Expert Predictions on Construction Technology and Innovation in 2022

Staying up-to-date with the latest tech developments in the construction industry could be a full-time job. There’s so much happening – from innovative software solutions to new hiring trends – that it’s hard to keep track. So how can busy professionals get a sense of where things stand and what might be coming up around the bend? For starters, you’ve come to the right place.

On this episode of the Mobile Workforce Podcast, James Benham, CEO of JBKnowledge and TerraClaim, returns to chat with host Mike Merrill. James isn’t a stranger to the show. He joined on episode 32 to discuss easy ways to use construction technology and the rise of Business Intelligence, blockchain, BIM, and big data. As we kick off the new year, James highlights key developments from 2021 and what technology trends the construction industry can expect in 2022.

 

Key Takeaways

  1. Continuous learning is the key to success in construction and construction technology. It doesn’t matter how old you are or what formal education you have. Success is driven by being curious and willing to learn. The most successful people in construction read business books, take classes, and expand their understanding on a daily basis. You only learn two ways, by reading (books, educational videos and audiobooks) and by talking to people. Make sure you are doing both every day. 
  2. Analytical engines are going to be everywhere in 2022. Data is now commonplace on the job site, but it doesn’t mean it is being used to its fullest potential. In 2022, software will increasingly digest all the data that is being collected and give teams more usable insights than ever before. 
  3. Sensor usage will mature in 2022. Sensors are already a huge part of the building and management of building projects during and after the construction phase. Sensors will be increasingly used – in simpler and more common ways – to get more usable data. This will also decrease costs and the number of sensors needed.

 

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Episode Transcript

Mike Merrill:

Hello, and welcome to another episode of The Mobile Workforce Podcast, sponsored by AboutTime Technologies and Workmax. I’m your host, Mike Merrill, and today we are sitting down once again with the great James Benham. James is not only a friend personally, but also a friend of the podcast, but more than that, he is the CEO of JBKnowledge, an information technology services company, as well as the CEO of TerraClaim, a claims management and benchmarking system company, but that’s not all.

Mike Merrill:

James also hosts a couple of podcasts himself, first off, The Contact Crew, and then also The InsureTech Geek podcast. If you’ve been listening to previous episodes of The Mobile Workforce Podcast, we’ve had James on in the past. It was episode number 32 and we talked a lot about the importance of the four B’s in technology. Today, we want to recap the developments that we saw in construction in 2021 and also talk about what’s on the horizon for 2022. Enough of the prelude. Let’s get to talking, James. Welcome on the podcast today and thanks for joining us.

James Benham:

Howdy. Glad to be here.

Mike Merrill:

Awesome. I always love the Texas Howdy. You’re great at delivering that line.

James Benham:

It’s a great word. It sums up all kinds of things. It’s a very efficient word.

Mike Merrill:

I love it. Yeah.

James Benham:

Yeah.

Mike Merrill:

It’s cool. I appreciate that. All right, so, of course, last time we talked a little bit about your infamous, which is more than famous for those that don’t know the reference there, The Construction Technology Report that you guys have done for many years and it’s kind of a bible in the industry for, like I said, probably a decade now. What is that report for those that may not know? What can you share with us about what you guys are doing there?

James Benham:

Yeah, it’s been just a market study that we decided to embark on 10 years ago to find out who was using what and how much of it. It’s used to measure budget. I mean, really important one for everybody, not just construction tech companies. It is how much company construction companies are spending on technology, and then when they’re spending on technology, what are they buying? What segments are they buying in? It was really cool in the early days, because it’s in 10th year right now, it was really cool in the early days because we saw the rise of smartphones and the rise of wearables and Apple Watches and the rise of IoT and cloud-based [inaudible 00:02:22].

James Benham:

I mean, it was crazy just to watch it happen numerically. You know anecdotally you see more people using things, but it’s really good to get… I mean, mind you, this has been one of the most exhaustive surveys in construction. Most surveys you see have like one to 200 results or an average survey, and we’re like 2 to 3000. I mean it’s a pretty big deal. It takes about 15 minutes to fill out and believe it or not, it’s a major deal to get that many people to spend that much time on it.

Mike Merrill:

Yeah, and I’ve personally gone through that and actually filled out the survey numerous years and I, as a technologist myself, I absolutely love the questions that you’re asking and I can see that you’re not trying to get just a few graphs and charts for a slide deck. You’re really trying to dig in and find out what is really going on out there.

James Benham:

Yeah. It’s like 57 pages of content. It takes a year just to prepare for it and do it. This year, a little sneak peek, we actually got a really cool data science team at A&M to help us out, really digging in even more into the day. A&M’s been a partner for a long time. They’re the largest construction program in the United States. They’ve got some brilliant people. As they would say in Boston, “They’re wicked smart.” They’ve really helped us break down the data, look for correlation and causality. We’ve done a lot of that work for a long time, but they’ve been helping us out for a few years and they did a phenomenal job this year.

