also anticipated difficulty filling slots as construction unemployment set a record December low.
While the pandemic response derailed 2020 hiring plans, at least temporarily, construction firms will likely have to contend with a dwindling number of experienced operators when projects come back online. In a separate survey by Autodesk and the AGC, 80% of construction firms reported having a hard time filling hourly craft positions that represent the bulk of the construction workforce. “Workforce shortages remain one of the single most significant threats to the construction industry,” Stephen E. Sandherr, AGC’s chief executive officer said of the survey results.
“Construction workforce shortages are prompting many firms to innovate their way to greater productivity,” said Allison Scott, head of construction integrated marketing at Autodesk. “As the cost of labor continues to increase and firms look to become even more efficient, technology can enable better collaboration and ultimately lead to more predictable outcomes.”
Potentially adding to the backlog, a massive U.S. infrastructure rebuild, long sought by both parties in Washington, may finally come to fruition in 2021, with a budget projected to be as much as $1.5 trillion.
For many firms, finding work to do will not be the problem. The problem will be finding enough people to do the work.
Many firms turning to smart technology and automation
If construction project funding increases as expected, earth moving firms may find themselves struggling to expand their crews to keep up with demand and to complete jobs on time and on budget.
Construction firms that rely on dozers and excavators will likely not only need to hire new operators, but also will need to get those operators working effectively as soon as possible. And they’ll need to get more done every shift.
In an effort to cope, many firms are turning to technological solutions. Scott noted that 29% of firms report they are investing in technology to supplement worker duties. A quarter of firms report using cutting-edge solutions, such as drones, robots, 3-D printers and other steps to improve job site performance.
Fortunately, for firms needing to get dozer and excavator crews up to speed quickly, smart technology may provide a solution.
What is “smart” construction?
Smart technology uses cutting-edge data processing solutions to automate many of the more position-oriented tasks associated with heavy equipment operation. Using GPS to identify boundaries, set digging depths, establish design surfaces and track machine movement, smart technology enables users to pursue greater productivity. Programming 3D design data into equipped machines can help improve both accuracy and efficiency.
For example, operators don’t need to look to a grade checker/laborer or use ground stakes for guidance on where to move earth. Instead, they are guided by software that controls blade and bucket movement with sophisticated automation that can dig exactly where needed and precisely to grade.
“Smart Construction was born from the needs of customers — what do they want to accomplish and what are the roadblocks they’re encountering?” said Jason Anetsberger, director, Customer Solutions at Komatsu America. “Every single smart construction solution — whether cloud, hardware or service-based — aims to answer those common customer needs.”
Construction firms have seen smart machines help new operators more quickly improve work efficiency when compared to conventional manual operation.
More sophisticated smart systems, such as Komatsu’s intelligent Machine Control (iMC), incorporate capabilities that reduce operator steering input, allowing new operators to contribute almost immediately and more experienced ones to work more efficiently.
Smart technology to meet job site demands
“Smart construction goes beyond just machines to address the job site as a whole,” said Anetsberger. “When trying to optimize any job site operation, you need to look at the entire workflow and neighboring processes. Sometimes the solution for increasing truck loads exported from the site is not more trucks but increased visualization of asset location, improved communication of target grade to the loading tool, and real-time reporting of progress to site managers”
Firms that have incorporated smart technology into their machines and workflow report outstanding results. A smart dozer, “… eliminated our need to survey a site or use stakes,” said Jim Bougalis of Hibbing, Minnesota-based George Bougalis and Sons Co. “Plus the operator doesn’t need as much experience to be effective,” he continued. “It makes us 20 to 30 percent faster on jobs.”
“With the workforce shortage, [smart] machines definitely help create operating roles, because new guys can just hop in at day one and hold grade a lot better because the blade is doing its own controls,” said Brady Ives, foreman for WAECO Construction. "All guys have to worry about is going back and forth and steering left and right.”
“It’s the wave of the future.” noted Darin Spielman of Spielman Excavating of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “We have some old-school operators and once they got a little training and saw the technology in action, they were sold.”
Collin Miller, co-owner of Miller Contractors, Inc. of Jackson, TN, has found that smart machines help ensure they only move dirt once. “It also expands our operator pool,” he said. “We now have more people who can jump in the cab and grade a site. Plus, with labor being so hard to find, it makes the hiring process a little easier, too. We no longer need someone with 25 years of experience to make sure that our sites are on-grade; the dozers do that for us.”
Komatsu is using construction of its mining division’s future headquarters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as a test site for the latest capabilities of its Smart Construction platform.
At the job site, Cornerstone One, which is handling footing and foundations, is using the smart technologies for advanced data collection and sharing. A.W. Oakes & Son Inc. is using drones to photograph the site, providing more information than is available from just the sensors on the excavators. You can read more about the project at bizjournals.com.
Be ready with smart construction
Construction firms may be poised to have some of their best years ever, should COVID-postponed projects finally get off the ground in 2021 and the federal government launches a long overdue infrastructure improvement plan. And they don’t have to be held back by a lack of experienced operators. By incorporating smart technologies into their workflows, firms with vision can make the most of a potentially historic period for U.S. construction.
How could smart technology help you manage operator shortages and improve job site productivity? Click here to learn more.