The ConTechCrew 241: Sensors & The Meaning of Life with Brendan Dowdall from Hilti Group
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JAMES: Tell you what, let the smack talking begin. I have the other James on the show. That is right. I hate to say it, buddy. Hillegas is a hopeless romantic. That is really what I would describe James Hillegas as. A hopeless romantic because he is from Ohio and you have to be a hopeless romantic to root for Ohio professional football teams. And I say “professional” in air quotes. Like the Browns. They took a great quarterback from LSU. The Bengals did, and we will see if they do anything with him. You will have a chance to respond, James. Do not worry. The big 10 are like, “we are not going to play football this year. We do not want to play football.” Everybody else is playing football, but we are not going to play football. Now, I know Ohio was not the one doing this. It was Michigan and those folks that were having a fit, as we would say in the South, they were having a fit over this whole thing. We end up with the ACC and the SEC running the table big 12. Saying, now we are going to play football. So, it has been lonely. Then the big 10 jumps back in after they realize the error of their ways. You are about to have an opening weekend of football. Is that right Hillegas?
HILLEGAS: Yes, sir. We are 25 and a half hours away from kickoff.
JAMES: Yes. It is tough. What is October without college football? What is September without college football? It is lonely.
HILLEGAS: I watched Georgia Alabama last weekend for a brief second. It is not the same.
JAMES: I just do not care about this conference.
HILLEGAS: I will say living in the South college football is huge. Almost every car has some college sticker on it. Whether it is some big 10 school or some SEC school, it is like every car. I got mine, my Ohio state sticker. Do not worry. I am representing.
JAMES: I am sure you are. Look, you are in Atlanta. Atlanta is the heart of the Southeastern Conference. It is where a lot of the conference championships are played. It is an SEC town if there ever was an SEC town. Even though ironically, there are no SEC teams in Atlanta. That is where a lot of the championships are because it is kind of the orbit right? I think it has to do with Delta Airlines, to be honest. You know the old joke, when you die, you are going to change planes in Atlanta? I think people on the way to heaven are like, oh, no, I am sorry. You got to change planes in Atlanta. Because that is the way it is. It is a little strange, but we are about to have that Northern, that other football conference up there that tends to give the ACC and the SEC some fits. It is hard to say they give the big 12 fits because everybody gives the big 12 fits. I call them the little 11, it is kind of a strange, weird conference. And then there is that very weird conference out there in California, but I do not know.
Brendan Dowdell, you are in Boston. Boston Beantown is a sports town, but it is more of a pro sports town. They are just nuts about their pro sports. I remember one year when I think almost every pro team in Boston won a title that year. Do you remember that year? It was like the Patriots won; the Red Sox won. It was insane! You are in a sports town. It is just a pro sports town.
BRENDAN: It is a religion. And for me, I went to Notre Dame. So, I get sort of the best of both worlds. I got to say it has been pretty nice. Starting in 2004, really when the Red Sox won, Patriots won in 2001 for the first time, but I remember in 2004 it sort of dawned on all of us. The curse was broken. How great was that? The curse was broken and what a celebration. Good times.
JAMES: Great movie with Jimmy Fallon in it, where he happened to be filming that movie about him being a Red Sox fan, the year the Red Sox went and won the title. Then they used the live footage. It was amazing. My business partner, my Chief Operating Officer Sebastian Costa, is a rabid Red Sox fan.
BRENDAN: That is a good guy.
JAMES: He is a great guy. He is the best. But he is a Red Sox into an obnoxious level. He is not from Boston, he is from Argentina. He did not play pro ball, but he played world cup baseball. He represented Argentina on the national team for years. He is a really good baseball player. He just loved the Red Sox way before; like in the 80’s when no one loved the Red Sox, except people from Boston. I would tell you what, it is weird, it is strange to me that the college teams went to 25% capacity and the pro teams, they drug their feet on it. I am like, wow. If the colleges; and they are tight risk management environments. If they can get their arms around this, why cannot you? And you have started to see the world series games have had some fans in them.
BRENDAN: That is right.
JAMES: But the Sox are not there, and my Cubbies are not there. I will tell you what, you are a Notre Dame guy. I am a Cubby fanatic, just down the street from Notre Dame. I love Notre Dame. Great school. It would take a world-shattering pandemic to force Notre Dame to join a conference.
BRENDAN: Wait, they did. The ACC yeah!
JAMES: I know. That is what I am saying. It would take COVID to make them finally join the ACC.
BRENDAN: It is crazy. I graduated from. Notre Dame in 2001 and they were in the big East and still, the football team would not join a conference.
BRENDAN: There was talk about joining the big 10 at that point. Those talks fell through and the question was why? I mean, what is the benefit? Why Notre Dame has the TV contract, they have the fan following, so what is the benefit for them to join it? But a pandemic did it.
JAMES: Well, they have the Notre Dame broadcasting companies, as we say, the NBC contract. It is what it is. Enough about football. We are excited to have you on, Brendan Dowdell, from Boston, from Hilti now, now Hilti. And we are going to talk about that transition in just a little bit. Before we get into all of that mess and again, for the listeners out there, if you fast–forwarded through the football talk, we are done with it. We are going to move on. Never miss an episode by having every episode sent straight to your email inbox, text ConTech to 66866. Not just the audio, you are getting our weekly emailer, our link to our show notes, and the articles we discuss by texting ConTech to 66866. If you have questions, comments, suggestions, text me on our Google voice text line at (979) 473-9040 and I will be happy to respond to you, there or on the show. Just depends. You can of course call or leave a message on the line.
Our cause of the show. According to the CDC, construction occupations have the highest rate of suicide, as well as the highest number of suicides across all occupational groups. To combat these statistics, contractors, unions, associations, industry service providers, and project owners must work together to stand up for suicide prevention. The Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention is raising awareness about the risk of suicide within the construction industry and providing suicide prevention resources, and tools, to create a zero-suicide industry. Visit PreventConstructionsSuicide.com for more information. Brendan, again, it is good to have you on the show. Thank you for joining us.
BRENDAN: Thank you for having me. Excited to be here. It has taken a while, James.
BRENDAN: I was excited to get the invitation, so I much appreciate it. It took 241 episodes, but finally, I am here. I am worthy. I have made it.
JAMES: You have been worthy, buddy. It is just a funny thing, scheduling a podcast. We are glad to have you on there. Now you got a bachelor’s in Classical Greek from Notre Dame, which begs all kinds of questions.