Mike Merrill:

Yeah. I love to hear that, and I know every year there are differences. Thee definitely is movement in that needle. What did you see change or what stood out to you in 2022’s survey versus…

James Benham:

Yeah, the ’21, so I can’t really comment on the ’21 survey because we-

Mike Merrill:

Okay.

James Benham:

… we’re still prepping it, but-

Mike Merrill:

All right.

James Benham:

… we’re seeing more movement. I can just say in general broad strokes, higher adoption rates, slide uptakes and spending. There’s some things that you’ll see as we come out with… I think a month from now, I have my first webinar on that for CFMA [crosstalk 00:04:32] and that’s when I’ll really break down some of the other early results and the data that’s coming in and the whole report gets published at the end of November.

James Benham:

We’re pretty close to being able to comment on it, but historically over the last nine years, we’ve seen a lot of trending on very, very slow increases in spending, slow, slow increases on staffing, but rapid adoption rates on apps and mobility and wearables, which means they’re doing this on like a shoestring budget with shoestring staff. They’re just kind of figuring it out as they go.

Mike Merrill:

Would you say that is still surprising to you? I know it’s kind of the old approach, it’s still going on, but what are your thoughts there?

James Benham:

Yeah, it’s disappointing that we’re not seeing the value being placed on technology adoption by executives across the industry. You hear a lot of specific anecdotal evidence from some of the large super tech forward companies. If your entire news ecosystem was centered around DPR, Mortenson, Turner, and-

Mike Merrill:

Right-

James Benham:

… I mean, like-

Mike Merrill:

… the little guys.

James Benham:

… J.E. Dunn. If we just took all the news that we read, go to, oh man, there’s like probably three others I take a hard look at that if you just took these half dozen to 12 major, major, big multi-billion-dollar contractors and you extrapolated that to the entire industry, you’d be like, “Man, we are rocking. Adoption’s great. Staffing’s great,” but the reality is that’s not what’s happening, you know?

Mike Merrill:

Right.

James Benham:

You have… It’s becoming a tale diverging roads where you have the big companies are doubling down on their investment and most of the big companies are forming their own investment arms and actually funding startups. That’s a huge change. That’s a really, really big change and a a major, major difference and then you still have… I mean, remember, Mike, there’s like, what, 12,000 GCs that you can identify in the United States. There’s like 28 to 32,000 subcontractors that are like members of associations. It’s really hard to get this data exact because there’s a lot of overlap.

James Benham:

If you looked at like the AGC membership and then some of the subtrades and then you… You have a lot of overlap, so it’s hard to de-duplicate the list, but let’s just assume you have like 12,000 GCs of note and 32 or 36,000 subcontractors of note. If you go to the whole ecosystem, it’s hundreds of thousands of contractors combined, and so there’s just a ton of them that are running on a paper napkin and going to Best Buy for their IT.

Mike Merrill:

Oh yeah. Yeah, you don’t need to tell me that story, but it is… You know, I love that you drill that distinction, actually, because I don’t know that there there’s enough looking into that data by the general audience so to speak. I think we get excited about those statistics that they’re not padded. They’re looking at a very small segment, the upper echelon of builders and, like you mentioned, companies that have cash to spend 300 million to buy a software company instead of write their own and tailor it to their own needs.

Mike Merrill:

The general market, I think to your point, they’re just not moving as fast as I think they ought to. What do we do? How do we… I know what you’re doing is definitely helping. You’re raising awareness, which is step one. What else can other technology companies like mine and the others that are in our industry do to help really lift this boat out of the water a little bit?

James Benham:

Well, yesterday I went to Texas Southern University. It’s an HBCU that I’m a Regent, I’m on on their Board of Regents. I was listening. We had Jamie Dimon there, CEO of Morgan. Like amazing. I got to talk to him for five minutes. It was really cool. He gave a great speech and one of the things that really stood out to me is that you have to be a lifelong learner. That was like the number one message for our students and, by the way, for all the adults in the room. He reads four newspapers a day cover to cover. I mean, he’s four a day and he reads books all the time and he’s really obsessed with learning. He said, “There’s only two ways. You can learn things, read stuff and talk to people.”

James Benham:

I mean, he’s right. That’s it. You read stuff, talk to people. I guess you could lump in watch YouTube into the read stuff. The only solution’s education. That’s it. All of us in the construction tech space have to educate. We have to teach before we sell, and I’ve had a mantra for a long time here at JBKnowledge, 20 years in business now, is that, “We entertain first.” In other words, we want to, you know, keep people awake, entertain them. We want to educate them is second, and then in the last minute we want to sell.

James Benham:

We’ll explain what we do at the end, but as long as education… Entertainment’s that little narrow sliver on the front end and selling is that really, really tiny, narrow sliver on the tail end. As long as the middle 80 to 90% is education, then if we’re all really just investing in educating people, as my buddy Buck Davis says, he says, “Make friends and help people.” Make friends and help-

 

James Benham:

… people. If you focus on education, on helping people, making friends, then it’s going to take all of us educating the industry to continue to lift it up and to show it that there’s a better way of doing things.

