On The Yard, we talk a lot about our belief in the power of construction technology and its countless benefits to contractors. Not only is construction technology what sets EquipmentShare apart in the equipment sales and rental industry—it’s also what will drive the construction industry toward a more productive, promising future.
We’re not alone in our belief that construction technology will change the future of the industry. We share this vision with Britton Lawson, the director of construction technologies at Veit, a specialty contracting and waste management firm based in Minnesota. Lawson has long been interested in putting technology to work on his jobsites. Starting right out of high school as an equipment operator, Lawson’s love for the industry and passion for technology never stopped growing and eventually landed him in his current position.
At Veit, Lawson helps his team and Veit’s customers solve problems with technology. He spends a lot of time in the field to help contractors implement technology as a solution to daily work challenges and educates contractors so they can get the most value out of construction technology tools.
Britton is a huge advocate for construction technology, which makes him just the person to talk to about its benefits, how to implement it at your jobsite and what it means for the future of construction.
These are excerpts from a conversation that have been edited for clarity.
A Q-and-A with Veit & Company’s Director of Construction Technologies
EquipmentShare: Britton, tell us about yourself and what you do at Veit. How did you get started in construction?
Britton Lawson: My heart and soul have always been in running equipment, having boots on the ground. I went to school for heavy equipment operation. After school, I became a dozer operator, and I was excited to use emerging technology to help me do that. Eventually, I ended up at Veit in the survey department.
My role at Veit really started to evolve quickly because I was always a big advocate for using technology at the jobsite, and I wanted to be able to help people do the same. My role has allowed me to talk about field technology and be an advocate for that across the company.
I’m fortunate because I get to look at how we’re doing things currently, and I get the opportunity to ask a lot of questions: How are we using the tools? How can we do that better? If we currently use specific software or various types of software, how do we integrate them into our processes better? How do we use the features better? How do we increase the technical know-how in the field? How are we training our people on technology and how do we make new processes? How do we refine the old ones?
ES: When was the first time that construction technology sparked an interest in you?
BL: In the early 2000s, I visited one of my instructors from equipment operation school, and he wanted to show me some new technology. He showed me a video that a company out of Iowa made, showing how they were using grade control technology. They had worked with Trimble and Cat to form a partnership, and I thought to myself, “This is incredible technology.” Fortunately, I was able to seek that technology out through the dealer and through the union and I had the opportunity to train on it. During my first day of training, I realized that this was going to change the way we work.
I was able to go back and talk to the company I was with at the time and really sell them on it. I told them that this is the way of the future. They hesitated, but by the same token, they also saw the benefits of it. They put a lot of trust in me and said, “Alright, we’re going to invest in this system.” They bought a new dozer, bought the technology to run with it, and off we went.
EquipmentShare: How did your role at Veit shift to allow you to serve as a company advocate for construction technology?
BL: I think my past experience of working in the field as an operator and in supervision roles allowed me to understand the full process that it takes to complete a project from start to finish and where technology could help us be more efficient. Veit saw a need for an advocate to help us use technology across the business and throughout all of their systems. They approached me and asked if I would be interested in focusing on a technology-driven vision and strategy for the company. It opened up this opportunity for us to collaborate and come up with this niche company advocate role.
ES: Do you think more construction firms will start bringing on technology advocate roles?
BL: It’s a unique role, but I think more companies will start to see the need to hire someone who can advocate for the use of construction technologies as more people embrace the use of technology in the construction industry. They’re seeing a need to hire someone they can consult when they need to compare and contrast technologies and products; they need someone who can understand and speak the language with both vendors and the people in the field.
Right now, construction companies as a whole are struggling to identify what software stack they’re going to use, what technology they’re going to invest in. They have to figure out who’s going to drive that and how to keep on top of the newest trends, processes and products. That involves appointing a person to go to the trade shows and network and find out what’s going to benefit the business and be a champion within their organization.
ES: What was it like to witness the evolution of technology in construction work?
BL: I benefited from growing up in the pre-technology era. In the early 2000s, I was able to run equipment and understand how to build a project with stakes. I was able to understand where we came from and see how we got to where we are now, and I think that has helped me in my experience. If GPS goes down, I can refer back to an “old-school” method or apply those methods to some of today’s more traditional workflows to still accomplish the job at hand.
