Key construction tech trends the US petchem industry must not ignore

Technology in the Twenty-Tens decade has moved at lightning speed and moving even faster as the world gets closer to 2020. The rate of adoption and disruption has been almost too fast for the petrochemical industry, an industry immersed in traditional habits and values.

Robotics of today's construction sites are more advanced than the ones that emerged in the 1990s. Image: Welding Robots by RobotWorx

The idea that some technologies are moving too fast does not mean, however, that those technologies won’t become the next big thing. The technologies are moving quickly because the demand is so strong, an analyst told Petrochemical Update.

Inevitably, the disruptive technologies of today will become the next day to-day big thing, just as the world went from telegraphs to land lines to mobile phones to smart phones, only at a faster pace than ever before seen in history.

Long-term, which key technologies will change the way the downstream petrochemical engineering, construction and maintenance sectors operate and become day-to-day functions?

Petrochemical Update spoke to Dr Carl T. Haas Department Chair, Professor, Canada Research Chair at the University of Waterloo & President International Association for Automation and Robotics in Construction.

By adopting and taking advantage of technologies and concepts that already exist such as artificial intelligence, drones, 3D scanning and printing, Radio Frequency Identification Technology (RFID), modularization, autonomous equipment and advanced building materials; companies can boost productivity, streamline project management, ultimately reduce costs, and enhance quality and safety.

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence (AI) will play a central role here, as it is being used already to gain new insights into how craft work safely and productively.

AI is giving researchers at the University of Waterloo new insights to help reduce wear-and-tear injuries and boost the productivity of skilled construction workers.

Masonry and construction are demanding fields, requiring constant and repetitive motions that can lead to fatigue, wear and tear, and musculoskeletal injury.

As part of their work, the researchers are now developing a system that uses sensor suits to give trainees immediate feedback so they can modify their movements to reduce stress on their bodies.

Image: University of Waterloo, Canada

“There is an unseen problem with craft workers who are just wearing out their bodies,” he said. “It’s not humane and it’s not good for our economy for skilled tradespeople to be done when they’re 50.” 


Although it may not be obvious from the outside at first, robotic technology is already in use on the job site.

For now, routine applications are minimal and highly specific, such as scanning and grade control. But that is expected to change.

“Robotics tried to emerge in the 80s and 90s and didn’t meet people’s expectations, but I think now we are getting some pretty good stuff around robotics like welding, exoskeletons, and support for the more difficult craft jobs. All of this will impact productivity on site,” Haas said.

Construction robots can be used in the industry for fabrication, building construction machinery, arc welding metal components, applying adhesives, and assembling doors and windows.

Construction robots are also used in the handling and manipulation of bricks and other heavy blocks. Robotic systems can also be utilized to dispense concrete on the job site.

According to RobotWorx, Welding time on Japanese construction sites has dropped dramatically since the implementation of robotic welding systems.

One firm developed a system that uses two six-axis robots to weld structural steel for buildings. The I-beams are cut and welded prior to being delivered to the construction site, resulting in little welding needing to be done onsite.

Prior to delivery, holes for plumbing and electrical systems are cut into the beams. These cuts must be made with exceptional accuracy, usually within 0.16 mm. After the cuts are made, the robots attach a unique part number to each beam to ensure that each beam gets used for the right job.

The efficiency of this robotics system has decreased the time it takes to put up steel in a building, allowing more time to develop other projects.


One technology that Haas is certain will be a regular part of future construction sites is the exoskeleton. Naval shipyard workers are already using exoskeletons. These workers lift heavy hand-held tools and supplies, work in awkward postures, and work at various heights as in construction.

A U.S. government study of the industrial human augmentation system (iHAS), an integrated system composed of two different exoskeletons found that use of the iHAS was associated with a 10% increase in productivity, a reduction in vibration of the hands, and improved quality of work.

Exoskeletons have the potential to enhance worker productivity, provide assistance to aging workers, and decrease the risk of musculoskeletal disorders.

Collaborative Design

Complex projects with numerous stakeholders experience substantial risks related to the interfaces among stakeholders. This is particularly true during project definition and design, where despite discrete deliverables across the interfaces, decisions require some repetition.

Interface management is a way of agreeing on deliverables between project stakeholders and managing the flow of those deliverables using automated work systems in a set up.

Managing interfaces has become feasible with the advent of internet and electronic product and process-management systems to the extent that full-time interface-management (IM) positions exist in practice.

Collaborative design makes this possible as it allows for more than one stakeholder to access the 3D models and all the aspects of the product information.

Contracting strategies such as Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) are making this possible.

“It is an interesting thing where the contracting strategies that balance the risk and create trust and partnerships are combining with the technology that is allowing us to communicate remotely and communicate effectively finally and then the management of workflow best practices like Interface management coming to fruition,” Haas said. “That combination is really coming together to improve execution.”

Materials Tracking

Haas also believes future project construction sites will include more materials tracking using GPS and RFID tags. The future sites will use more 3D imaging and 3D modeling in combination to improve productivity and quality control.

Haas has used 3D imaging and other automated sensing algorithms to create digital twins of constructed facilities such as buildings. Construction companies use the tool to automate their progress tracking and locate where each object has been placed during construction of a new building.

Haas also developed RFID tags and algorithms to locate items on the construction site quickly and easily.

By Heather Doyle