United Rentals, the nation’s largest equipment rental company is spending a lot of time, money and brainpower trying to discern what the future of our industry looks like and how and what their business will deliver.
They see drones laying bricks, surveying solar fields and providing progress photos for a fraction of the previous cost of aerial photography. Skid steers deliver material to the workers—without a driver—and the Internet of Things (IoT) weaving in and out of a myriad of machines on the job site.
Leading that effort is Helge Jacobsen, vice president for operations excellence and general manager of the United Rentals Advanced Solutions Group. Jacobsen has been making the rounds this year, speaking at national association meetings, talking about the future of technology in an industry that could barely spell “computer” 20- years ago.
While Jacobsen acknowledges that 2018 may not be the year technology completely takes over construction and industrial job sites—he says the job site of the future is still years if not decades away — but several technologies will have their day. One of the functions of the Advanced Solutions Group is to be ready for that day by partnering with original equipment manufacturers to develop and implement autonomous and IoT-enabled solutions for customers.“For a lot of customer applications, drones are to taking off in 2018,” said Jacobsen in comments at industry events earlier this year. The biggest users in 2018 will be in wind energy and solar energy, where pilots can fly drones with clear line-of-sight over large areas to do inspections. “For a solar panel field survey, it could take weeks to get the corners accurate. But we could do it today with a precision flyover in 30 to 45 minutes,” Jacobsen said.
Contractors will use drones more often to perform initial surveys of construction sites, measure a job’s progress and keep track of materials on the job site. “This will be the year we reach the tipping point in companies adopting the technology,” said Jacobsen.
Drones uses will multiply as contractors and plant managers realize what these unmanned aerial vehicles can do. “The more we use drones with customers, the more use cases we get. Then customers realize what we can do and come back and ask for more applications,” said Jacobsen. “2018 is the year when autonomy hit the ground in doing real stuff in real environments,” Jacobsen noted.
Autonomous vehicles won’t take over construction sites, but they’ll make an appearance. United Rentals deployed its first autonomous machine, a Bobcat skid steer, at a customer site in November; the machine is doing forklift-type work, moving materials onto a job site. “We are going to be deploying another 50 autonomous vehicles next year, and we are probably going to have four or five other autonomous platforms ready for real work,” said Jacobsen.
Jacobsen sees big advances in telematics in 2018 as It takes hold on smaller platforms. “Telematics will move beyond big equipment,” he said. For example, United Rentals is developing a telematics solution for tracking hand tools and smaller attachments, and other companies are working on similar projects.
United Rentals will also be providing telematics solutions for tracking workers to improve safety. Telematics can be used to alert managers of dangerous situations before they happen and also alert them of slips, trips, and falls. It will give unprecedented visibility to safety on job sites. Companies will continue to look for wearable technology to keep workers safe and healthy. While cooling vests and similar wearables already exist, customers, today want even better options.