ES: There can be a lot of barriers to entry when it comes to adopting construction technology. Throughout your career, how have you addressed this?
BL: I think the biggest thing is just showing the proof.
Previously, I primarily worked on civil construction projects. Take, for example, a project on an airport runway. Unsuitable material would be removed down to the bedrock, and we would replace it with sand, and then the motor grader would spend days finishing blue tops. They’d have to physically string line and check each single blue top. We would fix the high or low spots, and then we could put gravel on it. It went from being a long process over the course of three shifts (placing the sand with the dozer, surveyor blue-topping, tolerancing with the motor grader, and verifying the blue tops) to placing and tolerancing with the dozer, then blue-topping it and placing gravel. We wouldn’t have to go back on it because the grade would be perfect from the GPS. That means you’re taking days out of that process, and that was kind of the turning point for the company I worked for. That was the proof.
In that case, using technology drastically cut down the time it took to complete the project. In different applications on other projects, we were eliminating machines—not just cutting down on time spent. For instance, we’d traditionally work with one dozer supporting one excavator. Because of technology, we could instead have two excavators running, and I was supporting both excavators through technology. We eliminated three people (grade checkers) from the job, one machine, and I was able to support both excavators. It just sped up the process so much that the company I worked for at the time embraced the technology shift.
ES: We have to ask about your Instagram, @technology_sandbox. What made you want to share your experiences and thoughts with an Instagram audience?
BL: I was always looking at construction equipment on social media, seeing what others were doing and checking out the technology they were using and how they were using it. I had posted once about a piece of equipment on my personal Instagram page, and some people interacted with it and were genuinely interested. They were excited that I was following my passion. People would say, “You have the coolest job, and you get to work on some of the coolest projects.” And I do. I’m thankful for it every day, to be able to work around the technology and everything that it can do. So I started sharing more on my Instagram just as an exploration and a look into what I do every day, the awesome things I get to be involved in. I’m lucky that I get to share what I’m passionate about with other people who are excited about the same things.
At Veit, we’re doing so many exciting things, so many different types of projects, and the resources that we have are great. The people who have been involved in all our projects have embraced construction technology full force. It’s been great to be able to share that and have a conversation about how it’s changing the industry and raise awareness about it, so I can say, “Hey, this stuff is really good, and it’s going to bring efficiency to construction.”
ES: Did you feel like there was a knowledge gap on social media regarding construction technology?
BL: There’s been a lot of talk about construction technology on social media, but not a lot of education. Knowing and seeing that, I wanted to be an advocate for construction technology and serve as a resource for people in the construction industry. There can be a steep learning curve when it comes to using technology; plus, it’s changing a lot. It can be tough to try to stay on top of all of the options and capabilities technology offers.
So, for me, to be able to act as a resource and share [on my Instagram], that was extremely important to me. I had many people along the way that kind of did that same thing for me. They showed me how to run equipment and mentored me through my career, so it was my way of giving back, too. This is what I can offer the industry. Technology is not as scary as it may seem. Part of what I try to do on social media is help other people understand that or think of it differently, so that it doesn’t seem as intimidating or confusing as some people think it is.
ES: You say technology isn’t as scary as it may seem. Do you think that’s the perception most people in the industry have about it?
BL: I think the perception is that [technology] is kind of scary. There are a lot of contractors that got into this who are very hands on. They have all the mechanical aptitude, so when their dozer breaks down, they’re going to rip it apart. They’re going to put it back together, and it’s going to work. Or, if not that, they’re going to just fix it, or put a temporary fix on it and get going for the day. And technology is not that. But it can be, right?
There’s a fear of the unknown about it. When technology goes down, some contractors don’t know how to fix it, or don’t want to fix it. So they’ll blame the technology. But think of it this way: In all reality, technology is just another part of the piece of equipment. It’s no different than a mechanical breakdown. The technology is going to break down at some point, no matter what.
If people working with technology in the construction industry can change their perception in this respect, that’s going to ease their journey and help them use it better. You just have to be okay with not knowing and learning, being open and transparent. Ask lots of questions, and don’t be so quick to blame the technology. Change your way of thinking, too. You have to ask, “How do we make it work?” instead of waiting for it to fail.