BRENDAN: You do not see the connection?
JAMES: Well, it is all Greek to me. We are going to figure that out. You and I went to college at the same time. I was 1997 to 2001, in Accounting at Texas A&M. Another fantastic institution like Notre Dame. Another one that is hardcore dedicated to football. Another one that joined a conference so when things got crazy in their situation. Where did you grow up? Where was your hometown and what did you dream of doing and why would you major in Classical Greek?
BRENDAN: Yeah. What do I want to be when I grow up too, right?
BRENDAN: I grew up here in the Boston area and, what did I want to be when I was a kid? Geez, I went through the full gamut. But there certainly was an aspect. My parents liked to recount to me that I said that I did not want to be behind a desk. So here I am talking to you behind a desk, of course. But I liked working with my hands and I like doing things and making things, and I did not recognize that as something that would interest me until I was older. But it was something that followed me around. When I went to college, I have parents who both were liberal arts majors. I did something similar. I thought it was fun and it interests me. I studied classical Greek, and Latin and a little bit of even Egyptian hieroglyphs. I thought a great backing to sort of launch a career. It teaches you how to think and how to evaluate problems and think about things in different ways. From that perspective, it was helpful. But while I was at school, I was also involved with Habitat for Humanity and that was probably my first sort of formal foray into construction. And helped lead the chapter at Notre Dame for a couple of years. Enjoyed it so much that I worked for Habitat for Humanity in Washington, DC for the first year out of school.
And that is where I did a little bit of construction and also community building. From there, again, not knowing that construction was going to be where I ended up. I worked for a law firm in Washington, DC as a paralegal doing largely construction litigation and had a great time and learned a lot about what not to do on a construction project. From there, I moved from Washington DC up to Boston through a family friend. Got connected with someone who was starting a company here in the Boston area. This company is Commodore Builders and I started as an Assistant Project Manager there and grew with the company. Great experience. Got to learn a lot. And, geez, I probably should stop there before I fill up an entire book worth of biographical info.
JAMES: You got an MBA from Babson. A good school over in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Tell me the origin story of the company that you ran that got acquired by Hilti. Let us not talk about Hilti for a second. Let us talk about the predecessor. What was the problem that you saw? And then what would you end up doing about it?
BRENDAN: I was building a school here in the Boston area and it was cold outside, and the school asked, so how do we know the concrete’s going to cure appropriately? I said, great question. I called up the ready-mix company and I called up the contractor and both gave me this sort of resounding, oh, just trust us. You will be fine. I said, okay. I could not recount that back to the school, but we took appropriate steps to make sure that the concrete was going to cure appropriately. But that gave me a spark of an idea. Okay. There really should just be a dead–simple way to know, not only from a quality standpoint that the concrete’s curing appropriately, but we should use this data and we should do something with it. We should try to use it to become more productive. That was the spark that got me started. I was already working with my co-founder Ryan Twomey and he is sort of the technical brains behind the solution, and we started working on some prototypes. We filled his garage with concrete. We would fill solo cups up with concrete and embed electronic devices into it to just see if we could get a Bluetooth signal out of concrete. That is sort of a basic science problem. Can you even get a wireless signal out of concrete? And sure enough, we were able to do that and had some success and started prototyping more and building off of that.
JAMES: And that is really what you ended up with a Concrete Sensors right? You and Ryan built a sensor network that would be embedded in and poured in and placed in before the concrete was poured in, and would live there permanently, it would stay there forever. It is never going to be removed. And, would allow you to communicate with it and measure the data on how that concrete is curing?
BRENDAN: That is right. First of all, the sensor is embedded into the concrete, you are right. It is wireless. We have two different versions of wireless. There is a Bluetooth version and there is a long-range version and all again, embedded in the concrete. The benefit is that the sensor takes a couple of measurements from within the concrete, the temperature, and the relative humidity. We use those measurements to provide real–time data on the curing and the drying of the concrete. The curing, the process of the concrete gaining strength, it is a generally shorter time period in the first 28 days. The drawing is a much longer process, of the concrete losing moisture, which can be incredibly variable, depending on the concrete mix design and depending on the ambient conditions. The temperature and humidity outside. Using this data, the strength, taking temperature, we can also tell you the strength data. Using that to help contractors make decisions sooner and strip forms faster, attention slabs, basically get to the next step sooner.
JAMES: And to have confidence, right? What it sounds like, you were staring at before you got this started was largely a guessing game when it came to concrete. It was, well, we think it is okay. We think it is going to be fine. We are going to measure everything around it, we are going to measure the symptoms around it. But we do not know if it is okay. There is a difference between guessing that it is going to be okay, and then actually measuring that it is okay.
BRENDAN: I think that you can even divide that into two parts. There is a quality part, similar to the reason we started Concrete Sensors, it was a quality problem. Do we know that the concrete that we are pouring is going to cure appropriately? Or come springtime, is it going to be filled with cracks, because it was just too cold? But there is also a productivity issue that is really guessing. So, the typical way that you would know to move to the next step is by crushing a cylinder. When the concrete’s poured, you hire a lab. The lab comes in more or less skim some of the concrete off of the truck and places that into cylinders and cure those cylinders in a laboratory condition. Now those cylinders, when they are curing, they are just in a different environment, so they are going to cure differently than the concrete in the field. In the lab, it is room temperature, it is typically a great environment for the concrete to cure and in the field, it can be hot, it can be cold. You could have all sorts of weather, affecting the curing rate of the concrete. It turns out that these differences matter a lot in terms of, if you are trying to benchmark when to strip forms, there could be a difference of days. Difference between what is happening in the lab and what is happening in the field. So concrete curing in different temperatures is just simply going to cure at a different rate.
JAMES: Mr. Hillegas?
HILLEGAS: With the sensors, when you mentioned that you were trying to see if you could even get a Bluetooth reading from the concrete, is there a point at which, embedding a center is too deep and it can no longer read? What are some of the limitations of the system itself?
