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Erik Diederich, director of business development for Industrial Builders of Fargo, N.D., pilots a DJI Phantom 4 drone in the company's supply yard. IMAGE: NICK NELSON/FORUM NEWS SERVICE

Robo-build: Automation streamlines the region's construction sites

Forget blue collar, when it comes to the construction industry.

Think Nanotex collar instead. Or maybe smart-fabric collar, in honor of the new fabric that can turn clothes into wearable keycards and barcodes.

How else would you describe a field that now calls for piloting drones, programming robots, producing high-density scans and presiding over self-driving bulldozers?

For those are the jobs of today’s construction workers – or more likely tomorrow’s, as the advances described in this story catch on.

“When it comes to using new technology, the construction industry has historically been a laggard,” said Erik Diederich, director of business development for Industrial Builders of Fargo, N.D.

“So we’re still in the stage of case study and early adoption on the construction bell curve.”

But the workforce shortage is so critical, and the productivity gains are so impressive, that more and more contractors are taking note.

“We’re poised,” Diederich said.

“And if the technology keeps increasing like it’s doing now, I’m sure it will change the way companies do business.”

Here’s a look at some of the key ways automation already is influencing the construction industry in our region.


Around the country, as many as one in five construction companies already use drones, Construction World reported.

Drone use is less common in our area, said Diederich, who’s both a drone operator for Industrial Builders and the national chairperson for the Association of General Contractors’ drone task force.

But the region won’t lag for long. “When something comes along that’s as revolutionary as drones,” Diederich said, “people tend to really perk up. That’s because the savings and the productivity increases can be so high.”

Drones in construction serve two basic functions, Diederich said.  

The first is communication. “Until now, there’s been no good way to show the world what we do in heavy construction,” Diederich said.

Drones have changed that. Now, companies can showcase their projects from a whole new perspective, using images and video shot from 150 feet in the air.

“That has really changed the way we communicate, not only with the public but also with clients and internally,” he said.

The second use is engineering. And in that realm, the efficiency gains already are vast.

“Think about something like surveying a stockpile,” Diederich said.

Highway contractors routinely do that to track inventory, and the job used to take multiple hours and a two-man crew.

“Now, we can fly that mission in 25 or 30 minutes,” he said. Extend that example to site surveying, tower inspections and other complex tasks, and you’ll see that “what used to take tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars now takes one drone operator and a $1,500 drone.

“Those are the kinds of savings we’re seeing all over the country,” Diederich said. “It’s pretty fun to watch.”

Prefab materials

Like drones, prefabrication is a construction tool that’s big here but even bigger elsewhere, especially overseas. In Japan, for example, “more than 15 percent of the nearly 1 million new homes and apartments built there in 2016 were made inside factories, either as stackable modular blocks or panelized walls and floors pieced together on empty lots,” reported.

Also like drones, prefab’s popularity is rapidly growing.

Construction Engineers in Grand Forks is among those who’ve seen the gains. That’s why when the time came to build the new Clay County Correctional Facility in Clay County, Minn., Construction Engineers used cells that were made in Georgia.

“Each cell is about 70 square feet and comes with certain amenities,” said Ben Matson,

senior project manager for Construction Engineers.

The Georgia firm, SteelCell of North America, makes modular cells that include bunks, light fixtures, sinks, toilets and doors. “In January, the cells got delivered that way, about three on a truck,” Matson said.

“Basically, you just lift them off, slide them into place, level them as needed, connect the plumbing and electrical, and do the next one.”

If Construction Engineers had built the jail with traditional masonry, the cell-work would have taken two months, Matson said. This way, the cells were installed in two weeks.

“Pretty slick,” he said.

3D scans

There’s the old way, as with all of these advances.

“Back in the day, if you wanted to do a retrofit, you’d go into a space with a tape measure and just start writing stuff down,” said Nick Stattelman, survey practice leader with AE2S in Fargo.

Today, you’d go in with a tripod and high-density scanner, then flip the switch.

The result of the latter method is a digital image of the space that’s so dense, it looks like a photo. Unlike a photo, though, the scan can be digitally manipulated.

Using 3D modeling software, designers can work with the scan to move walls, add windows, lower ceilings and do everything to plan a renovation.

“And there are other applications besides just retrofits,” Stattelman said.

“For example, we use the scanner for structural monitoring, documenting historic sites and high-precision topography.

“It gives you a huge amount of data in a fraction of the time.”

Smart machines

And now comes what might be the most striking change: the arrival of semi-automated – and eventually, fully automated – dozers, excavators and other construction machines.

Before too many years are out, they’ll be common, suggested Joel Honeyman, vice president of global innovation and program management for Doosan Bobcat in Bismarck, N.D.

In fact, “I believe we’ll see more autonomous construction equipment before we see an autonomous automobile,” Honeyman said.

“Think about agriculture, where it’s already happening: Big tractors are driving themselves down the field, and all the operator has to do is turn the corner.”

The key there is the predictability and regularity of the task: flat fields, low speeds, straight lines, no pedestrians.

Construction will be next, because the worksites also are contained areas, Honeyman said. “And the machines are working on defined jobs that a lot more straightforward than driving a car.”

Some automated features already are showing up. General Equipment in Fargo represents Komatsu, the Japanese manufacturer that – because of Japan’s labor shortage – has made “smart construction” a priority, said Matt Kern, vice president of General Equipment’s rolling-stock sales.

As a result, many Komatsu dozers and excavators now come with 3D-design monitors that let the machine cut and fill according to the plan. “The operator is still steering, but the machine takes over the blade control,” Kern said.

The result is much more precision, much more efficiency and a much less fatigued operator.

Meanwhile, Komatsu and others are perfecting the next step: Drone-guided “robo-bulldozers,” as one news story put it, that “scoop rock and push dirt without a human behind the wheel.”

Kern is watching it happen. “I’m seeing more and more interest in automation,” he said.

“Companies understand that unless they jump in, they’re going to get left in the dust.

“It’s what Amazon is doing; it’s what happened to Kodak cameras. If you don’t pay attention, the digital world is going to get you.”

Tom Dennis

Editor, Prairie Business