Top Trends for 2019: Increased Use of Technology, Innovation

Artificial intelligence, drones, augmented reality, and robotics are helping the construction industry realize higher productivity, profits, and safety.

In a world where tech creations are constantly changing the way people live and work, the construction industry has generally been slow to adopt new digital technologies.

According to the MGI Industry Digitization Index, which measures how companies in a sector are using digital business processes, construction ranks second-to-last in digitization, just ahead of agriculture and hunting. Many entrepreneurial businesses, including SMACNA associate members, see this statistic as an opportunity to help the construction industry realize increased productivity, higher profits and better safety through new digital tools. So, it's not surprising that the SMACNews top trends for 2019 are technology heavy.

A web search for “construction” or “HVAC trends” for 2019 will likely generate familiar results. Prefabrication, BIM (building information modeling) and green technologies, for example, have been evolving for years, with an increasing number of sheet metal and HVAC contractors successfully integrating new practices/tools into their operations. Less common construction trends that are attracting a lot of internet chatter include the use of artificial intelligence, drones, augmented reality and robotics. While such high-tech innovations can be intimidating, technology is reaching farther into all aspects of the construction industry. It can't be ignored.

Representatives from three industry businesses shared their thoughts with SMACNA on what to expect this year. This is not a comprehensive list, but rather a brief look at a few topics to note for 2019.

Seamless Integration

Detailing software programs have been around for some time, but programs such as Trimble’s SysQue, East Coast CAD, and DD3D are now extremely robust and easy to use.

“They are no longer a remedial product,” said Mike Bailey, vice president of sales for Mestek Machinery, a SMACNA Premier Partner, which designs and manufactures metal forming solutions for HVAC sheet metal ductwork fabrication. “Detailing software has evolved to a point where it is a lot more dependable.”

Bailey said current software products can take information from a set of digital plans and streamline the fabrication process by providing seamless interaction among staff and across disciplines. The software takes dimensions and data and downloads them to computers. That allows for specs to be easily shared from the initial shop drawings all the way to the computer-aided manufacturing, including coil lines, plasma cutters, and spiral equipment.

“The benefits include better utilization of materials and less input time,” Bailey added. “You get greater output with less chance for human error.”

Good News on Labor Challenges

The challenges of attracting new employees will continue through 2019, but there are a couple of trends that should encourage SMACNA firms. The first is an uptick in the hiring of women in the construction industry. 

“The number of female construction professionals will continue to increase in 2019,” said Kayla Rockwell, director of marketing at project management software company and SMACNA Silver Associate Member Rhumbix. “Women are represented in more middle management roles than ever before, allowing opportunities for executive positions as the previous generations retire.”

This may seem like a non-tech trend. However, SMACNA and other organizations will continue to make workforce development resources available to contractors struggling to fill positions, and many of the new recruiting tools are being developed for digital platforms such popular social media services.

“You need an understanding of technology, but there is help out there,” said Raymond Yeager, president and CEO of DMI Companies, an HVAC manufacturer based in Pittsburgh. Ductmate Industries Inc., a part of DMI, is a SMACNA Silver Associate Member. “Trying to do it on your own is very difficult.”

Yeager, a former SMACNA board member, recommended some SMACNA initiatives including the creation of student chapters and partnering with colleges and universities that offer construction and/or HVAC-related curricula.

Manifolding Ductwork

This example of a prefabrication trend has actually been common practice for many years in the piping and mechanical world. Now sheet metal shops are adopting this manifolding (or spooling) practice, which results in a better product that requires less labor. Tech investments are necessary for SMACNA firms considering pre-constructing ductwork in the shop versus the field.

“A major benefit of manifolding is producing multiple duct lengths in a controlled atmosphere — installing taps and access doors along with duct sealants to all transverse joints, longitudinal seams and taps, and access doors.” Bailey said. “Once delivered to the field then all you have to do is hang it per drawings. It’s a win for everybody.”

Manifolding also allows for better control of materials and helps companies adhere to sensitive time schedules.

Getting Smart(er)

In 2019 the demand for better connectivity and automation will continue to grow just about everywhere SMACNA firms are at work, particularly in smart manufacturing, smart buildings, and smart construction sites.

“Automation and data exchange are the wave of the future,” said Yeager. “The hand-off of data information will be extremely important in 2019.”

A growing number of building owners (residential, commercial, and industrial) want to take advantage of the benefits of new technologies featuring HVAC systems that automatically adjust to meet demand and can be controlled remotely. Some new technologies even enable systems to self-predict maintenance issues. With so many clients adopting smart technologies, expect contractors to practice what they preach by utilizing smart technologies in their planning, design, fabrication, installation, and other operations. This includes job sites.

Companies such as Rhumbix are creating cloud-based mobile tools to expand the digital exchange environment to the field. They are helping builders go paperless in the field and improving how they measure and manage labor productivity to be more profitable.

“Data will rule in 2019,” said Drew DeWalt, chief operating officer and co-founder of Rhumbix. “With a connected job site, owners, general contractors, and subcontractors can know daily whether they made or lost money on project sites and have visibility into the factors driving production gains and losses.”

Collected data includes information related to time and attendance, production tracking and benchmarking, daily reporting, field work orders, QA/QC inspections, and health and safety reporting.

More to Look Forward to...

There are, of course, many other trends that are likely to impact sheet metal and HVAC companies in 2019.

Contractors are looking to diversify, for example, with more companies on the air side branching out and adding mechanical services. Sustainable practices and products continue to grow in popularity, proving that this ongoing trend is not a fad. Younger generations, including millennials, are attracted to green ideas, so there are likely fringe benefits for contractors who elevate their commitment to sustainability. Robotics will also attract potential employees who are younger and more tech-savvy.

While most SMACNA contractors may not be investing in this technology soon, watching a robot on YouTube lay bricks, position metal, and tie rebar makes it clear that more changes are on the horizon for the sheet metal and HVAC industries.

Top 2019 Trends to Watch from SMACNA

What trends should SMACNA members watch out for in 2019? SMACNA leaders recommend members keep an eye on these trending topics:

  • "More effective story telling using imagery and video. Contractors are getting more sophisticated in capturing the visual story of their jobs in progress and upon completion."
    — Jeff Henriksen, executive director of communications and marketing

  • “Priority legislative issues including pension reform, contracting reforms, infrastructure, and energy efficiency.”
    — Stanley E. Kolbe Jr., director of legislative and political affairs

  • “Innovative programs to enhance industry recruitment and employee retention. Bargaining strategies for strong economic times.”
    — Deborah Wyandt, Esq., executive director of labor relations and human resources

  • “Continued strengthening of energy standards and hybrid HVAC systems.”
    — Eli P. Howard III, executive director of technical services

  • “More innovative software and applications including cloud-based models with mega data, virtual design, and apps that track and measure fabrication and installation productivity. Also, the increased use of collaborative contract documents, such as integrated project delivery and design/build.”
    —Thomas J. Soles, executive director of member services