BRENDAN: Yeah, that is that is a great question. Some concrete does a real number on the wireless signal. Concrete is a pretty dense material. To add to that, it has water. Just a little bit about, the physics of wireless signals. I think everyone is sort of familiar with the Ryzen, can you hear me now type questions. The underlying message is that wireless can be finicky. The concrete does not help that. Wireless signals will bounce off of metals and be absorbed by water. On a construction site, think how much metal you might have and think about how much water might be standing. There is a lot of challenges. One of the things that Ryan and I worked on a lot early was optimizing that wireless signal from within a concrete structure. So yes, the transmitter can be buried as much as six inches deep. Which for us, and a wireless signal is sort of the category, leading depth. You cannot get much deeper than that.
We can measure deeper than that though. We have a version of the sensor, and for those of you that are on the video, I even have one on my desk. The sensor has a transmitter, which would go near the surface of the concrete, and then there is a wire off of it, that would then be embedded deep into the concrete. And all still embedded in the concrete, so you are not going to see any wires coming out of the concrete. But the use case here is mass concrete. Mass concrete is a thick concrete. Think thicker than three feet. And if you are reporting, for example, like a dam, then you would want to be able to measure the temperature from deep within that concrete.
HILLEGAS: Basically, you are using a wire to allow your sensor to go deeper, but you are using a wired connection to bring that signal closer to the surface essentially. Is that a correct understanding?
BRENDAN: Yeah. A wired signal to bring it closer to the surface within six inches. That is right.
HILLEGAS: Okay. In addition, is there something you are looking for the future beyond just Bluetooth as like the next iteration of the sensor, as far as singles go, or what is on the horizon for that?
BRENDAN: Yeah. There are two ways to connect. There is Bluetooth where you would connect with your phone or your tablet, any Bluetooth enabled device. Then we also have a long-range version. That one uses a wireless signal with a different frequency and allows you to then collect the data passively. If you are using Bluetooth, you have to walk up to the sensor to collect the data. If you use the long-range version, then you can put a box on site. It looks like a box that sits on a tripod. You plug it in, and it just sits there and listens for sensors to send data. The benefit is that you can be home on a Saturday, be watching the Notre Dame game, and be getting information on the curing of your concrete.
HILLEGAS: Gotcha. When people mentioned college football on the show, I want to just interrupt and interject, but I do not want to interject. With the concrete sensors, when someone goes to work with you, do you guys have to give them a plan? Do they say like, hey, this is what we are trying to determine, and you guys say like, this is what we recommend? You mark up a plan or whatever the case might be, with put the sensors here. What does that process look like as far as actual execution go?
BRENDAN: It can vary. We have specialists here who are willing to work with contractors to help determine the right placements, the right quantities, and make sure that there is an ROI gain. That is something that we are hyper-focused on, having come from a general contractor background, I wanted to work with solutions that would make it easy for me. Having people available to solve problems, answer questions, is something that is a part of our solution. We think very valued by those are onsite.
HILLEGAS: Gotcha. Are there any limitations to what the system just is not able to do yet, like if someone made a request and there were certain things where technology hardware and software just are not quite there yet?
BRENDAN: Well there are physics problems. You cannot get around the fact that wireless signals behave in a certain way. Those are some of the types of problems that we might come across. That is usually handled by a little bit of education.
HILLEGAS: Gotcha. Out of curiosity, so after a building is done and occupied, is it possible for an occupant to pick up that Bluetooth signal? And after that I know they would not be able to do anything with it, but is it readable by just people in the building if they are cruising around on a phone?
BRENDAN: Yeah, it is. If you are interested in the temperature and relative humidity of what is happening in the concrete after you have occupied, then sure you can get it. But I have been sort of the IoT security antichrist, in construction because, while our sensors are secure, I also say, okay, well, what are we protected against here, when we are broadcasting a signal of temperature from within the concrete? Say someone figured out how to hack into our sensors. What is next?
HILLEGAS: Benham, are we going to go start trying to find a building and hacking some sensors?
JAMES: Why not, right? Look, building hacking is already happening. It is happening all over the world, but they are largely doing it remotely. I think you are going to have some folks that are certainly trying to figure out how to use data. I am not sure how you would use this data to harm somebody yet. There are some sensors that you can hack, but I am not sure what you are going to do with it. Out of curiosity, when you went through the testing on this, I am sure you had the test to make sure that the placement of this device in the concrete did not weaken it or create structural problems, correct?
BRENDAN: That is right. The sensors themselves are roughly an inch by two inches or the other version by three. So not large. If you think about the types of penetrations that go through, for example, a concrete wall, you might have a waistline that is 12 inches large, so significantly larger than sort of the void that a sensor would make.
JAMES: It was not an issue when you got through testing.
BRENDAN: That is right.
JAMES: Let us talk about the Hilti acquisition. You and your partner are running a private company, you have built it up. You have proven the technology and it has been installed. Contractors are using it. They are providing validation to you that it is adding value. Otherwise, you would not have continued to sell it. What led to the Hilti acquisition? How did those conversations go? And where does this fit into the Hilti universe?
BRENDAN: Yeah, sure. The story behind it was there is a Hilti office in San Francisco, which I connected with and they have outside in-directors. People whose jobs and responsibilities are to connect with the technology crowd in the market. We had some initial, really positive discussions. There was talk about, actually, trying to sell our solution, by Hilti. We ran some trials; and they went very well; and one thing led to another. We decided that really the best direction for the company and the solution, and obviously, Hilti was aligned that, hey, there is an opportunity here. So, we followed that. That started, from beginning to end, it was probably about, little over about a 12-month process or so. It was a journey. Every startup founder is looking to have conversations with different ends in mind but looking to have conversations with the major players. And in this particular circumstance, it made sense for us to make this acquisition. We as a team are thrilled now to be a part of Hilti.
JAMES: Sure. The other thing that you have had a challenge with, and I have tried to relay this to anybody who is coming to me and saying they want to produce anything that involves hardware. I am okay. Selling an app, selling a web–based application or mobile app, is completely different. Your distribution channels are already set. Apple and Google did us a huge favor by creating app stores. And then, of course, Google, that is a huge favor through ad words and social media. It is fairly easy to self-distribute a software solution. Hardware is not the same. Manufacturing and distribution and support are challenging. Unless you have a company with a substantial scale, both on manufacturing and distribution and onsite install and on support. It is hard to build that up. It is a fairly logical fit. There is only a handful of tool companies large enough to pull that off right?