Mike Merrill:

That’s a great point. Again, education, love that. I think, yeah, the entertainment value, you got to get their attention to begin and I think there’s a fair amount of that. Social media’s helped. There’s some fun Instagram channels and different things on YouTube. Like you say, maybe things that are maybe not just silly, but very interesting. We’ve got a customer, Yeti Welding is their name. Actually, they were guests on the podcast. Had them on talking about the importance of social media and the role it plays in their marketing arm, and just amazing. The fascinating work that this small welding shop does is incredible.

Mike Merrill:

I think just raising awareness of what design ideas and what technologies there are. He’s got the big plasma cutter and it’s just some really cool tech for a really small company. I don’t even know if the kid’s 30 years old yet. I love what he’s doing and how he serves his customers. It’s back to we’ve got to as an industry do a better job of… In terms of the tech sector, we’ve got to do a better job of figuring out how to bring the people in to fill those seats so they can pay attention to what’s going on around them because the rest of the world is just buzzing with this tech everywhere you turn. Construction just isn’t enjoying the opportunities that are out there right now.

James Benham:

Awesome. Yeah, totally agree.

Mike Merrill:

Tell me, as far as 2021 goes, what are you seeing that’s kind of sizzling out there in software? Is there something that stands out to you that’s being adopted better or that’s going to be more impactful this coming year?

James Benham:

Yeah. Certainly analytical engines are hot topics, so BI is a big deal. BI’s become a much, much bigger deal utilizing, you know… Just to delineate the difference for people, business intelligence software is like reporting software on steroids. If you had to compare Crystal Reports and SQL Server Reporting Services, if you had to compare these old early-to-mid-2000s report writers to what we have in BI, BI Software is far more powerful. It can ingest and process far more data, not just structured data, but unstructured data. It has much better visualization tools and the good BI Software incorporates machine learning that allows you to look for correlation, causality, and trending that you just couldn’t pull off in the old Crystal Reports world of the mid-2000s, or the early 2000s when I started JBKnowledge in ’01.

James Benham:

I really am seeing a crop of new analytics companies to construction to start helping construction companies chew on all of the data they’ve been generating. I’m also seeing… We had this advent of the mobile app. That’s no longer a differentiating factor. Everybody needs to have one. They’re really easy to build now. If you build everything and react, then you can build it once and deploy it multiple times and make minor modifications to deploy to react natives. There’s not the hurdles there used to be to building mobile apps, so mobility is almost a foregone conclusion and a right to play.

James Benham:

I definitely this year saw a lot more applications getting much, much, much smarter, just data input, data output, and processing of data, which is kind of the definition of software. You know, you input data, you process and store it. You output it. That’s not enough anymore. It’s just not enough to really make it in a market, and so that’s one thing I’ve seen really, really, really come up is smart analytics systems. A good one to look at like Briq has hung their entire hat on providing analytical services that the ERPs don’t provide on the ERP data and using robotic process automation to acquire the data when APIs don’t allow you to get it.

Mike Merrill:

Yeah, and for the listeners, that Briq is B-R-I-Q, just in case you’re looking.

James Benham:

Website’s br.iq Right, that’s a good example because they’re using machine learning and RPA to gather the data. like literally, RPA is like software robots that crawl into an application and extract the data the hard way because not all data is available through an API. That’s that’s one example. You look at like Newmetrix, which was formerly Smartvid by Josh Kanner. I mean, Josh built the ultimate workflow tool in Vela and he sold the Autodesk. He has a workflow tool in Newmetrix, but fundamentally 90% of his effort appears to be going towards analytical capabilities, not data input, output and processing.

James Benham:

That was the easy part was uploading, storing, and retrieving photos and unstructured data. That was the easy part. Processing it and then what he did was that was brilliant during COVID was all of his mass compliance reports. That was fantastic.

Mike Merrill:

Oh yeah.

James Benham:

I mean, fantastic. That’s a wonderful example. Something that never would’ve been available 10 years ago that now you have one provider who has billions of photos across job sites across the country and he can say, “Hey, I’ve got a statistically relevant set of data. Here’s a mass compliance report by region.” That was awesome.

Mike Merrill:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, that’s great, and I like that you drew the distinction between structured and unstructured data because I think that’s an important thing to note.

James Benham:

Well, we just didn’t have a lot of capabilities to process. You can report on unstructured data 15 years ago

James Benham:

Note. Well, we just didn’t have a lot of capabilities to process you can report on unstructured data 15 years ago, or even 10 years ago it started getting a, a little bit better. Now, you’ve got no SQL, non-structured, non-relational databases and we’re not going to geek out too much on like the actual components behind it. You’ve got so many good solutions in that realm that what you’re seeing now is a much more coherent set of solutions that don’t get crippled by large scale. They can process a billion photos a day and it’s not a big deal because it’s not going in a relational database. You don’t have to worry about primary and foreign key constraints and we’re having to rebuild all your indexes and all the crap you do with databases.

