Rory San Miguel is the co-founder and CEO of Propeller Aero, a drone and construction technology company. Opinions are those of the author.
The construction industry in the United States continues to experience a severe labor shortage, with up to 650,000 workers needed to fill the voida median workforce age of 41 and many key workers on the verge of retirement. Technology has the potential to help bridge this gap, and while there is strong industry interest in adopting new technologies, many entrepreneurs are slow to act, often reverting to reliable analog systems for convenience.
Yet as companies scramble to find long-term recruiting solutions and implement cutting-edge technologies, they face immediate and growing pressure to act on the momentum of $125 billion in federal contracts recently appropriated in the Infrastructure Investment and Employment Act.
Faced with so many converging challenges, the U.S. construction industry should take a page out of Japan’s book, especially its successful “i-Construction” program – a model for creating a culture of technology adoption and attracting a hand – of younger workforce.
Japan’s big bet on construction technology
In the spring of 2016, the Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism introduced the i-Construction Program to drive innovation and increase productivity. Japan was facing problems similar to those currently occurring in the United States: the number of workers on its construction sites had to decrease by 1.3 million by 2025.
The i-Construction program was set up to address these issues by mandating the use of advanced information and communication technologies at every stage of publicly funded projects.
For project planning, Japan encouraged construction operators to use more precise imaging tools, including laser mapping and drone surveying technology, which reduced the number of people needed to map a site and produce more accurate 3D terrain models. Japan has also used automated earthmoving equipment that uses 3D data for millimeter-level guided precision, reducing the amount of disturbed soil and mitigating the environmental impacts of construction. For more efficient management, Japanese construction companies have even looked beyond their job sites, implementing intelligent construction platforms that connect all of a project’s humans, objects, and precision data into a single cloud.
As an added incentive, bids for public projects that propose to use government-approved technologies score extra points, motivating Japanese entrepreneurs to integrate new tools from the early stages of a project. Having made the adoption of construction technologies a necessity for competitive bids and efficient government projects, advanced technological solutions are paying dividends in terms of increased productivity for Japan.
Adoption of the framework in the United States
Current technology adoption in the United States is primarily driven by individual companies leveraging advanced tools such as 3D printing and sustainable equipment of their own free will. However, the industry needs more sufficient guidance to widespread adoption, and this can happen more easily if there is an almost universal motivator.
Beyond $100 million over five years In the Building Technology Infrastructure Act, the government would do well to require that all federal construction project bids incorporate new technologies as a prerequisite.
Savvy US entrepreneurs already gain an edge when they incorporate the right technologies into their offerings and this requirement would only increase industry-wide adoption and fuel broader cultural change for the sector.
Use of exciting tools such as machine position trackers and advanced technologies automated equipment will not only attract a new generation of workers, but also create a culture committed to consistent technology adoption, ensuring a sustained influx of young workers seeking to join cutting-edge industry.
Fostering American Innovation
Encouraging the use of new technologies will reduce labor shortages and environmental impact, while attracting tech-savvy talent to join the dwindling workforce in the US construction industry.
In Japan, i-Construction elevated the entire construction industry, and a similar framework can accelerate the same innovation in the United States to create more efficient job sites with workers eager to infuse technology at every step. .
With Japan as its inspiration, the United States can use technology to lead the next era of global construction advancement.