BRENDAN: Yeah, that is true, without a doubt. I get asked this question frequently too, about what is it like to build a hardware startup. There was a mantra early on maybe five years ago that I heard, which is hardware is hard. And it is. It is for some of those reasons that you talked about. There are investments needed. For example, if you want to build a plastic bowl, you have choices, is it an aluminum mold? Is it a steel mold? Well, the steel mold is exponentially more expensive, but you can get more shots out of it and better scalability. Because your pieces can cost less. There is this constant balance between investing in sort of those molds and those, nonrecurring engineering costs, that will help reduce costs and help you overall, but you as a startup also have limited capital. You need to sort of wade through that seemingly endless list of decisions of what is worth investing in and what is not worth investing in. As a cash strapped startup, that is very challenging to figure out.
JAMES: Yeah, it is. You are looking at how do we possibly scale up enough support staff to install and configure and manage this. It is pretty daunting. So, when you sold this to Hilti, what was the response from your customer base? Because you had a hardcore group, I am sure you had some great Boston builders and some great builders around the country using your solution. But what was the response to the migration to Hilti?
BRENDAN: It has all been very positive. I know that that feels like such a canned response, but they have been very supportive. Some of our best customers responded that they thought it was a great fit, this makes sense. We feel the same way. We felt that this just made a lot of sense for all involved. And was very happy to sort of getting that positive response, particularly for customers. We are out there selling things. There is a lot of stakeholders when a deal like this happens, any sort of acquisition deal. But one of the risks is losing customers, I think is one of the underlying messages behind that question. We have not seen that at all. We have had some great support from our customer base.
JAMES: James has a great question that that is going to come next, but before he gets to that, I just want to wrap this topic up. Is there an arms race among the major tool companies to transform themselves into technology firms? Because what we are seeing is Milwaukee has their One-Key program and they are all in on One-Key. Then their M18 Fuel program with their batteries, they are now rolling out really large power tools. They have battery power, Jackhammer. Some wild things are going on in Milwaukee. DEWALT, not to be left out, built the Tool Connect program and started embedding Bluetooth sensors in the battery and the tool, and then remotely controlling the tool and shutting it off when you are not around. You are seeing some pretty major moves that make the tool companies look much more like technology firms then than tool companies. Then there is a lot of players in this space. Stanley Black and Decker, I believe is the largest in the world. But you cannot leave out Bosch out. There is a lot of different firms out there that appear to be not just in a power tool arms race, but a technology arms, race. What is your read on that?
BRENDAN: Yeah, without a doubt, this is becoming a growing competitive landscape. I can just think about my history before the acquisition. I was connected with Stanley Black and Decker and had some insights into what they were doing. I have not talked to them in a little bit, so I cannot speak to what they are doing today, but they were paying attention to it in 2015. And 2015 I would describe as the early days. Very early days, as the companies were starting to align around it. Hilti thinks of themselves as an innovative company. Obviously, every tool company is going to want to think of themselves of that too. But Hilti too is investing in that. You are probably aware that we are releasing EXO-01 – the new exoskeleton.
JAMES: Yeah, we covered it on the show.
BRENDAN: Right. So, they are looking at the landscape as well. I think it is really about productivity for tool companies particularly. Not that productivity is always the name of the game, but productivity, when you have a tool or maybe a construction material, you are thinking about how you can make it easier for your end customer. You are digging into to step by step, what would it take. So, it is productivity, and then the other part I would add is that it is just the digitization of the job site. Tool companies already have these hand–on job sites. They are looking at it as an opportunity to leverage. How can they leverage those relationships that they have to play a larger role in a construction site? Those relationships are key. As a startup founder, that was one of the more difficult things to develop. When you are going to get the first guy to start using your solution, you had to develop a relationship with someone. It is sort of a who you know relationship–based business. If the tool companies can leverage those relationships, in my opinion, of course, is that Hilti, as having this large direct Salesforce has a tremendous opportunity and advantage, then, okay, let us take these relationships and what more can we do with it?
JAMES: Hmm. Have you been to Lichtenstein yet?
BRENDAN: Not yet. Actually, that is not true. I have been to Lichtenstein. I was in high school. I drove through it and I think we stopped to say we had been there. But it is obviously, one of the world’s smallest countries and it is in a beautiful part of Europe. I am looking forward to going back there. The acquisition was completed at the beginning of March, which was right when COVID hit. So, no doubt, if we were sort of in normal times, then I would have been to Europe at least once.
JAMES: Lichtenstein for those of you do not know is sandwiched over there between Austria and Switzerland. It has got 61 square miles. It makes it about the same size as the College Station, Texas, and a population of 38,378 people. Of course, Hilti was founded there 75 years ago. It is a very interesting country, a beautiful country, and certainly home to the 11th largest tool company in the world, by the last count I saw. There is some really interesting history there. Mr. Hillegas, I love the direction you are headed with this next question.
HILLEGAS: Thank you very much for the compliment, I will take that because I do not get compliments too much on the show.
JAMES: I know. It is because you wear Browns shirts here. It is mandatory.
HILLEGAS: We all make mistakes. But Brendan, with your focus on concrete in the last five years, what is your opinion on concrete 3D printing, and then we will follow up from that point?
BRENDAN: Sure. I think 3D printing has come a long way. It also has a long way to go and I suspect some of the startups that are working on that would agree. There are challenges too, using a cementitious material to extrude it through a nozzle. Also just challenges with the material itself and the set-up time. You know, how many layers of concrete can you put before the whole thing just literally collapses? Those are some of the technical challenges. Broadly I think it is awesome. It is great. There was a NASA challenge, a few years back that was sponsored by Brick and Mortar. It was really on how to build on the moon. 3D printing was one of those things that came up. In many ways, there is some sort of parallels here because what we are going after, is being able to just sort of having a robot, for lack of a better term, just show up on–site and just build for you. That I think is a really interesting concept. But there is so much to it. I think that that will be continued to work on. My personal opinion is, I expect that we will see more iteration on printing of houses, simple structures, rectangular structures, and then hopefully they will expand on that to make more complicated structures.
HILLEGAS: Certainly. You brought this up a little bit. I did concrete 3D printing for my master’s thesis and it is a lot harder than it looks like when you watch a YouTube video to get to how it works. My opinion after doing all that work came to be like, 3D printing is a relatively new technology, say 50 years at the most. Came around in the ’70s or ’80s. Concrete has been around for thousands of years. It is like taking a very modern engine and putting it in a Model T car, essentially. Like nothing else about that car could support the output of the engine if you took a modern engine and dropped it in a car. So, it is kind of like we are taking an ancient material that has been around reasonably unchanged besides chemical admixtures and maybe some reinforcement and putting it in very modern technology. Do you agree that perhaps there is a material that perhaps does not even exist yet, that might be better suited? Because I think what we are all after is the performance aspects of concrete. We are not necessarily after the concrete itself; we are just looking for material that perhaps gives us the same performance characteristics of the material. Would you agree, or what are your thoughts on that?