James Benham:

It’s not… You don’t have to do that, and so the tooling has gotten so good that we’re able to really… I mean, here’s another one like WINT, which is water intelligence. Instead of putting sensors everywhere, they didn’t even build a sensor. In fact, I think you’re going to continue to see companies that started as hardware companies find other hardware partners and just focus on the analytics, which you’ve seen like Doxel did that. We can run through like the laundry list of people who shut down doing like Skycatch did that, all of these folks that said, “We’re going to build hardware,”. And like, “Oh, nevermind, that’s too hard,” because it is too hard. Went and got like an off-the-shelf solution that someone had already built that went on a water main and it could tell you flow.

James Benham:

Then, what they did is they attached their software to that flow gauge so that they could detect and learn what a sink leak looks like versus what a toilet leak looks like versus what a water main leak looks like. Now, instead of putting 20 million sensors, if you have an eight-floor building, you put eight of these devices, one on every floor. Then, you can say, “Hey, you got a toilet leaking on the third floor, you got a toilet leaking on the fifth floor. You got a sink leaking on the third floor.” You got to do a little bit of troubleshooting, but nowhere close to the troubleshooting you had to do before.

James Benham:

That’s a really good example of a company that partnered with a hardware manufacturer that was already building this sensor and then built a phenomenal analytics suite sitting on top of it and then started providing data no one ever thought you could get just by identifying that a sync leak looks different than a toilet leak at the water main on the floor. That’s cool, and so I think you’re going to continue to see people to drop out of the hardware market. The Trimbles of the world are going to continue to grow more, Trimble like a DeWalt, Milwaukee, all the people that actually make stuff for a living are going to grow in power.

James Benham:

The smart ones will open an API up so they can partner on hardware and then allow really good, good software companies like Hilti, who I really was convince was really behind the game on automated tooling, Hilti’s a phenomenal tool company, so is Milwaukee, so is DeWalt, but they’re all great. I’ve been to all their headquarters. I mean, well, the U.S. headquarters, the U.S. companies. Some of these guys are… Most of these guys are headquartered in other countries, but I’ve visited all of them and they build really, really, really good hardware.

James Benham:

I was convinced that like Hilti was way behind the game. Then, they wrote the Jaibot, and the Jaibot is like, holy cow, talk about throwing the gauntlet down. I mean, here’s a fully-automated system that uses a robotic total station and their drill with their batteries to drill a bunch of holes and then spray paint markings by what trade goes in that hole. It’s going to completely transform people attaching to ceilings and floors. It’s going to totally change the game.

Mike Merrill:

Yeah. It’s fascinating that, like you say, I know Hilti, they’ve got their tool tracking app now, and DeWalt acquired a small GPS hardware company and started integrating some of that. I think, to your point, they’re finding ways to bring other expertise into their tool manufacturing business, and hopefully that innovation will continue to happen as it has. More than that for our industry, what are builders doing? What are construction companies that are actually putting these structures up doing to adopt this type of approach better? I think, to your point, they’re not doing it fast enough, so we got to-

James Benham:

Most are not [crosstalk 00:20:18] doing it fast enough-

Mike Merrill:

Right.

James Benham:

… but there’s a small percentage, let’s just spitball it at 10%-

Mike Merrill:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

James Benham:

… that are doing 90% of the innovation. You do the 80-20 rule, I think here it’s like the 90-10 rule.

Mike Merrill:

Yeah.

James Benham:

… because they have their own VC arms they’re funding. Stanley Black & Decker has SBD Ventures and these big companies are forming venture groups and investing. They realize they can’t do it all themselves and they’re like, “Well, if we can’t do it all ourselves, we’ll just start seed funding all these other companies. Then, we’ll buy them later.”

Mike Merrill:

Yeah. Well, I think, and back to your point on integration and these other things of how are we sharing our expertise in technology and making it available to other experts in the space to find other solutions to implement our systems. That’s something in the software for construction space, that’s key today if you don’t have APIs and connectivity that is automated, then it’s like you’ve used the term before, it’s a ’90s solution to a 2020 problem, so… Well, tell me about wearables. What are you seeing there? How do you feel like that’s going to shake out this next year as far as consumption of that opportunity?

James Benham:

A lot slower ramp-up than I was hoping.

Mike Merrill:

Hmm.

James Benham:

Of course, an Apple Watch is a wearable.

Mike Merrill:

Yeah.

James Benham:

Smartwatches went bonkers and smartwatches are doing so much stuff now, Mike, like holy crap. The new Apple Watch, you have slip/trip fall sensors in your watch now. You’ve got EKG monitors in your watch, like a lot of things that were dedicated hardware products. It’s just like the phone. You know those memes on the internet, they’re like, “These eight products in a Radio Shack ad are now in your one iPhone?”

Mike Merrill:

Right.

