Just this past August, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that contractors had 143,000 unfilled construction positions this June (2015). The recession cut over 2.3 million jobs between 2006 and 2011, and the construction industry was slow to hire again. Ken Simonson, chief economist at the Associated General Contractors of America, said that, “A late pickup in hiring…greatly diminished [a large] pool of workers,” causing long time industry workers to move to other professions. Now, the industry is facing over a 20% decline in skilled laborers (despite the fact that employment is now on the rise), leaving the state of construction in a scramble.
With skilled labor hard to come by, the industry is turning to technologists to help solve this massive problem. Is augmented reality the answer? Augmented reality (AR), or the integration of digital information with live video or the user’s environment in real-time, has the power to re-educate the industry and create more specialized laborers who excel at their craft. It may be possible that with the right integration, the industry could see a rise in the percentage of skilled laborers once again, and restore a broken industry.
As of this past April, the construction industry saw a 20% rise in job availability, creating 45,000 jobs in total. According to Forbes, that is up 4.6% from last year (2014). Although the numbers appear to be positive, the numerical data cannot account for the reality behind the numbers. The generation of skilled construction laborers is aging, and there is not adequate replacements within the younger generations.
The problems are starting at schools. Public vocational-technical educational programs that were once readily available and thriving have been falling in numbers, and according to AGC, “Many of those programs….that provided training for a host of skills, including construction…have been closed over the past several decades.” From 2006 to 2014, federal funding for these programs fell 29%, declining $1.3 billion each year, leaving only $1.2 billion of funding for these programs as of 2014.
The jobs that are being filled today are being filled by young professionals who lack the skills on the field, and haven’t been taught properly or at all in schools. While 80% of construction companies are planning for a payroll expansion, 87% of those same firms cannot find qualified individuals to fill those jobs. And because the industry previously saw a 20% decrease in skilled workers, it is becoming increasingly difficult to train the younger generations with less skilled workers on the field.
Augmented reality has met great success amongst the general public consumers, with devices like Oculus Rift and Google Glass igniting excitement in the gaming and wearable market. Now, augmented reality is gaining popularity for industrial application because of its unique ability to teach, monitor, and raise efficiency across multiple sectors of business.
One of the biggest problems the construction industry faces, in specific, is its lack of skilled and qualified labor today. With a 20% decrease in the availability of skilled labor, augmented reality can fill the gap by improving not only the skills of already skilled workers, but improving the skill set of laborers who are lacking knowledge and experience. But how? With AR, “this technology allows a computer-produced diagram to be superimposed and stabilized on a specific position on a real-world object.” What this means is that workers onsite will be able to physically see a data rich world around them that has huge potential for learning both skills and experience.
And it starts with the training process. Studies from around the world from various universities have shown the benefits of implementing augmented reality into the training process of new employees. Augmented reality can guide professionals through a step-by-step process, allowing them to perform tasks they might not have been able to do otherwise from learning from a book or trying to replicate a process they previously saw. Used in conjunction with traditional onsite training, AR adds a thick, rich layer of knowledge that empowers employees to be more effective, be more efficient, be more productive, and learn more quickly. In fact, researchers have found that those who implemented AR into their training reduced the number of errors significantly in those employees performing tasks for the first time.
Augmented reality allows employees to apply digital content to real-world situations. Let’s take a deeper look into an application. Say you have an employee building an object or fixing a broken pipe/valve/etc. They don’t have enough sufficient skills or enough experience to perform the task, correctly, on their own, yet (which is, unfortunately, an industry reality right now). With AR, information would virtually overlay step-by-step instructions and important data onto the physical objects in front of each worker. With this digital data, each worker could complete the tasks using the guided steps, and they would be able to do so with less mistakes, meaning more efficiency. In essence, it would look something like this:
- Step One: Take part A and attach it to part B by using part X
- Step Two: Attach these highlighted wires to your part here and here (highlighted)
- Step Three: Check the voltage of the electricity and make sure it’s at X%
ZBRELLA Tech writer Christopher Clark explains the process as such:
“By feeding step-by-step instructions to the labor force, workers will have the ability to visually see 3D steps to follow to complete their work, whether they understand the project or not. If an architect is working on a BIM model, other workers can help complete the project given a detailed visual of what needs to get done, allowing that project to get done faster even without the aid of a more skilled architect. Anyone of your workers can be a plumber, technician, mechanic, the next DaVinci, or any other jack of all trades you need them to be- provided they have the right visual cues to complete the given task.”
Augmented reality can also connect onsite workers (who are lacking in skills) with remote support via their AR device. Remote support would be able to guide any worker at any given point on the worksite through a task they need help with. Remote support could access real-time data about the problem on hand, while video integration would help the unskilled worker see and understand the steps and changes they would need to make. Remote support employees also have the ability to be completely mobile, allowing more valuable, experienced workers to move about where they need to be while also being available for guidance onsite.
The technology offers real-time training to workers who need it without the constant need for more skilled employees to watch over them. Augmented reality has the ability to improve skilled labor up to five times the skill of each laborer. Because AR can teach employees to perform tasks the right way, and increase the skill level and knowledge of these professionals, AR also simultaneously helps minimize costs (due to less mistakes), reduce the schedule (due to less problems and delays), and increase occupational safety.
In the industry today, there are currently augmented reality solutions that are being implemented onsite (one of those solutions being Index AR Solutions), and hands free solutions that are on their way to being available (like DAQRI Smart Helmet) to combat the skilled labor problem. But, as of today, heads-up, see-through, head-mounted displays (HUDsets) are not OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) qualified, and that is a problem, because workers in the construction industry, more often than not, need to be hands free.
General Electric (GE) agrees, saying this:
“What is the best form factor to present an AR experience in the field? Think of field service engineers who are often working on, and even inside of, equipment. These users really need to work hands-free. They won’t take on the burden of carrying around a device to use AR. This is particularly true for workers who MUST be hands free, such as surgeons in an operating room or repair technicians in small physical spaces.”
The safety issue of augmented reality for industrial application has been, and continues to be, the problem with the technology. Although it has many positive applications, many argue that the technology is unsafe and distracting to workers onsite and on the job.
Augmented reality is not the only answer to the shortage of skilled construction labor, but it can be part of the solution, and as technology continues to take more of a role in the industry, AR will be more than likely to have its part. In an industry that fears technology and the automation it’s bringing, augmented reality is proving to be a technology that actually lets humans and machines work together to fix real problems. Will AR fix our 20% decline (and growing) of skilled construction laborers as industry professionals continue to grow old? We can’t be sure, but it’s a start.