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Riding the Automation Wave

Damon Thomas, P.E., is an architectural and civil engineer with nearly 30 years experience in construction materials testing and subsidence engineering. He is president of CTL|Thompson Materials Engineers, Inc.

This article originally appeared on ForConstructionPros.com on February 17, 2020.

Materials testing is still heavily reliant on humans, but cloud-based platforms that communicate directly with break machines are taking us into the future.

For nearly 150 years, construction materials testing has been a manual effort. Whether in an engineering lab, a commercial lab, at a cement/ready-mix manufacturer’s site or in the field, specimens are labeled with markers or chalk. Load settings are controlled with a hand valve. Results are recorded and transferred manually. Details are noted, but sparsely, and put in a folder, in a cabinet—somewhere.

In short, materials testing is heavily reliant on humans. Just like it was 150 years ago.

It won’t come as a surprise to readers that the construction industry is years behind the rest of the automated world. In fact, according to McKinsey Global Institute’s (MGI) Digitization Index, “Construction is among the least digitized sectors in the world. In the United States, construction comes second to last, and in Europe, it is in last position on the index.”

That is all changing.

“Ten years ago, nearly all materials testing machines sold in the United States were manual. Now, more than 70% of newly purchased machines are automatic,” says Forney LP CEO Jeff Dziki. “In a few more years, manual machines will be gone, and all machines will be automated. The performance difference is just that compelling.”

Dziki is one of the parties responsible for what we see as a paradigm shift in materials testing. In 2018, the firm released ForneyVault, a cloud-based construction materials testing platform that communicates directly with Forney break machines. As the first machine-to-machine communication tool for materials testing, the platform can deliver approved break test results to a client within minutes. Results can be viewed from any internet-enabled device.

As the president of CTL|Thompson Materials Engineers, Inc., I oversee one of the busiest materials testing labs in the U.S. In October 2018, we launched ForneyVault after integrating the platform with our existing Forney break machines and MetaField, our materials testing software package, designed by Agile Frameworks.

As we complete our first year of use, we are recognizing great benefits to our lab. Our clients, including developers, contractors and manufacturers, receive test results faster, which delivers the benefit of increased productivity. We also believe the industry will benefit from the actionable insights that result from a national warehouse of materials testing data.

Will it help us ride the wave of digitization into the future? I believe so. Here’s why.

Automation Breeds Innovation

Our lab is among the busiest in the country. Our lab technicians routinely arrive at 5 a.m. to accommodate the large testing load. Some days we have 300 cylinders on the schedule, which can take up to 16 hours to test. Through automation, we shorten the overall testing time and, more importantly, the results are recorded automatically into our ERP. They are then transmitted directly to the reviewing project manager and ultimately to the client, who can view them from any web-enabled device. This data-delivery speed is a big change from the past, when it could take up to two days to review and deliver results.

In the case of another Forney client, whose volume exceeds our lab’s, the results were even more dramatic. That lab breaks up to 600 cylinders per day during its busiest months. In the past, it took three manual machines operated by three people to produce 35 cylinder tests per hour. Since automating the process, they are running five auto- matic machines with one technician and testing 100 specimens per hour.

Detractors might suggest that automation is costing the industry critical jobs. We see it differently. As one of the most sophisticated testing labs in the country, we invest heavily in the initial and ongoing training of our technicians. Automation gives these highly trained professionals more time to focus their expertise on efforts that can support innovation in the lab and provide additional insights to our clients.

The speed and reliability of the system also can boost productivity in the field. If a construction team knows, with absolute certainty, when a test result will be delivered, they can better deploy their own resources — both human and machine.

AUTOMATION IMPROVES ACCURACY

Not only was manual testing tedious and time-consuming, but it was also vulnerable to human error. In the past, we recorded break machine data manually and then entered it manually into our database. We consistently had three opportunities for error: (1) during data recording, (2) while writing reports by hand and (3) when entering data into the database. Our technicians are highly trained and professional, but even a nearly perfect tech can tire after 16 hours of testing and writing 200- 300 test reports.

With automated testing, human hands only intervene at three touch- points: (1) preparing the specimen, (2) determining the specimen parameters for testing and (3) physically loading the specimen into the machine. The rest of the testing runs seamlessly— and flawlessly.

Even manual data entry is monitored to avoid inaccuracies. Sample or specimen parameters live in a cloud database and are tied to a unique identification number. When a technician selects the specimen to load from the machine display, it shows all previously defined information, including its age and required strength.

Because of this, the machine can flag a specimen and alert the technician to potential problems. If parameters of the specimen are outside the normal range, or we attempt to run a test outside of the scheduled day, the machine recognizes the problem and sends a warning signal. If the specimen is impossible to test due to capacity or inaccurate recording, the “start test” button is disabled.

Because each specimen has a unique ID, the original results are archived in our database and searchable. This last point may have the greatest impact on the industry as a whole.

AUTOMATION LEADS TO DIGITIZATION

A 2019 report from BST Global, titled “The State of the AEC Project Lifecycle,” noted: “the architectural, engineering and construction sector remains woefully inefficient when it comes to dealing with the mounds of data stakeholders are accumulating in all phases of their operations.”

Data has become the most valuable currency of our time. Nearly 98% of executives from Fortune 1000 companies will invest in big data and AI this year, and “the ability to make sense of the data avalanche,” according to Forbes contributor Michelle Evans, “will be what distinguishes the winners from the losers in the next decade.”

Yet, as MGI noted, construction remains among the least digitized industries in the U.S.

Advances like ForneyVault serve labs like ours, but I am hopeful they will start an “avalanche” of digital adoption in the industry.

One of the reasons construction has been slow to digitize is the “one-off” nature of our industry. Even for a large developer, each construction project has its own discrete properties. Within a project, each specimen is unique. ForneyVault’s searchable database allows labs and producers the ability to analyze the data holistically and identify trends, issues or possibilities. For example, using machine learning, producers could analyze mix design yields and design more optimal mixes. As the data warehouse grows, so will the opportunities for actionable insights.

“This new technology will help transform the construction industry,” said Dziki. “Truly automated testing is now the new standard in construction materials testing, and labs that don’t automate will soon be replaced by ones that do. You can swim against the tide, but it will eventually pull you along.”