BRENDAN: Yeah, without a doubt, I agree. And, in the binder material, so concrete for those of you may not be aware that concrete is made up of four primary ingredients. It is stone, it is sand, cement, and water. Then admixtures are chemicals that you can add to concrete to make it behave in different ways. Make it stronger, make it more workable, make it cure slower. There is a large group of admixtures that could be added to a mixed design, to match what you need to happen in the field. The cement is the key here, which is I think what you are going after, because the cement is the binder. That is really like the glue that holds the sand and the stone together. So, the cement and water react to make that happen. And there are other materials. We have a material scientist here on the team and we sort of joked, that, particularly actually, thinking again about this NASA challenge, we joked about using sulfur as a binding material. Because sulfur has an interesting belting point.
I think it is below 300 Fahrenheit. I should not recall these things off the air and lie. But I think it is below 300 Fahrenheit, which is sort of a reasonable temperature that you could warm something up to. Now, the question is, okay, what is its hardness level, and how long does it take to cure, or bind those materials together? And, I am not advocating sulfur buildings, but if you want it to be sort of creative, there are other materials out there and there could be other compounds that are created maybe based on epoxy or something like that, that could act as a binder in lieu of cement to make 3D printing of structures easier from a technical standpoint.
HILLEGAS: That is pretty fascinating. How would that work if you guys were going to start 3D printing that material with concrete sensors?
JAMES: They are going to add a robotic arm, right? Like as it is pouring it just lays it in line. Think of the way Fastbreak works. They there are laying block and then having a little robotic arm laying it down. I do not know. I am sorry. I am just throwing some ideas out there.
BRENDAN: Are you available to hire James?
JAMES: Come on baby. Let us do it. This is a big problem, right? And this is the big one. Because we are seeing concrete, 3D printing dropped the price of building down pretty big time. I wish we had more time to talk about this. But we do need to wrap the discussion on this particular topic and move into our weekly news. Before we do that and look, we are what we would like you to stay around Brendan, and to keep chatting with us about the news. Because we have got some interesting news stories coming up. So, hang tight for us for a second. James, I know you have some interesting news this week for us.
HILLEGAS: That indeed I do, including a crane event. So first up though, is Mr. Musk and another tunnel in Vegas. Every time I see one of these articles about Elon and his tunnels, I always think of the Joe Rogan podcast for when he interviewed him, he is like, who do you go to propose such an idea? And who are they going to let, just dig a tunnel under their city if it was not for you? So, Elon’s working through the permitting process and land use applications, for the Las Vegas Convention Center. And when finished an open in supposedly January 2021, some Tesla vehicles will be able to be transported across the 200-acre campus in less than two minutes. The tunnel is part of a $52 ish million-dollar part of a larger expansion of the West hall, which is an overall project of $980 million. With that being said, Brendan, have any of your sensors been used in any precast applications versus just cast in place, since a lot of the tunnels use precast panels as their liner?
BRENDAN: Our application is specifically meant for cast in place. There are some opportunities though in precast, particularly if you want to optimize your workforce in the plant. So, when can you strip the form and start pouring the start getting ready for the next piece? That is interesting. We have explored a little bit. In terms of tunneling, I am waiting for Elon to call. Still waiting. I should reactivate that Twitter account.
HILLEGAS: Moving on to the next article, I did not find this one. This came from Slack Group and Paul Hedgepath posted this one, but in Hong Kong, looks like they were attempting to lower an excavator (there is a video on YouTube) lower an excavator down into a shaft and the weight distribution looked a little too heavy on the front end and the excavator went down under bucket first, into the tunnel.
JAMES: How many of these have we seen now James? We have been doing this show for five years and I have reported so many crane collapses. It is almost always this exact accident. It is either that or a crane not being properly secured for high wind.
HILLEGAS: This one looked like weighting, rigging. That is my assumption. I not there, and I am not doing the analysis.
JAMES: I know, but it is just, man, so many of these. You would think somebody would put a sensor network on these Brendan, that would maybe tell you if you have too much weight loaded on the front end of these cranes, right?
BRENDAN: Yeah. If you were not aware, sensors can also tell you the meaning of life.
JAMES: Right. They can. It is 42.
HILLEGAS: I tell my kids to divide by PI.
BRENDAN: I think that though this does speak to something that is important, which is that we are really in the infancy of gathering data from job sites in real–time. Meaning that we just do not have enough data to be able to help these types of situations yet. I know that there are a lot of other companies that are trying to gather, high quality and high–value type data from job sites, but it is just not enough. I do think that sensors can play a really important role along with doing, pictures and using AI to figure out what is happening in the photos, but there is still a large gap there before we have enough data to just sort of stop these unfortunate events.
HILLEGAS: Certainly. And last article credit goes to Construction Dive. That some of the comments in the article confused me a little bit. It is about the Modular builder Skender, which was a spinoff of Skender Construction, the GC in Chicago. They opened up with, stating quote “it is closing its doors due to economic difficulties brought on by COVID”. However, towards the end of the article, kind of says the firm is focusing on more bullish markets, like life sciences, and then saying something to the effect of quote “we have won nearly $70 million worth of 2021 construction projects”. So, they are optimistic about a quick recovery. But I am not quite sure. Part of the article seemed to refer to more of the modular part of Skender, which was, they are two separate entities, both legally and spun off, formerly, I believe was mentioned in early 2020, or the GC at the end of the article. So that got confusing, but one of the things I have seen with the prefab only shops that can be very challenging to manage the inflow of work and outflow of work.
If you are a contractor who has a Fab shop, you have jobs you can put guys on and not every project is run through a Fab shop and not every project gets a BIM treatment, so to speak. So, James, with all your business background, what are your thoughts on the whole operational piece of managing that flow, if that makes sense? Because there is so much in the article that touches on this. There is so much scale needed to build a modular shop with overhead cranes. Now you are trying to do, mechanical electrical, plumbing, framing. Like we touched on with hardware. I mean it is a lot to get started.
