Smart Sensors Are a Game Changer for the Construction Industry

The construction industry is as old as the hills, but that doesn’t mean it can’t benefit from cutting-edge technologies. Sensor technology has advanced by leaps and bounds in recent years. We’ve seen them grow smaller, more resilient and durable, and better able to withstand a variety of conditions in almost every industry on earth. Consumer technologies use sensors in smartphones and portable devices to detect tilt and orientation, a precise physical location on earth or within a structure, and the presence and intensity of ambient lighting, sounds and even barometric pressure and altitude. Each of these provides a feature set that ranges from helpful to indispensable.

If anything, the benefits and opportunities for sensors, and especially smart sensors, are even more impressive when we look at the industrial sectors. The construction industry stands to reap considerable benefits from the high-density flow of data that smart sensors make possible. Here’s a look at what smart sensors are, what they do, and how they just might change the construction game for good.

What Are Smart Sensors?

There must be a good reason why, according to findings by Zion Market Research, the worldwide market for sensors is expected to reach $27 billion in value by 2022. But first of all, what makes a sensor “smart”?

The answer is connected to the reason why sensor technology is taking off so rapidly in the industrial sector, including construction. Smart sensors make good on the promise that “regular” sensors have always hinted at but didn’t quite have the technology to follow through on. The phrase “smart sensor” might mean different things in different industries and contexts. But, broadly speaking, smart sensors provide some or all of the following functionality:

  • Smart sensors may contain microprocessors so they can perform basic data processing before passing it along to the final destination.
  • Smart sensors communicate remotely, and usually wirelessly, with a “home base” like a maintenance dashboard or an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system.
  • Some smart sensors contain dual-probe elements, meaning they can take exterior readings as well as detect when their own primary detection apparatus may be malfunctioning or out of calibration.
  • Advanced smart sensors that make use of “system on a chip” (SoC) architecture provide smaller device footprints and relatively lower prices compared with previous-generation multi-chip packages.

To condense this further, smart sensors outperform more basic sensors because they provide more data detail with less noise, are smaller and easier to deploy in the field, and provide basic edge computing capabilities to reduce the amount of information that needs to be transmitted to “home base.”

Now that we have a better understanding of the concept, let’s look at some practical ways smart sensors are being used on construction sites across the world.

How Can Smart Sensors Help Out on Construction Sites?

The following are just some of the major areas of focus for construction companies turning to smart sensors. As the relevant technologies become even smaller in footprint and efficient in their use of power, we’ll likely see even more use cases added to these.

1. Detect Process ‘Drift’

The appeal of smart sensors comes, in part, from the ability to “set and forget” them. In a construction setting, smart sensors can help site managers detect and make accommodations for work as it begins to shift away from known benchmarks or tolerances. For instance, construction sites increasingly use smart sensors embedded in concrete to tell precisely when a new pour is done curing. The advantage is the ability to see whether the curing time is within expectations, and to make adjustments to mixes or tool use in order to get back within specs or on schedule.

Compared to cylinder break tests, which are time-consuming, smart sensors deliver considerably greater peace of mind when it comes to site conditions and the quality of your work.

2. Take Care of Machine Maintenance Proactively

A sensor embedded in a critical machine, like a backhoe or a motor grader, lets operators and maintenance personnel identify vibrations, sounds and other variables which might indicate that the machine, or even a single part within it, is about to fail. Nobody needs to tell you about the importance of avoiding machine downtime.

With that in mind, consider that condition monitoring, which smart sensors make possible, was an $11 billion industry across all sectors in 2017. Your company’s individual ROI will vary based on the work you do — or, you might be able to lease construction equipment for just the time you need it. If the vendor you choose engages in condition monitoring, there’s a good chance they can pass on the lower maintenance and upkeep costs to you, the client.

3. Combat the Elements and Plan Accordingly

Construction industry experts frequently find themselves at the mercy of the elements, including building on inhospitable or out-of-the-way locations that might require special attention to unique climatic features. When pouring concrete or placing beams, such structures will generally approach their final structural strength and integrity over a period of time. Extremely cold or windy locations can influence this process in unpredictable ways. That’s why deploying multiple sensors across a new site, to detect local variations in material strength or work integrity, is important for planning each stage in a multi-step construction project.

4. Provide Deep Data Visibility for Stakeholders

In any given construction project, there may be a variety of different stakeholders, from the builders themselves to the property owners, the investors and the eventual owners or lessees. Smart sensors deliver tremendous value because they can wirelessly deliver real-time updates on project status, the location of vehicles, deliveries and assets, or the condition of various features as they’re built. Smart sensors are more than your eyes and ears on the ground — they also facilitate powerful collaboration and communication thanks to smartphone and tablet companion apps, detailed dashboards and easy sharing of data between parties.

5. Track Assets Automatically

In 2017, according to one survey, more than 80% of construction companies planned to use worksite telematics of some kind. Tracking assets was the most frequently requested feature, and little wonder: how many times have you been left wondering where a pallet of materials wandered off to? Sensors make it easy to easily find all kinds of materials out in the field and cut down on wasted time.

6. Make Sensors and Wearables Allies in Safety

The reason why trucking companies use GPS technology (and others) as a matter of course is because it helps drivers stay safe and on-task, and it ensures that any unforseen disruptions to usual deliveries or distribution can be reacted to immediately by decision-makers. The same logic applies to the construction site, where workers may move from location to location and task to task.

Sensor-laden wearables will more than likely become standard issue personal protective equipment (PPE) on construction sites in the coming years, due to the ability to track and monitor the condition of personnel much more easily, read their vitals for health and safety compliance, and ensure that any emergency situations are brought to the attention of all invested parties immediately.

Bringing Smart Sensors to the Construction Industry

As we’ve seen, there are many ways to use smart sensors on construction sites. It’s no wonder, with the amount of activity happening and the veritable torrent of useful data being generated in any given day on the job. Smart sensors are not a new concept, but we’re on the cusp of unlocking their potential in the construction industry, from small operations to huge infrastructure contractors and everything in between.

Featured image credit: CC BY-SA by Edward Orde

Megan Ray Nichols

Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance STEM writer and blogger. She's the editor of Schooled By Science and regularly contributes to sites like The Naked Scientists and Inhabitat. Keep up with Megan by following her on Twitter and subscribing to her blog.
Megan Ray Nichols

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