James Benham:

Same thing’s happening with the watch. When you look at… We had dedicated heart rate monitors, we had dedicated EKG. We had dedicated slip/trip/fall that are clipped to your belt. Right?

Mike Merrill:

Yeah.

James Benham:

A lot, an the Apple Watch Series 7, it has all of that.

Mike Merrill:

Yeah.

James Benham:

it’s crazy [crosstalk 00:22:30] so I think the Apple Watch and whatever Google calls their watches, to show you how much of a crap I give about Google Android wear, I mean, I just don’t like their watches very much, but they’re doing the same thing in general. Android has all of this stuff before Apple does. Apple just executes it better and their market share reflects that, right?

Mike Merrill:

Right.

James Benham:

I think as the watches continue to get better and better and better and better and they open up more and more and more of it to APIs and software development kits, that you’re going to have basically these supercomputers on your wrist that are going to tell people in construction most of what they want to know. The big question is whether Apple is going to get into glasses, right? That’s the big-

Mike Merrill:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

James Benham:

… question is whether they jump into augmented reality. I’m sure they have in that big old UFO-size headquarters they have over in Cupertino. I’m sure they’ve got [crosstalk 00:23:30] a lab building AR hardware. Microsoft and HoloLens, that’s a wearable, right?

Mike Merrill:

Yeah.

James Benham:

It’s a computer interacting [crosstalk 00:23:38] with your biology, scans your retina. Pretty cool. Like the new HoloLens 2, amazing device. HoloLens 1 was an amazing device, but you’re not seeing rampant adoption. Again, I’m seeing like 10% of companies adopt these and everybody else go, “Huh? That looks like a video game.” Well, it’s actually built on video game technology, but I think the future of wearables is interesting.

James Benham:

You’ve also seen in the last two years, and I got to try Hilti’s new Exoskeleton out, these nonpowered, so you’re talking about unpowered biomechanical exoskeletons that are wearable. It’s wearable technology. Just because it doesn’t have a battery, like –

Mike Merrill:

Right.

James Benham:

… something doesn’t have to be electronic to be technology, right?

Mike Merrill:

Right, right.

James Benham:

John Deere’s first invention was a plow. It was not [crosstalk 00:24:25]-

Mike Merrill:

Yeah.

James Benham:

… a tractor. It was a plow. It was a blade. That was the big invention. That’s technology. I think exoskeletons are getting super small, super lightweight, and really useful, both upper body, arm exoskeletons and back, lower back, and then leg. I think exoskeletons are going to be standard PPE in the next decade-

Mike Merrill:

Hmm-

James Benham:

… and-

Mike Merrill:

… interesting.

James Benham:

… as HoloLens continues to evolve and get better and better and better and better, and definitely if Apple jumps in that game, visual wearables are going to be hot. Watches are going to solve just about everything else that you want a wearable to do, that and rings because you can read some additional biometrics off of rings. Amazon bought one of the major wearable companies.

James Benham:

Speaking of Amazon, don’t forget about them. They own Ring, the security company, and they just rolled out a construction job site security kit for Ring. It’s-

Mike Merrill:

Interesting.

James Benham:

… construction job site security in a box provided by Amazon. Now, don’t you think Amazon’s going to start using that to calculate how big your material piles are and start offering to sell you materials and goods?

Mike Merrill:

Oh yeah. Smart. Yes-

James Benham:

Like [crosstalk 00:25:39]-

Mike Merrill:

… smart analytics [crosstalk 00:25:39]-

James Benham:

… and Amazon’s got to be eyeing the construction material business.

Mike Merrill:

Yeah. That’s marketing, right?

James Benham:

Yeah, and they have their entire own fleet. They have their own airplanes. They have their own prime vans. They don’t need FedEx or UPS. They’re end-to- end. Now. they’re going to put cameras on your job site? Then, they’re going to start telling you, “Hey, you’re low on lumber. You want some more?”

Mike Merrill:

Yeah. Right. Unbelievable. Wow. Then, I can see in the future-

James Benham:

They’re wearables.

Mike Merrill:

… auto… Yeah [crosstalk 00:26:05] automatically ordering. Yeah.

James Benham:

Yeah.

Mike Merrill:

Once those materials are consumed, you may get set up on an auto-ship, right?

James Benham:

Why wouldn’t you? They’re going to auto-ship-

Mike Merrill:

Right.

James Benham:

… your house.

Mike Merrill:

Right. Exactly. What about… You talked about the VR and the AR, XR.

James Benham:

Yeah. Super cool solutions. In the last year, I’ve been so pleased with the software updates I’ve seen for VR and AR. Again, AR is when you can see the world around you, VR is when you’re completely closed off. That’s the fundamental difference. Players like Revizto, and I had Revizto on the podcast recently on ConTechCrew. They are slaying it. They have so many users now. Just go listen to that episode. They have so much adoption across the planet and they’ve got some really sweet, tight VR integration. They’re not even the only ones I mean, Iris did a great job on VR for construction. VisualLive is being used by a bunch of progressive contractors I know for augmented reality with HoloLens and iPad, doing great.