JAMES: I will speak in general because I have not run a modular company. I am not going to speak specifically to that challenge because I have not tried to fund and build one myself. I will speak in general about business investment because I have been in business for 20 years and employed hundreds of people and had to build a lot of product. I will tell you this. There is a common use of the phrase MVP when it comes to product development. Minimum viable product. I almost feel like you have to have it phrased MVB, minimum viable business. There is a certain size of a company required to achieve enough inertia to operate. Just in general. You just simply will not have a chance at success, if you do not have roles, A, B, and C. For us, we had to build a large enough software company that we had quality assurance staff, we had project management staff, we had infrastructure and hardware support. At first, I had to contract those out because I could not afford the salaried staff. Then I had to bring them in house, but either way, the seat had to be filled.
There are just certain seats in business, in general, that have to be filled, that have to be funded, or you will not achieve liftoff. It is like an airplane with an underpowered engine and too much weight in the cabin. You are not going to come off the runway. It is not going to happen. It is in physics. It is physics in business too. I think that is really what you are hinting at James and what we have to discuss. That is where the boundaries can be so challenging, Brendan, for companies that are they are hardware companies, is that you do not have a choice. You must figure out manufacturing. You must figure out distribution and logistics. You have a physical product to ship. You have to think about that. The number one hurdle that I have heard from, the thousands of people in the construction industry I have spoken with about modular prefab, all the offsite if you just break it all under the umbrella of offsite construction, is the logistics of getting it to the site.
That is a really big hurdle. You have done all the prefab work. Congratulations. You have done a multi–trade prefab. You coordinate everything. You got it ready. You got it componentized. You have got it in a container. You have got a non-container. Of course, we have some friends who say, no containers, some of them say absolutely containers. There is a whole field of argument around that too. But then that is the challenge. Do the cost savings and time savings get eaten up and destroyed by the logistics, of actually getting this prefabbed product to the job site? Because in many cases we have seen the ROI case studies. They do. The cost savings go out the window and some of the time savings due too because it takes so long, and it is so challenging and sometimes it can be physically impossible. You always look at the proximity of the actual place this is going to be installed. I will tell you, James, I am running into this right now, trying to build a metal building right now.
And there are so many metal building providers out there. There are tons of them. They are quick to provide a quote and yeah, we will get it shipped and delivered to you. Good luck finding someone to assemble it, James. Because in the place I am trying to build it, I cannot get people to call me back or return calls. Even the prefab manufacturer, I said, okay. You are your metal buildings manufacturer. Give me a recommendation for a contractor that works with you regularly, and they do. They will not even reply to my emails or phone calls. So, what good does prefab do me in this case? What good does it do me? It does not do me any good. Because I am still sitting here with the same problem. I think that is the big challenge is, if you do not think about the end deliverable to the client, you are screwed. Like, oh, we are going to build the best manufacturing facility on the planet. Fantastic. Congratulations. We are going to use the highest technology possible. Awesome. Great. Who the hell is going to put it on the ground? How are you going to get it there? When you do get it there?
I can tell you I have built a bunch of buildings for JBKnowledge. I was a city councilman, I approved several hundred million dollars of building construction, I am now on a university board of Regents and we are approving construction contracts. I approve construction contracts all the time. All we care about is, is the building I want, going to be put on the dirt that I want, in the timeframe I want, for the budget that I have. That is, it. I somehow feels James that this is forgotten. Like you have solved all these problems upstream but you have not solved the downstream logistical issues. I am sorry for the long answer, but it has been something I have been having to deal with personally, for the last few months. It is challenging.
BRENDAN: No, 100%. You are right. Doing prefab is not hard. It is the art of logistics and thinking through every step of how you are going to get something from the shop to exactly where it goes in the building because if you do not, it is a really expensive science project that nobody likes. The one thing we joked about one time was listing prefab assemblies for sale on Amazon for a dollar, and letting the project bind then let Amazon figure out how to ship it. We did not test that theory out, but just an idea.
JAMES: But I mean, if someone could probably do it, it is Amazon. We have talked a lot about Amazon being in the building space. Amazon’s had to solve their logistical issues as they have evolved. Now of course they have their trucks and their delivery vans and their airplanes. I am a pilot, I fly around, and I see Prime airplanes regularly now. You know big Amazon Prime and little smiley face go flying by. I am like, I am sure something for my house is on that airplane! Do you know what I mean? Because it is wild. They have had to solve the biggest problems in logistics in the world’s history. And speaking of, Brendan, is Amazon Prime taking y’all a week there? How long is it taking?
BRENDAN: I just recently ordered something earlier this week. It was supposed to be the next day, and it ended up being 3 days. Not that I should be upset for about 3 days. It is still pretty impressive, but they are not doing what they say they are going to be doing. I think it was Prime day. Or was it last week? Or something like that.
JAMES: It is kind of wild. The whole is a little strange because I have been a long-time Prime customer and Prime shipments are averaging 7-8 days right now.
BRENDAN: You should get your money back.
JAMES: I do not get it. I understand it is COVID. But we are like seven months in now. It was not this bad back when we were in the heart of lockdown. It is a wild deal. Well, James, thanks for bringing this news story up. I appreciate it. We do have to move on, but you know this highlights the challenges companies are facing that are in this space. This caught a lot of people off guard for sure. Speaking more about the pandemic. I like talking about the pandemic only where it relates to how it is accelerating technology adoption. I am so tired of talking about a virus. Everybody is. We to Corona fatigue, I am tired of Corona goading. I am tired of companies blaming Coronavirus for their problems. Only because there are a lot of really legitimate companies that have been impacted by Coronavirus. But then there is a lot of other ones who just had bad business models. Then they are using Coronavirus as a scapegoat, I call it Corona goading. I just do not like it. It bothers me, but because there are so many people that are legitimately hurting, like all my friends that own restaurants and bars and hotels, these guys are experiencing real pain from Coronavirus. It is a disservice to them to take your problems that are not COVID–related and blame a virus. So just a side note, side rant.
