A Contract Glazier’s Journey to Jobsites of the Future

By Ellen Rogers with contributions by Trey Barrineau and Jordan Scott

Who’s going to do the work? That’s a question and concern all too familiar to the con-tract glazing industry. Lack of skilled labor has become one of the biggest challenges for not just contract glaziers, but the entire construction industry. Given the aging workforce, spotty recruiting, and the lack of talent to fill those positions, many companies are looking for answers—and employees. Who’s going to do the work? The answer might be robots. Just ask international construction firm Balfour Beatty, which recently published a report that explores the future of construction job-sites—and it gets right to the point: “the construction site of 2050 will be human-free.”

The study goes on to say that these robots will work in teams to build complex structures, and there will be elements of the building that will self-assemble. There will be increasing use of drones to scan the site and inspect the work, “using the data collected to predict and solve problems before they arise, sending instructions to robotic cranes and diggers and automated builders with no need for human involvement.” Humans will oversee all of this remotely, “accessing 3-D and 4-D visuals and data from the on-site machines, ensuring the build is proceeding to specification.”

This may all seem a bit far-fetched, and 2050 may seem light-years away, but it’s not. Technology and innovation are developing rapidly. We don’t yet know whether a human-free job-site will truly become reality, but we have already seen how modern-day advances are driving change.

Future Jobsites and What to Expect

“Emerging technologies will certainly play an increasing role in façade design and de-livery; robotics, digital printing, augmented (AR) and virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence, voice-user interfaces, and other advanced digital processes,” says Mic Patterson, director of strategic development for Schuco USA LLLC of New-ington, Conn.

Tom Jackson, president and architectural division manager of Steel En-counters in Salt Lake City, points out that the rapid climb in technology is starting to emerge on jobsites.

“I believe that there will be a shift in robotic autonomy in construction,” he says. “Bulldozers and site work leveling are already being controlled autonomously; this has been around a while. In the glazing industry, we’ve seen lots and lots of glass handling manipulation equipment become available, as well as a rapid increase in that technology.”

The use of radio-frequency identification (RFID) is another technology Jackson thinks the industry will start to incorporate.

“I believe in conjunction with fabricators we will see glass tags with RFID chips. The workers will install frames onsite during the day, then at night a ma-chine will read the RFID chip, pull the glass, roll across the jobsite, and put the glass in its place. You’re back the next day, and the glass is installed,” he says. “What will drive this [change] is injuries and the wear and tear on the workforce.”

Let’s Stay Connected

Digital technologies and innovations could also find their way to jobsites in the future. According to the Balfour Beatty study, VR and AR both have significant potential. These technologies enable users “to experience the structure as if it had already been built and understand what the structure will look like before it has been finalized. This allows detailed and accurate feedback on the proposals before construction begins, resulting in an end product which matches, as closely as possible, the customer’s requirements.”

While it may not yet be common practice in the glass industry, advances in AR paired with wearable technology can help improve worker safety at jobsites.

“Daqri Smart Helmet and Daqri Smart Glasses provide benefits to all aspects of the contract glazing industry. In the design and project planning phase, AR pre-visualization of the final construction in context of the building helps the team iterate on design, identify constraints and accurately demonstrate the final product to the customer,” says Michael Miller, Daqri marketing and communications manager. “This visualization helps all stakeholders come to agreement before any work begins. During installation, AR work instructions decrease training time for novices or provide a quick refresher for experts. Overall, this leads to fewer errors and improved efficiency.”

Daqri has created headsets to improve worker safety and efficiency. The Smart Helmet, for example, allows wearers to see thermal imaging of their surroundings, which aids inspections, auditing and safety checks by spotting thermal anomalies.

Both the smart helmet and smart glasses are adjustable for use on in-door or outdoor projects. They provide data visualization to reduce the movement necessary to check some mechanical parameters. Users can assign and access instructions and relate project data to maximize efficiency and reduce errors.

Digital and wireless connectivity is another area that will continue to increase. Jackson says his company already relies heavily on the use of apps developed specifically for the company that are loaded onto cellular phones. Steel Encounters has developed an employee app that provides access to a range of information resources such as the employee directory, benefits, company news, access to their payroll records, safety handbook, online training, and their insurance information.

“Employees are kept up to date with the latest company news through push notifications,” adds Jackson. “The app also includes information about our re-cent awarded projects, articles and news stories about us … it’s great for employment engagement.”

Steel Encounters has another app it uses specifically for project management. It provides access to construction documents and other materials and can notify the contractor of site condition issues, for example. The company also has an app for safety, which Jack-son says has a learning management system within it.

“With this app I can see at any time the safety rating of every job, the foreman and the employees based on their actions,” says Jackson. “I can see who’s attended our toolbox meetings, safety trainings, etc. I’m doing these things to develop my workforce.” He adds they also have an app that serves as a training portal that gives employees the monthly recorded “Tech Talks” on energy codes, glass and glazing codes, fire codes, etc.

Need a lift? Try calling a self-driving car. Though not on a mass scale, the move toward driver-less vehicles is one new technology that’s already here. More and more auto makers are jumping on board and developing autonomous vehicles, which are predicted to eventually be mainstream. So, you might wonder, what will happen to the market for glass transportation and shipping with the move to-ward driverless vehicles?

John Weise, president of Barkow Inc. in Milwaukee, agrees that automation is almost everywhere and increasing constantly.

“Autonomous vehicles will happen. It’s now a question of when, not if,” he says, though he points out it may be some time before they are commonplace in the glazing industry.

