The glass and glazing industry is busy with work in this strong economy, but labor productivity gains in the construction industry are more uncertain. Three experts argue that there have been labor productivity increases with in the industry, and technology has contributed to that growth.

The webinar “How Technology is Helping Construction Achieve Productivity Gains,” hosted by Engineering News-Record, addressed how technology can improve productivity on projects. Kenneth Simonson, chief economist at Associated General Contractors (AGC) of America, Leo Sveikauskas, research economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and Wayne Crew, general secretary of the National Academy of Construction all participated.

“For so many decades we’ve heard that construction has not achieved any productivity gains and actually had productivity losses. Or, if there have been gains, they’ve been extremely sluggish and infrequent,” says Simonson. “In the last 15 months though, two important studies have come out.”

Simonson referenced a McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) study on global productivity

“McKinsey found that construction productivity does exist, it is not a chimera,” he says. It’s much lower than overall productivity in most economies and far lower than manufacturing but there does seem to have been an upward trend.”

On the heavy construction side, which does not include residential construction, MGI identifies the problems as “unaligned contractual and incentive structures characterized by hostility and changes due to increasingly complex projects, heavy regulations and corruption in some regions.”

“Construction projects are complex, often designed without precedent. Construction is done in an environment with heavy regulation, though are some important for safety, public interest and the environmental. Regulation has needlessly slowed down innovation,” says Simonson.

He also says that incentives are focusing on the wrong behavior, and instead should reward innovation and an increase in the lifecycle value of a project.

According to Simonson, 83 percent of approximately 1,500 firms reported to AGC that they have trouble filling hourly of salary positions. Of those contractors, 47 percent combat the labor shortage by paying overtime, 46 percent do in-house training, 22 percent invest in labor-saving equipment, tools and machinery, 15 percent use lean construction and 7 percent use virtual construction methods such as business information modeling (BIM).

“Workers hired today are more likely to have no previous construction experiences and the resulting productivity would be lower than who they’re filling in for,” says Simonson.

He says that companies having trouble, presumably, would want to improve the skills of their labor more rapidly, but most dealing on small scale with little incentive to invest in extensive training or equipment to do BIM.

According to Crew, owners have to be the push behind BIM growth.

“We’ve seen the most success when owners select suppliers based on ability to participate in modeling efforts,” he says. “The owners are then responsible for pushing the use of technology forward because they demand it be done that way.”

Scanned BIM technology can be used to compare the reality of a project with the plan for construction progress monitoring.

Other technology improving construction productivity are visualization technology, prefabrication (such as pre-assembled curtainwall), warble bio-engineered exoskeletons, semi-automated masons, and artificial intelligence.

“Prefab and pre-assembly is growing. The biggest push has been the labor force in the field and the scarcity of labor. Also, projects have continued to grow. As more labor is required, companies are using a strategy to diversifying risk by moving what was historically done in the field to pre-fab and pre-assembly locations,” says Crew.

There are no statistics to show how prefabrication has increase productivity, but studies have measured an increase during the past 10 to 15 years, according to Crew.

Sveikauskas addressed how the BLS is measuring productivity.

“Construction is so complex. There’s no replicating the same structure you had before to be able to compare productivity which is a crucial problem. Also, construction styles and models are changing so rapidly, it’s hard to compare one year with previous years,” he says.

It’s also difficult to measure which companies are replacing labor with materials. There could be more output her unit of labor because of large material inputs that aren’t being accounted.

However, BLS has noticed productivity improvements in the construction industry.

Industrial building productivity has increased 5.3 percent from 2007 to 2016. Single-family housing productivity was up 1.1 percent in the same time period.