But one thing that Coronavirus has done, is that it has fast–tracked a bunch of technology, and this one is from Construction Dive. One of their technology articles talking about all the technology that has been accelerated that we have frankly needed to accelerate. One of those is widespread, VPN adoption. We have been begging people for a long time to tighten up their security and data security, for a while. This has been a big item on technology. Another one has been cloud–based computing. Like really legitimately ripping out that old exchange server in your office and moving to Office 365. Ripping out that local SharePoint instance and moving to SharePoint in 365. These may seem like meat and potatoes problems, but there are things that companies have been kicking down the road, for a decade now. They have known they need to go to the cloud. They have these inane conversations about how much hard drive space they have on their servers, which is like a 2013 conversation in business.
2020 we are still talking about it. The nice thing about this is the whole industry has been pushed to move our mindset forward. To finally deal with things like data security, cloud computing, remote worker adoption. This was as much a cultural challenge as it was a digital challenge. And convincing people that for a portion of their time, people can work from home, not all the time, but for a portion of their time, people can work from home and be just as productive, if not more productive. If they are not blowing two hours a day in their car driving to and from an office. There are some legitimate arguments they make. And the face of work will not be the same anymore because we have had so long of dealing with this now that we have proven that a different model of business can work and there is nothing else that could possibly have done this. If the virus got Notre Dame to join a football conference, anything is possible. I am convinced. Brendan, what is going on over at Hilti with work from home? Is this kind of a hybrid? Do they have some people that are at the office, others that are not, and they are moving to a choose your own adventure?
BRENDAN: Yeah, choose your own adventure. I like that. It should be a roll of the dice. Hilti is a global company. It depends on the region. I was just in a call yesterday, that included people from most continents and for example, in China, where they had some very heavy restrictions involved, they have gotten the case count down extremely low and they are in the office meeting and even had a team outing, over the last week or two. Here in the US, it is more of a hybrid. In our team we have a lab, so we provide a service. We test the concrete mix designs here, so we need people here to be testing those concrete mix designs. But we institute appropriate protocols, whether mask–wearing, wiping down surfaces, sort of the usual stuff. Hilti has been hybrid indefinitely, varies based on the region.
JAMES: Awesome. James, what is going on over there in Atlanta?
HILLEGAS: The South is back to normal from everything I have ever seen. We have a Fab shop, so, I am in the Fab shop and jobs are running. Some jobs have protocols you have to follow. The South is mainly back to normal.
JAMES: There you go.
HILLEGAS: At least for Georgia.
JAMES: Yep. Normal for Georgia, which is always a fun topic in the source of many jokes. Well, we will not talk about that today. I always like cracking jokes with my friends from Georgia. Love it over there. Onto our next article. Five Construction Management Technologies That Keep Contractors Working. Again, this is from Construction Executive. This is a common topic right now. We are talking about how to keep workers working. I just wanted to continue riffing on this topic. Remote resource management software has been a really big, hot topic and I love where they are headed with this particular article. This is by Lauren Lake over at Construction Executive. Number two, virtual and augmented reality software. We have seen an uptick in adoption in particular VR because you can do model review inside VR. You can do a multi-party remote model review inside VR. This was a great case for why multi-party remote model you are doing punch lists walks inside your models, inside of a VR cave.
Interesting side note, James. I am donating my old VR case. I am finally getting rid of it because I love the Quest so much, and the face of VR is changing pretty quickly. The new Quest is amazing. I am excited; and the future of VR is untethered. I just do not think we are going to need to mess with computers. Being tethered to mobile devices are so powerful. So incredibly powerful. The new iPhone 12 blows my mind, the new Android devices blow my mind, with how powerful the GPS and CPU are. Modular and prefab has gotten a lot of new news and discussion. Of course, they also mentioned this article drones. James, have you seen an uptake in drone utilization? Is your firm in Atlanta using drones for site inspections or photography or photogrammetry?
HILLEGAS: Right now, we are not. I have been asked to do some for just marketing videos. We have a few jobs that are at defense contractors where it is like back to construction a way back, like no phones. Cannot use PlanGrid cannot use Procore. None of that stuff. Everything has to be locked down and secured. Other jobs are just too close simply to the airport to mess with any of that stuff. So as far as it goes right now, not yet, we have talked about it for some of the envelope inspections. I am trying to get better documentation on that, just because that is a pretty high contentious point of litigation within construction projects is water.
JAMES: What about you Brendan? You have got clients that are embedding your sensors now. You are seeing what is going on. Are they using drones out in the field? Are you seeing practical use? And we have seen marketing videos. We have seen a lot of use of drones for marketing purposes, and that is an underutilization of drone technology. Help me understand what you are seeing in the area of drones?
BRENDAN: I have personally seen a lot of startups, trying to make use and find a way to make drones useful for job sites. I think you highlighted some of the initial takes, which was just let us fly over a job site and estimate the size of a pile of dirt, that sort of thing, to try to then figure out, accuracy in terms of placements or verification in measurement. But from my standpoint, I have not recently seen large scale adoption of drones. I think when I visit job sites, I usually see a drone on the table and occasionally I will ask whether they use it, and it is still just to fly over the job site to take a picture. That is it.
JAMES: It always makes me so sad when I hear that, because there is so much power in the apps that tie in, and the technology that can sit on top of the drone platforms. But this is an area that I think that we are really under leveraging right now, in a period when we could use a lot of remote hands and eyes, that can scan. It generally takes me about five minutes to scan a good-sized job site and to get an accurate 3D model. DroneDeploy is my app of choice. They have an app store that is so big that I can snap just about anything on that data and get the information I need. I can get counts of trees and parking spots, and I can do takeoffs and measurements. It just really wild how much information is available.
BRENDAN: I think that in general, the challenge is not capturing the data. I mentioned before that we need to capture more data, but the challenge is really what to do with it. That is where the creativity and the real sort of entrepreneurship need to happen. To get in there and making sure that we well-defined a problem and applying the data that we have directly to that problem. Not sort of peripherally around that problem.
JAMES: I think in the early days of drones, it was a solution in search of a problem, but I feel like we have discovered what the issues are in many cases. For example, when it comes to material pile calculation, drones kill it. They just do an amazing job. Now with the new Phantom 4 Pro that has onboard RTK, you can get survey–grade accuracy out of your drone imagery. That is a complete game–changer for any kind of surveying. It is a game-changer for measuring materials, it is a game-changer for progress monitoring, and then of course you can do plan fall overlays with a lot of these apps now, so you can say, okay, is my stuff installed in the correct place? That is a huge problem in construction, where you can say, okay, here is my plan file. This is what is supposed to be installed. Here is what was built. There is a lot of construction QA verification, construction verification, and quality control. I feel like we have demonstrated as an industry that these little devices, these little flying devices add a lot of value, and many are still resistant. Hmm.