“Autonomous large trucks may make a lot of sense for companies like Budweiser or Walmart when they have very few different products on board,” he says. “Our customers might make any-where from two to 15 stops in a day, often with a wide variety of products, so this technology is not yet practical. Additionally, often times the jobsites are not finished like a nice drive-up dock. We will see this technology in our industry. How-ever, how it’s adapted and when is still up in the air.”

Michael Frett, director of sales for My-GlassTruck.com in Glassboro, N.J., says his company expects autonomous delivery vehicles to greatly disrupt the trucking and glazing industries over the next few decades. “Jobsites will look a lot different than they do today. Autonomous graders, excavators and safety vehicles, along with robots and drones are already changing the landscape,” he says.

For the glazing industry specifically, Frett anticipates trucks that will look much different than they do today–no cab and virtually all rack.

“The truck will navigate to a jobsite using GPS technology instead of a driver. Trucks can virtually run 24/7 because there will be no hours-of-service rules,” says Frett. “Real-time logistics will enable companies to enhance profitability by scheduling third party loads on backhauls. The task of job-site delivery may shift from in-house to third-party logistics providers who can optimize the profitability of the delivery vehicle.”

Frett also says that as construction practices change, different racking configurations will be required to transport pre-assembled glass components that have been manufactured, or even printed using 3-D models of the structure they’re to be installed onto.

“Racks will have sensors that provide data on when maximum capacity is reached; that cleats are properly holding the glass in place; and the load is properly balanced,” he says. “Adjustable racks that can be modified to accommodate changing shapes of glass components may become a sought-after commodity.”

Frett adds that his company also maintains a dedicated in-house engineering staff that utilizes 3-D software to create models of their glass trucks and trailers. “These models already help customers see and modify their equipment be-fore manufacturing starts, and in the future, will enable companies to easily integrate the truck bodies and trailers we manufacture into their autonomous vehicles.”

Unitized by Automation

According to the Balfour Beatty study, continuing to invest in new technologies is something that could help address the challenges of finding and keeping skilled labor. It also notes that the growing use of robotics and automation can help the industry become more productive. With that, we can expect to see a greater increase to-ward pre-fabrication, such as unitized curtainwall, which can also save time and labor on the jobsite.

“The price points between unitized and stick-built curtainwall are much closer together than they were even five years ago,” says Jackson. “Unitized is still more expensive, but it’s becoming more efficient, and the prices are getting closer and closer.”

Jackson also points out that there are a lot of good robotics for manufacturing available, but that price point is still high.

“I know of companies that have ma-chines to screw frames together … The technology is there, just not to the level of large curtainwall units,” he says. “I think within a few years it will become more commonplace as price pressure pushes technology to drive down labor costs.”

According to a new study from the Midwest Economic Policy Institute and the Project for Middle Class Renewal at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, automation could eventually replace up to 49 percent of the country’s human construction workforce by 2057—that’s around 2.7 million people.

However, the report also notes that there are many tasks that currently can’t be automated, and that includes glazing, as well as door and window installation.

There are some examples, though, of human door and window installers working alongside robots. Blueprint Robotics in Baltimore builds modular housing on a robotic assembly line. The company says it can produce about 40 feet of framed wall in about 11 minutes. Robots then cut the rough openings for doors and windows. After drywall, insulation and siding are added, a pneumatic gantry lifts the doors or windows, sets them in the openings and secures them in place.

“Whether through the use of robotics, virtual reality or other technological innovations, automation has been increasing productivity, reducing costs and improving quality,” adds study co-author Jill Manzo. “With capital growing, the industry struggling with skilled labor shortages, and our nation facing growing infrastructure needs, it is fair to conclude that the pace of automation is likely to accelerate in the decades to come.”

Look, Up in the Sky

In 2016 the Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration finalized the first operational rules for commercial use of small unmanned drones. Also known as un-manned aircraft systems or unmanned aircraft vehicles, drones have been a prospective tool for many segments of the construction industry. Over the past couple of years, drones have slowly but surely been making their way onto more and more jobsites, and some contract glaziers are using these devices during the installation phase. Drones can be used to monitor progress, identify is-sues and inspect quality without having to physically elevate up many stories.

The use of drones can also be beneficial to increasing a jobsite’s level of safety. According to a Dodge Data & Analytics study titled “Safety Management in the Construction Industry 2017,” almost one quarter of contractors are using drones to promote safety onsite for functions such as reality capture that allow for digital analysis of existing conditions, though that number drops to just 6 percent when looking at trade contractors alone.

The Next 30 Years

Whatever the future holds for the technologies adopted by the contract glazing industry, Patterson says the biggest changes may likely come in the manner in which buildings are delivered, the individuals involved, the stakeholders, their relationships and responsibilities.

“The still-emerging design-assist practices have been among the most useful innovations in the building industry in the past decade, particularly with respect to façade delivery. The integration of these processes is certain to continue because of the efficiencies produced and the risk mitigation they bring to the stakeholders, particularly the developer,” Patterson says. “The future building developer is likely to benefit from some significant consolidation in the building process, perhaps dealing with just three primary contracting entities: structure, shell and systems (mechanical/electrical/plumbing, lighting) and interior finishes. The shell and systems are becoming increasingly integrated—think daylighting and the relationship between the façade system, shading systems, electric lighting systems and the building management systems. A contractor willing to provide this entire scope as a single-source, warrantied product to a building developer will emerge as a market leader.”

While it’s interesting to think about what jobsites will be like 30 or 40 years from now, these technologies and innovations are still in their infancy. Whatever the future holds, anticipate and plan for changes to help your company survive and thrive.

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