James Benham:

There’s more and more and more of these solutions out there that are just… Argyle is another one that I put a video of in one of my presentations that’s just so freaking sweet. It’s on-site out in the open air and sunlight augmented reality, which actually is really hard to pull off. Indoor augmented reality is a lot easier to pull off. Outdoor gets complicated because the sun can actually be too bright and it can cause problems with the cameras reading terrain and then placing objects on it, but I mean, they are doing on-site outdoor AR, which is like the most challenging kind of AR to do, and it looks good. It looks really good.

James Benham:

You’re seeing a bunch of software providers come out with a really nice enterprise solutions for direct integration and Revit and the model and your project management system and integrating that in the field, and then Microsoft continues to evolve [inaudible 00:28:02]. The only glasses I give a crap about are Microsoft’s HoloLens. Everything else is second rate that I have tested. Now, there may be stuff I haven’t tested and seen, but not much, and so not much that’s commercially available. AR and VR has always been somewhat contingent on the hardware.

James Benham:

The other huge thing that happened in the last two years, last year and a half, is that the last two versions of the iPad Pro have LIDAR. The last two versions of the iPhone have LIDAR, the Pro iPhone, the Pro iPad, LIDAR, and it’s good LIDAR. There are simple, good apps to produce a 3D mesh map of a room now on your dang phone, and so that makes AR and VR on your phone way better, way better.

James Benham:

On the VR side, you can use it to map your position and you can do an iPhone-based VR headset, and on AR, it allows it to map objects and anchor through like spatial anchors from Azure. You can throw spatial anchors on a specific location and have a reasonable certainty it’s going to stick to the object you stick it to because LIDAR actually scans the room.

Mike Merrill:

Wow. Truly fascinating. Who would have thunk 10 years ago that we could be here? Not me. What about 3D printing? I know we talked about that the last time we had you on. Are you seeing that adoption rate here in the States pick up?

James Benham:

Well-

Mike Merrill:

Or not?

James Benham:

No. I’m seeing new companies starting and doing it.

Mike Merrill:

Okay. Okay.

James Benham:

This is one of those [crosstalk 00:29:43] things I think it’s so fundamentally disruptive-

Mike Merrill:

Yeah.

James Benham:

… that I think you’re going to see more VC money flowing in-

Mike Merrill:

Okay.

James Benham:

… and it already is.

Mike Merrill:

Right.

James Benham:

I believe this year was yet another new record on VC money flowing into construct tech. Let’s just take a couple examples, two examples. ICON in Austin and Fastbrick Robotics with the Hadrian X Robot in Australia. Both of these companies have now… They’re using different methods. Fastbrick’s 3D printing with blocks and ICON’s 3D printing with liquified concrete that then sets and form in place. Both have built houses. Both have municipal involvement. Both are pretty impressive because like Fastbrick is gaining municipal certifications and they’re passing engineering tests, like the things you need for people to actually occupy a building. That’s something that we have to think about.

James Benham:

I’m excited about the new companies that are starting because I’m really not seeing a ton of existing companies disrupting themselves on this. It’s going to take new companies. Then, you really look at what’s becoming a bridge printer, and I love what Jeremy Searock, and he’s the, the Chief Technology Officer at the Bridge Company in Pittsburgh that started the robotics company that is producing the Tybot and the IronBot. What he’s doing is piece by piece they’re building a bridge printer. Instead of trying to build a bridge printer, they tackled their first and biggest problem. They couldn’t get labor to tie a rebar, so they created a computer vision system with a robot that can identify where two pieces of rebar intersect and it drops down and [crosstalk 00:31:29] ties it.

Mike Merrill:

[inaudible 00:31:30].

James Benham:

They’re like, “Okay, well, our next big hurdle is getting the iron to the Tybot,” right? So [crosstalk 00:31:36] they’ve invented the IronBot and it rides on the rails over the bridge, so what’s happening is they’re using traditional bridge construction techniques to build the core infrastructure of the bridge, the core structure, and then they’re putting their printers on the rails and having it do laying the rebar and then tying it. I think concrete will be next. I think they’ll have a-

Mike Merrill:

Yeah.

James Benham:

… I think they’ll have one that will just follow behind it and actually pour the bridge. Why wouldn’t it?

Mike Merrill:

Wow.

James Benham:

Why wouldn’t you?

Mike Merrill:

Right.

James Benham:

You’ve already done two other pieces. I think that’s what… 3D printing is going to be very specific, just like robotics. It’s not going to be like a humanoid robot that builds bridges or a humanoid robot that builds a building. You’re going to have all of these function and form-specific things like Dusty Robotics that just does layout. It’s just a little tiny little robot that prints the layout. That’s really where you’re seeing the innovation in 3D printing, and Fastbrick printing bricks and using adhesive instead of mortar. ICON using like proper concrete 3D printing. It’s for real. They’ve partnered with a major home builder in the Austin area and they’re-

Mike Merrill:

Wow.