My last news story, Lang O’Rourke, their select plant hire arm has developed digital technology that allows it to monitor all of its equipment from one channel. They worked with telematics specialists MachineMax, to develop the solution. This is out of bimplus.co.uk. It allows their customers, whether onsite or remote access to monitor data like wind speed, weight utilization, fuel burn of equipment. It all also provides the capability for customers to track all their equipment on–site, like where it is and what it is doing. We have seen some good equipment tracking platforms out there, you know good and decent. This one certainly appears to a much more robust and inclusive platform for equipment monitoring is something that a certain company from Lichtenstein might have their eye on. I do not know. I am just messing with you. You never know, because, we have been looking at like with the Milwaukee, with the One-Key program, and the Tool Connect program from DEWALT, and what Hilti is doing as well. The Hilti programs are it ON!Track?
BRENDAN: That is right.
JAMES: So, with Hilti ON!Track, this plays very nicely in with those programs. Because ON!Track is tool and asset management tracking. I should have asked you this earlier. Is this considered part of the ON!Track initiative?
BRENDAN: No, it is completely separate. We are two independent solutions, but yeah, I can understand how you might see that there are some connections there and, who knows what the future will hold?
JAMES: Okay. Yeah, exactly. I think ultimately, anything that moves, anything is that that is mechatronic will be tracked. I think. I do not think that is a question. I think it is an inevitability. All the things that do not move will be tracked. You are going to have your sensors, and you might have a sensor that comes out for steel structures. You know, they get installed on steel structures too. That might make sense. I do not know. I am just saying.
BRENDAN: I agree. I think that there is an opportunity to sort of pull all this together, which is, maybe with what you are getting at with concrete sensors.
JAMES: It has to be.
BRENDAN: There is a lot of point solutions and I think everyone is familiar with app fatigue, et cetera. It is really about, taking all of these and putting the data together so you can do more. This is a situation where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
JAMES: It has to be. Back to my minimum viable business, minimum viable product discussion, once you achieve a certain critical mass of sensors… Like it was in my house. I had this hodgepodge of IoT devices in my house. Going back several years, I have had IoT in my house for years and I got a new place about a year and a half ago. I was like, you know what, I am going to go all in. So, I am going to put, Lutron, their entire lights, because Lutron is amazing as far as lights, which is light control. I am going to go on with, I am not going to tell you all everything I am using. Cause they are going to try and hack my accounts. But I went all in and I and I got everything. I went through the compatibility list. This is the other thing you got to do when you are dealing with IoT sensors, right Brendan, is, I said, okay, is all my stuff compatible with Alexa and Google Home and HomeKit?
By the way, I have ended up enjoying HomeKit more than almost any of them because I use all Apple TVs. And when you are watching TV, you can just pick your remote up and talk to it and it can control your house. HomeKit integration is into being a really big thing for me on the residential level. But when you think about what the commercial implications are, is once you have these commercial ecosystems, because we are not going to wire Alexa. Well, we are, but not yet. That is not a primary objective as to why Alexa and Google Home and HomeKit into our construction job sites. So, something else has to create that ecosystem. Whether it is Hilti ON!Track or One-Key or Tool Connect or something else. There has got to be an ability to wire all of these devices together so that they can talk to each other, talk to your network, and then you can make better decisions and build better buildings. Then ultimately hopefully use them during facility management, so you can use it during the life of the building too.
BRENDAN: That is right. I would strongly agree with that. I think that there is an opportunity. If you just look at Alexa as you were mentioning, I think one of the interesting things that caught my attention was that the new Alexa now has Zigbee in it. If you are not familiar with Zigbee, that is a longer-range wireless signal. It is not just Bluetooth. Bluetooth is limited in the distance it can go. Zigbee can go significantly longer. If you measure Bluetooth sort of in feet, you will measure Zigbee even potentially in miles or fractions of a mile, that sort of thing. And so, think about then Amazon having that network that you can connect to. I do not have any inside information, but it just makes my mind wander and what direction Amazon is going with creating a large-scale network. That is just in the home. To your point, you can translate that idea also into a commercial project. I think there have been a few solutions that have come around that want it to be sort of just the platform. The challenge is contractors do not buy that way. It is difficult to go to a job site to a project manager or even a director of innovation and say, hey, I just want to be your long–range, data collector, that sort of thing. That is a challenging sale for a project. But if you are providing solutions individually, then you can potentially bundle them together to make something broader.
JAMES: Zigbee is a huge deal. I have got a bunch of Zigbee devices as well. It is a matter of physics. It is just a better protocol to use for connecting things together. It is going to be a lot better than Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. This has been a great conversation. I appreciate it. Brendan, I am excited. First off, you started the company in 2015, you sold it recently. Congratulations on the exit.
BRENDAN: Thank you.
JAMES: And I am excited about the future of what is going on and Hilti. I am excited about the future of Concrete Sensors and concrete in general. It is not a technology that is going away and so I am excited that we are making it better and I am excited that you are making it better. So, thank you for your commitment to the industry.
BRENDAN: Thank you.
JAMES: It is good to have you here. And if y’all do not know, Brendan is a fellow music nerd. He and I were reminiscing about a U2 concert he got to go to many years ago and listening to some Joshua Tree, I do to license restrictions. I am not allowed to play on the show, what he and I were listening to, but it was all the Joshua Tree greatest hits. Unfortunately, Mr. Hillegas, had, really zero awareness of the songs we were playing. We are trying to educate him on one of the greatest albums ever produced, of all times. If you want to give Mr. Hillegas some flack on social media about not being aware of all the Joshua Tree hits, you are welcome to. That being said, James Hillegas, it is always great having you on the show. I am super fired up about what you are building in Atlanta and I appreciate you. I am excited for you that you got your football back.
HILLEGAS: Appreciate you having me on. Always a pleasure. Look forward to seeing you in person again. We are 24 hours away.
JAMES: Yes. 24 hours away from the big 10 football. Prepare thyself. It is going to be a lot of fun. And out there to listener-land, thank you for tuning in today to geek out episode 241, our interview with Brendan Dowdall from Hilti Group. Please join us next week for episode 242, our Monthly Talk to the Crew – Live!
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