ES: What’s your response when you encounter somebody who thinks that using technology on a jobsite is going to get rid of jobs?
BL: Change your perspective! [laughs] It’s really easy to say, “Oh yeah, technology is going to take away jobs,” but I think the more important thing to focus on is that it’s going to evolve. It’s going to change people’s jobs. It frees them up to take care of other aspects of the business, whether it is running a piece of equipment or whether it’s being the director of construction technologies!
I think new positions come out [of using technology at the jobsite], and you need to think of it a little bit differently. The other aspect of that is that we don’t have enough people to fill the seats as it is, let alone skilled people to fill the seats. But technology will help bridge that gap.
The industry has evolved over the years in equipment size, horsepower and comfort for the better. We don’t perform projects like our predecessors did, and we face different challenges than before. The important part to remember is that we are an ever-evolving industry, and as a contractor, it is your choice to either do things the way they’ve always been done, or continue to evolve. If we don’t embrace technology, we will not move forward with the industry.
ES: What’s your advice for other technology advocates who want to help their company invest in tech?
BL: The biggest thing is to get a champion—somebody that’s passionate about making it work who will work through the failures and can see the long-term goals. The next thing is to demo those [technology] products on site; put it in your work, and see the benefits of what it can do for you.
I was very passionate about a skid steer blade; I always thought technology on a skid steer motor grader blade was going to be extremely beneficial, and people laughed at me! And now, it’s one of the most used tools that we have. But I really had to talk a lot of people into that over the years.
We did an Amazon building last year, and there were around 320 pad footings that were 12 feet by 12 feet. We’ve got GPS excavators, but I really pushed hard for an automatic excavator because I believed that we could increase our productivity and we would achieve grade faster with the semi-automatic excavators. And it succeeded, partly because there’s a lot of trust between the people I work with and me. It takes a lot of trust and a good relationship with the people you work with for them to get behind you and believe the same thing you do, because technology is, of course, a huge investment.
ES: What’s the next form of construction technology you think will take off?
BL: I think augmented reality for the preconstruction space is going to be beneficial. To be able to predict conflicts before you get to them, before crews are there, is going to save a ton of time and money. It’s going to help improve project schedules to be more on time. I would also say machine learning and business intelligence, automating workflows is going to be extremely important. The ability to make predictions and to be able to mitigate expenses or conflicts early on in the process and know where a project is financially will be a huge benefit to companies .
Remote control and autonomy is the next thing that a lot of OEMs are working on. I’m excited to see the flexibility that remote control offers and potential use of the workforce. I’m ready for autonomy. I think it’s going to be a good thing. I think, to automate some of our redundant processes, which they’re already doing in mines, is going to be valuable. I think it’s going to be GC- and owner-driven as far as who’s going to allow autonomy on their site. It’s going to be very site-specific because of the infrastructure you’ve got to set up early on, but to be able to deploy that moving forward will be very helpful.
ES: Taking into account some of the technology you just mentioned, what does a tech-driven construction industry look like to you in five, 10, 20 years?
BL: I would like to see construction be a little bit more predictable so we can reduce conflicts, and I think for that to happen, you’re looking at fully connected sites. Pulling data and leveraging data from multiple different entities, whether it is drone-mapping, on-machine sensors or even site sensors—that’s going to contribute to real-time data.
That real-time data helps you understand where you are on the project and helps you to be predictable on the project and prevent conflicts so you can provide solutions before you get there. I think there’s going to be a huge transition into a more efficient job site—even leveraging virtual reality or augmented reality in terms of seeing those conflicts before they happen.
ES: The connected jobsite is something we really believe in, too.
BL: One of my hashtags is “connectivity.” My biggest thing is a connected site. We transfer all of our data for all of our equipment via a cloud workflow, a connected workflow. We’re able to connect to all of our assets remotely to assist with diagnostics, training and field operations. So, the community I get to work with everyday created a culture behind that, and that’s been something that I’ve talked about for the last five years. It’s just how we do it. That’s another example of technology that I have been passionate about. We pay for it, but the return we get on it much outweighs the investment.
Learn more about Britton and his construction technology work on Instagram @technology_sandbox. Keep an eye out for more technology wisdom from Britton and EquipmentShare on our social platforms!