James Benham:

… printing houses. They’re going for it.

Mike Merrill:

Really?

James Benham:

They got to get certification and approval that it meets code, you know?

Mike Merrill:

Yeah, yeah. That’s the hurdle, for sure. No question about it. Well, what about… You’ve mentioned robotics in different forms and fashions, but I was just at a NECA event, you know, National Electrical Contractor Association, and I saw the robotic dog at the Triple booth. What are you seeing happen there? I’m seeing and hearing more in the news about what they’re doing.

James Benham:

They make a lot of news because they’re cool. Form function-specific robots, not humanoid robots.

Mike Merrill:

Right, right. Yeah, performing a task that’s hard to do safely as a human, temperature or gases or other things that-

James Benham:

Yeah.

Mike Merrill:

… aren’t safe.

James Benham:

Yeah, so, I mean, you’re sending Spot in to deal with something that you don’t want to send a human in to, or Spot just walks on the job site and 3D scans it every day so you have real-time daily as-builts. That’s really cool.

Mike Merrill:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative).

James Benham:

Of course, drones are robots, too. Drones are robots, too, and they’re fully autonomous now. I don’t hand fly any of my drones-

Mike Merrill:

Right.

James Benham:

… so that’s super cool. Then, you get into… Of course, the most common robots are software robots and people would just kind of forget that. They’re like-

Mike Merrill:

Right.

James Benham:

… you know, what makes a robot, a robot? Well, autonomy.

Mike Merrill:

Automation. Yeah.

James Benham:

Automation, autonomy, but not just automation like the ability to adapt and make a decision from an adverse environment. That’s the difference, right? It’s autonomous that it can respond to a product like drones are. If a drone senses an obstacle, it’ll reroute around the obstacle and to resume the flight path. That’s autonomy. You know what I mean?

Mike Merrill:

Yeah. Right, right.

James Benham:

We’re seeing that in terrestrial drones now, but you’ve seen in software. I talked about software robots, RPA, that’s a big deal. I think the real opportunity is in software robots, and then hardware robots are going to keep coming along. I mean, Roombas are super common in houses now, Husqvarna has made lawn maintenance robots pretty common. They’re for sale at Lowe’s. The consumer market is a harbinger of what’s to come in the industrial market because as people get super comfortable with robots performing routine functions at their house, they become more comfortable with-

Mike Merrill:

Yeah.

James Benham:

… robots performing routine functions at the office. If the iPhone had not been a big consumer hit, I don’t think it would’ve been a big commercial hit-

Mike Merrill:

That’s right.

James Benham:

… but people installed apps and they’re like, “Why don’t I have an app for this stuff I use at work?” That began the whole revolution, right?

Mike Merrill:

Yeah. That tide will not turn back now. It’s only going to keep moving forward and grow, so… Are there any technologies that you’ve seen out there that you think, “This particular thing just isn’t ready yet, it’s the wrong approach, it’s too early, need to reinvent or refigure some of that before companies jump in and start buying stuff they’re never going to use or that’s not going to do what they’re attending it to do?”

James Benham:

There’s always lessons to be learned from failure, but we shouldn’t be afraid of failure and we shouldn’t criticize it too heavily.

Mike Merrill:

I like that. You’re always saying, “Tech… geek out,” right?

James Benham:

Yeah [crosstalk 00:36:01]-

Mike Merrill:

Try something [crosstalk 00:36:01]-

James Benham:

… yeah, and you’ve got to embrace failure. I mean, SmartBid, which became one of the largest bidding networks in the Western hemisphere. I had a quarter million subs bidding on jobs. We sent out tens of millions of plans a week. It was pretty busy. That was the result of a completely failed product that I built. I built a bidding system for printing companies.

Mike Merrill:

Okay.

James Benham:

Nobody bought it. I mean, you learn from your failure, you pivot, you do something new and all of a sudden this thing has a lot more applicability over in construction, so-

Mike Merrill:

Right.

James Benham:

… I think it’s important to learn from failure. The big one this year that I think everybody has to learn from is Katerra. They flushed billions of dollars of SoftBank money down the toilet. They just liquidated and shut down and people bought companies back. The nice thing is that a lot of the… The investors of SoftBank got shellacked on that deal, but not shellacked overall because other SoftBank plays worked out.

James Benham:

You end up with a lot of assets being disposed of pretty cheaply right now from Katerra, but I think just a lot to learn from that. I thought, “Man, integrating that many companies that fast,” I didn’t know how they were going to do it, and they didn’t. They didn’t pull it off. I think that was too early. The concept of full multitrade prefab doing everything on a commercial building in the manufacturing floor, writing all of your own software. They tried to eat an elephant in one bite.

