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Construction Science Fiction: A Super Morning

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As he was driving to work, John  sippied at a cup of coffee and wondered what the day would bring. So much had changed in his 40-plus year career in construction that it kept him constantly wondering what would change his ‘normal’ this year.

 

Just looking backwards at traffic was something that had taken a while to get used to. The first pickup truck he drove for construction was a 1983 one-ton stick-shift with a fond memory of brakes and a clutch so heavy that he swore it made his left leg bigger than his right.

Now, as he piles into a drivers’ seat that looks a lot like they used to, he pushes the ‘on’ button f, gives the command to “go to work”, and  hits the AUTO control. His seat beeps, swivels 180 °, and a display comes up on the back window as the truck shifts into drive and backs toward the street. The local early news projects a translucent image over the morning sunrise coming through the window and a list of messages requiring his attention takes its place at his left. He dims the back window so the screen shows  more clearly in the morning light, and he starts checking messages as the truck pulls into traffic.

John is heading toward the crowning achievement of his career;a hospital on the outskirts of his hometown. He’s done bigger, more challenging projects, but the feeling of building something that will serve his community has him more connected to this job than many in his recent past.

As with nearly all the projects he’d done, concrete is an essential material. There’s a footing pour in the west wing today.It should be the whole wing today; quite a bit of material. What he hasn’t gotten used to is seeing it placed and finished so quickly. The days of the heavy, finicky, labor-intensive concrete pours have been over for some time. Now they just back up a truck—which honestly looks more like awater tank than anything—pull out the hose, and fill the carefully excavated holes with expanding concrete mixture. John chuckles to himself. This new stuff is concrete, but more by branding than by tradition. He’s pretty sure they put grey dye in it, since the natural translucent-pink color wasn’t helping sales when it first came out. It looked like a pink sponge.

The new concrete is nearly impossible to break up by hand, as he found out early on. Deceiving in its strength, no rebar is required; though it does require the use of ground anchors to make up for the lack of mass. He was so skeptical of the material when he first saw it that he took an old pick axe to his mockup footing and nearly broke the handle  when it bounced off the surface. Overkill for sure, but so cheap that you can’t afford the “traditional” concrete any more. Concrete is now used primarily for historically-accurate renovations, but fdinding people who are good with it is getting tough. John tried to remember the last time he showed somebody how to run an edge on a slab, or properly set anchor bolts. Now they just use the “boltsetter” tool that heats the concrete to a very high temperature, liquefying the mix. You drop a bolt into the hole, inject some filler goo, and you’ve got yourself an embed. Fancy.

Reminiscing aside, he checks the electronic pour status card on his screen. Green for excavation. Green for electricians. Yellow for plumbers. Yellow? This work was supposed to have been done last week! John hits the phone icon next to the plumbers’ number and lets it ring. In a few minutes, a picture of Mike, the plumbing foreman, replaces the newscast on the tuck’s rear window. In the background, hecan hear the beep of equipment revealing that Mike was on-site. “What the heck, Mike? PourCard says you’re not ready for the west wing this morning. We’re supposed to start spraying after the morning brief! And are you working already? You can’t be there without one of our staff!"

“Calm, down, John,” says Mike, “Don't get your boxers in a bunch. We asked one of your engineers to come in early to help us out. Molly is out here, and is helping us finish up the underground. We've got her running a machine.”

“What machine?” asks John.

“The extruder. No kidding. She’s turning out to be a whiz; says she had a course in construction operator tech, and she’s knocked out all the laterals under the footings already and has started on the risers in the main shower area. She’s making my regular operator look bad.”

John takes a deep breath, images of what could go wrong flashing in front of his eyes. “You keep an eye on her—she’s your employee today if that pipe goes in wrong. Will you be done on time?”

“Yeah, we'll be done. Easy money boss.”

“All right. And put a shirt on. Overalls do not have a four-inch sleeve, Mike. You’re probably scarring Molly for life.”

The extruder sure was slick. Molly would have taken the design file ‘stick’ out of the trailer (hopefully current with yesterdays’ updates), and plugged it into what looked like an old mini-excavator with a tank on the back. There was a large mailbox-sized tool on the end of the arm that would extrude the correct pipe size into the hole as it went along, just cool enough as it left the box to touch. No more gluing on 90° bends. No more staking and goofy below-grade layout tricks. This thing was accurate to 1/100 of an inch. When you hit a fitting location, the screen asked for confirmation before proceeding. It could be set to AUTO, but they liked stopping occasionally to double check the layout, and the stop at the fittings was a good checkpoint. Once, the GPS repeater had been moved mid-operation, and a 1/2 floor of pipe had been laid in the wrong spot by the time they stopped.

As John hangs up, the truck  warns him  that he’s about to arrive at the jobsite. He'll have to pilot himself to the trailer, as anything under construction hasn’t been mapped yet and personal guidance is required. The seat beeps again, faces John toward the front, and the wheel extends to his hands. A minute or two later, John is in his element.

At least job trailers haven’t changed that much, he thinks, coming through the door into the familiar odors of coffee and dust. They haven’t quite figured out how to remove the dirt from the process—that’s one thing about construction that will likely never change. The floor machine may get the dirt off the tile and  carpet, but a thin layer of dust usually persists, much to the consternation of the IT staff and their equipment.

He nods to his assistant, Superintendent, Gail, who, by the looks of things, has been here for a few minutes already. He  notices something as she’s about to walk out the door.

“Hey, Gail, you forgot your shield.”

The shield was basically a tracking device that clipped onto your belt. Tied into the geo-location software, it tracked every employee as they moved around the site. It was initially developed as a time management analysis tool, but it didn't take someone very long to realize that if a person (not assigned to a machine) was in the same spot as a machine at the same time, that could be bad for their health. So, the 'shield' function was added, and it had cut down on struck-by accidents to a point where they were almost unheard of. No more hi-vis vests were worn at his company's project sites, unless the system hadn't been turned on yet. Nowadays, somebody operating 'off the grid' without the software or devices could still get hurt. OSHA was looking to see if they could make the basic system mandatory for all sites, but that requirement hadn't made it into law yet.

John stopped at his desk to dictate the agenda for today’s coordination meeting before moving out to the field to check on the plumbers.. He sees another message pop up, this one from the module fabricator. The first of the ground floor modules were done, and the rest were on schedule. By next week, the setting contractor would be on-site to begin final assembly, which would take just a few weeks by the time they made all the connections. He made a note to check their safety plan later today

A schedule warning flag appeared on his dashboard, marking a potential threat. The weather for next week called for thunderstorms, which would make a sloppy mess of the landscaping operation. Once they learned how to control the weather they'd have it made, he thought before he headed outside.

 

 

Darren Conlee is a construction executive with M. A. Mortenson Company. He grew up reading Isaac Asimov and Piers Anthony, but this is the first story he has written for publication. He's passionate about building, and says, "It's an exciting time to be in the construction industry. The confluence of computer modeling, mobile devices, and new building materials has put us at the beginning of a new era for construction." In his free time, Darren enjoys spending time with his wife and daughter, camping, and running.

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


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