Sarah Cuscadden on Construction, Cranes and the Rise of Technology
A record 735 men and women are working up to 250 metres in the sky, in tower crane cabins across Australia everyday. We know that operating a tower crane is risky business. Since 2012 there have been at least five instances of a tower crane collapsing or partially collapsing. Fortunately no fatalities have occurred, however serious injuries, significant property damage and major impact to the community resulted. According to SafeWork Australia, between 2003 and 2015, on average, every three months a construction worker was killed in an incident involving a tower crane.
TECHNOLOGY AND THE CONSTRUCTION INDUSTRY
Digital disruption has been improving workplace productivity for roughly the last ten years. According to research undertaken by McKinsey, the construction industry has not experienced productivity gains for the past ten years. Slow to adopt technologies for individual and organisational gains, the construction industry is technology’s next frontier. Notwithstanding this slow start, in the last decade there has been roughly $10 billion invested in on site technology solutions.
For those who are not technology savvy, IT can be overwhelming, a world full of gadgets and acronyms, updating software, fingerprint ID and gamification just to name a few.
Some available technologies and examples of them to improve the construction industry are:
- Wifi used for wireless networking of devices – e.g. using computers and mobile phones to access the internet.
- Virtual Reality (VR) is an experience taking place within a simulated environment – e.g. conducting a site induction via the use of headset.
- Artificial Intelligence (AI) is intelligence demonstrated by machines or computers – e.g. Building Information Modelling (BIM), illustrating the construction process based on a design plan.
- Internet of Things (IoT) is the interconnection via the Internet of computing devices embedded in everyday objects enabling them to send and receive data – e.g. plant and equipment sending a preventative maintenance service reminder to a site supervisor.
From a workplace health and safety perspective, technology is great, providing it decreases the level of risk or improves health and wellbeing. The industry has become caught up in the world of paperless systems (which is fantastic for the environment), however there is limited research that demonstrates it is reducing risk. Anecdotally though, it is improving the overall employee experience and streamlining what were once cumbersome processes.
If we examine technologies currently being used on our highest risk and most frequent activity – tower cranes – some of the available technologies include:
- Cameras on the hook of the crane, enabling the crane operator to have continual vision of the load. For those of you reading this article who may not be familiar with tower crane operations, a crane driver can be 250 metres up in the air, controlling lifting of a load from ground floor up to the top of the building without having visibility of the load. The crane operator will be relying on communication from a member of the crane crew working on the ground who can see the load. Most tower cranes are not designed/do not come fitted with cameras, the builder has to request them as an additional component. To put this into perspective, it is like driving a car without a reversing camera. Nowadays, to many, a reversing camera in the car is a standard feature that we almost can’t live without.
- Anticollision software. Where multiple cranes are working on the same construction site, within close proximity to one another, the cranes can be fitted with anti-collision software. The software notifies the crane operator that they are entering the zone of another crane and ceases the movement of the crane. Again, similar to the camera, this not a standard feature of the crane, and is installed at the request of the builder. Additionally, the anti-collision software can be turned on and off. To use the car parallel again, this is similar to having blind spot monitoring and turning it off.
Reflecting on these technologies, they are an aftermarket retrofit that could perhaps be designed into the crane as standard feature offerings. Should safety in design principles be applied to the next iteration of tower cranes?
WHAT COULD THE FUTURE LOOK LIKE?
It is not uncommon to look to other industries for product development and overall business improvements. For decades, the construction industry has looked to the oil and gas and mining industry for solutions to safety risks. The use of tower cranes in both of these industries is low in comparison to construction, however the adaption to technology is high.
Mining, like construction, involves a lot of plant and equipment. Over two decades ago, the industry began exploring autonomous trucks with a view of reducing the number of workers in the physical mining area. Through design development, virtual reality and artificial intelligence, mining companies worked with truck manufacturers and in 2013 deployed six autonomous trucks into active mining sites. The trucks are controlled by trained operators from a control centre. Since their introduction, there has been a decline in safety incidents and an improvement in productivity.
In the last six years, the product has evolved with more autonomous and semi-autonomous trucks being developed and deployed. Additionally, a retrofit pack has been created to install on older model trucks. Currently, the product is being extended to earth moving equipment such as excavators. It is important to note the human is not eliminated from the process, the person who operated the vehicle from within the cabin, is now doing so from a control room.
Could this technology be a game changer in the future of work for construction workers? Imagine construction sites where the crane operator controls the crane from a ground level control room, having sight of every single load being lifted.
The future may be within our sights. An Israeli start-up company have developed a prototype for an autonomous crane and are now seeking partnership with crane companies. As an industry, will we be brave and embrace this revolutionising technology, improving safety practices and increasing productivity or will we continue to let productivity gains plateau?
The sky is the limit, and I wonder will the construction industry rise to the challenge and exceed the achievements of the mining industry, with an autonomous crane operating in the construction industry in six year time, 2025?
Sarah is a Health and Safety Professional who has worked in the manufacturing and construction industry for over 15 years. From building sites to boardrooms, Sarah has been fortunate to see the construction of major projects, develop and lead internationally awarded safety programs.
In Her Boots is Sarah’s personal take on construction and safety matters.
Read more of Sarah’s articles here.