James Benham:

I’m not happy that they didn’t work out, and I need to make this really clear. They don’t celebrate that it didn’t work out for them, but it is something to learn from, just like I don’t celebrate that my first five or six products failed miserably. I just am thankful I got to learn the lessons from them, and so I think that’s what we got to look at is like, what failed and why? How do we learn something as an industry from it and say, “Hey, maybe integrating these many companies together is a good idea, but maybe over 10 years, not one, yeah?”

James Benham:

Multitrade prefab and full off-site construct, it is very appealing, but maybe if you take a careful measured approach to it, because you still have to worry about building safety. I think that’s the stuff that I saw that didn’t work out that I was dismayed that it didn’t work out. AR and VR has taken a long time to get to this point, man. I tell you [crosstalk 00:38:42] what, it’s still just not mainstream yet. It’s still in the niches, and so I’m hopeful that it’ll really take off finally.

Mike Merrill:

Yeah. We keep seeing signs and innovations that make it get closer. They’re close enough proximity that maybe this will impact that and that will impact this. I think, like you said, fell forward. Without embracing failure, we’d also be on paper in construction, right?

James Benham:

Yep.

Mike Merrill:

Well, so lastly, just wanted to ask what James Benham, the technologist, what gets you excited for 2022? What are you really excited about?

James Benham:

If you follow me at all, you know I geek out on risk tech and I am geeking out on insurance, man. That’s what gets me excited because a lot of general contractors make more money on their insurance captive programs than they do on their GC fees. Insurance drives the whole world. It drives… Certainly, I’m a pilot. It drives the aviation world. They decide who flies, not really the government, and the same thing in construction. If you can’t get bonded, if you can’t get insured your, your hosed. We’ve gotten to work heavily with AXA XL. I’m so excited about their construction ecosystem, what they’re doing there. You’ve seen other carriers step in and really partner with technology companies, of course, start venture funds. Yeah, what am I geeking out on this year in 2022, the end of ’21, ’22? Risk tech all the way.

James Benham:

It’s certainly in our investments. I’m investing heavily in our own products. I’m investing in other products. It’s exciting to see what’s going on in the area of insurance and risk management, how that applies to construction because they’re solving the risk management problem while solving productivity and technology. It’s the big Band-Aid, not the little one. That really, really, really excites me because it’s going to impact worker safety. It’s going to impact productivity. It’s going to impact job site safety. It’s going to impact everything on the job. It really fires me up.

James Benham:

We have two products, SmartCompliance, that’s certificate of insurance tracking. GCs track COIs on substance suppliers. We had a huge growth in that platform this year. I’m really excited about it. Then, we built our own insurance claims product. A lot of contractor self-insure their claims and they self-administer their claims or they’re part of contractor groups that self-administer. We got deep, deep, deep into claims management. Guess where we started? Work comp. Right?

Mike Merrill:

Yeah, right.

James Benham:

Why not? That’s really where the rubber hits the road, and our main goal there is to get people back to work faster. That’s a big goal in construction. We want to help prevent the accident. Then, if it does happen, we’ll help get them work back to work faster. I know it may seem a little nerdy, but if you listen to my InsureTech Geek Podcast, you can hear me talk to all the other InsureTech companies out there. InsureTech and ConTech have a lot in common and they have a lot to learn from each other, a lot to partner with each other. Risk tech in general and InsureTech gets me really, really excited, and so that’s certainly where I’m spending my time.

Mike Merrill:

Very interesting. Again, your whole life is about, how do we take one process and improve it and trim the fat and remove the bottlenecks and get rid of the barriers? Fascinating that a guy that’s so heavily invested in technology for so long, your whole career, that you’re focusing on the other end of this and I really like it. I appreciate that insight.

James Benham:

Yeah. I got to keep doing something new, and certainly I’m trying to go up the value chain too, right? Like that’s-

Mike Merrill:

Yeah.

James Benham:

… I want to go to where the real problem is and, you know, preventable mistakes, preventable mistakes, preventable mistakes. Preventable mistakes eat more construction margin than almost anything else. Preventable mistakes, cost lives, and so that’s why it’s way up the value chain. That’s why insurance and risk management, while it may sound like something for the lawyers in the room, it’s not. It’s everybody’s problem and it deeply impacts profitability and productivity. A safer job [crosstalk 00:43:02] site is a more productive job site.

Mike Merrill:

Love it. That’s a great way to end. Thank you, James. This was a pleasure and actually a lot of fun. I feel like we’re just hanging out chatting, and I enjoyed our time again today.

James Benham:

My pleasure.

Mike Merrill:

All right. Well, we’ll do it again down the road. Until then, let’s keep in touch and thanks for all that you’re doing.

James Benham:

Yeah. Thank you and gig them Aggies and let’s hope my Aggies can win out and Alabama loses to Auburn and we go to the SEC Championship. That’s what I’m hoping right now, so I’m going to put it out in the world and hope it comes back.

Mike Merrill:

I just heard it. Good prediction. All right. Locked and loaded.

James Benham:

Thanks.

Mike Merrill:

Good to see you, buddy.

James Benham:

See you.

Mike Merrill:

Okay, bye.