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Construction Science Fiction: Bracing for Sanfrantechie

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3:15pm – 31 July, 2068

 

My company has modeled and strategized about the Western U.S. Control Headquarters project until I can see the whole project in mind—without any digital assistance. We are all ready to get started. Another meeting, more planning—the company has been meeting with someone about this project since the fall of 2063.

 

Over the last two decades, California and the rest of the West Coast have seen the effect of global warming submerging major land sections. Ten years ago a major earthquake threatened to send the remainder of San Francisco into the Pacific. The political fight to finance and build a new headquarters to run and secure the western part of the U.S. has been long and brutal. State and municipal lawmakers and area developers not wanting to let San Francisco die have finally prevailed, and we are finally ready to start construction on a very complex self-contained facility that will manage not only the San Francisco area infrastructure, but eventually the western side of the U.S.

The project comprises six poured-in-place concrete stories below grade and 20 structural steel stories above grade, surrounded by staff living areas and support offices. The project is complex due to the unique engineering needs and instability of the environment.

I am senior project manager. I have access to all stored project files and all programmed activities. The buck stops with me and I am responsible for controlling everything.

The way the company does work has changed since I graduated from OU Construction Science 40 years ago, but the management demands of starting at the bottom and assembling to the top haven’t. This old dog has learned a lot of tricks that have nothing to do with pouring concrete or driving nails.

I am to meet with an ENR.com Building News Blog reporter—sanfrantechie@ENR_Building_News—this afternoon to discuss the design and construction of the Headquarters. Not only is it structurally unusual due to the instability of the area, but the company wants to use it to showcase construction technology that can be used on the moon and underwater—as these construction markets start to seriously emerge.

Have to say I find it interesting that we are almost robot free on this project, but this political battle rages, as technology can provide so much more than is currently being used in the construction industry. The continued elimination of construction craft jobs is more complicated than it appears on the surface. Return on investment through increased efficiency has always been a construction-company operating goal, but employing approximately 5% of our population has become the primary consideration to keep on building with people.

The truth, however, is that the more disordered the market becomes, and as building environments become more hostile as well, the more robots will be used for most redundant work activities. A lot has changed in the first half of this century, but a lot stays the same, even with digital assistance. I need to make a few notes to help me remember what to say this afternoon.

I guess I will start with the project cloud—the digital infrastructure used to see and manage the project. The coverage is set by the boundary coordinates of the project and includes the space above. The company pays the government for the accessibility, but provides and manages the service. The project cloud automatically and instantaneously connects to anyone or anything entering the site, allowing for identification, communication, control and monitoring—or, as management calls it, digital assistance. Anything used in the building, from raw materials to manufactured units, contains some type of device that is found by the cloud upon entry into the field and then related to the project model. Once identified, it can then be tracked and managed using predetermined coordinates. This is the first federal West Coast government project contractually requiring this.

Creation of the project cloud starts with the initial model. As the design proceeds teams are immersed into the project model periodically to detect problems, determine best materials or products and develop the assembly strategy. Model immersion has a Star Trek feel to it, but it becomes work after a while. We have a great facility for MI Design at the home office. When construction starts each individual worker will immerse into the model each morning from the jobsite to review and plan their day’s construction work with their digital superintendent.

When the model is complete a project mind overlay is created for each field worker or manager. This is the framework for work communication, decision making and documentation. This is made possible using a PC (project cloud) processor embedded under each project employee’s left arm. It is still amazing to me that I had agreed to use the implant. This was my first job to do so. Infringement on employee privacy was still being discussed, but “wearing” (as it is termed by company management) the processor will make the job easier—and maybe even more importantly, I wanted this job and it was a condition for the position. The chip is synced through the wearer’s brain and out their retina onto a screen integrated into safety glasses or whatever is available for viewing. The embedded chip was chosen in lieu of external wearable devices or retina scans due to the extreme need for security.

Banks of prinfab trailers will be located on the east side of the site. Large-scale 3D printing was finally mated with large-scale fabricating into one portable machine about 10 years ago. The amount of control gained by remote manufacturing spawned a new type of subcontractor. All of the MEP system pieces and components will be made onsite using this method. The external glass and metal claddings will also be made using prinfab machines. PC tags or particles are to be mixed into the raw materials of all components and products, whether made onsite or manufactured and delivered. The tags allow for the cloud to connect with the piece or assembly once it enters the site—linking it back to the model. The submittal process is basically handled in the design phase. The tags are specifically useful for monitoring the self-healing structural concrete and activating the simple acid-based rejuvenation process if weaknesses are detected.

Since the simple nuclear powered engine was finally perfected in the 2040s, all earth- and material-moving equipment is powered this way. As building environments become more remote and hostile, the ability to repower independently has become necessary. The jobsite cranes will be operated from remote consoles located at the U.S. government’s Crane Operator Complex in Phoenix, Ariz., manned by government-hired operators. It was decided in 2055 that private contractors were too unsafe to manage their own hoisting. The unions had put up an incredible fight, but the string of accidents from 2030 to 2055 was incentive enough for the government to take over this part of the construction process. One has to wonder if this is the proper way to use technology.

Workers’ vests now have become work suits. Each worker has a digital tool belt for viewing, communicating and documenting within the project cloud. The tool belt is connected to the PC processor under their arms. For specific labor-intensive activities, bionic arms can be synced to the tool belt and operated by the worker. Our company started a training center to train craft workers how to work in the cloud and use their tool belts.

Programmable magnets are designed and embedded into the building’s external frame and skin components. The cloud communicates a frequency to the magnets based on the work activity or need. During assembly these magnets are used for hoisting and worker tie-off. For hoisting, the cloud detects the piece on the ground using the magnets and programs the pick using the coordinates from the model. Magnets are embedded at the rigging points in the component or items to be hoisted. When at the proper frequency, these magnets align with the crane rigging and create an unbreakable connection. The magnet coordinates are also used to align and level each piece during assembly.

The programmable magnets in the external components are also used to create a magnetic tie-off zone. This was a major safety breakthrough as projects are now approaching one mile heights. Magnets in the workers’ tool belts are synced with the magnets on the frame where they are working. As the project goes up, so does the tie-off field.

One of the most valuable tools for me as a manager is being able to automatically collect information assessing progress and measuring installation quality of all assembled parts from the cloud, using a daily progress scan of the whole project.

Yes, the technology tools on this project are impressive, but as always we still have to physically assemble the building as a team.  I hope I am ready for my interview this afternoon.

 

 

RYAN

After graduation from Texas A&M University Richard Ryan and a friend formed and ran R&R Construction from 1978 to 1989, using an Apple 2E and a dot matrix printer. He taught one of the first IT courses in an academic construction program in 1993 and now teaches graduate Emerging Technologies at the University of Oklahoma’s College of Architecture.

To see all of the stories in ENR's Imagining Construction's Future science fiction collection, click here.

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