Construction management

Construction management researchers use virtual reality to improve knowledge transfer in industry

With the increase in construction spending and the skyrocketing demand for sustainable energy and other new technologies in construction projects, jobs are plentiful in the construction industry. However, the existing workforce ages, vacancies remain vacant, and new workers replacing retirees are sometimes seen by experienced professionals as lacking the necessary experience and skills.

Anthony SparklingA professor at the Polytechnic Institute at Purdue University is studying the use of virtual reality (VR) to modernize traditional methods in the construction industry to transfer knowledge to next-generation professionals.

“It’s about creating a better workforce,” said Anthony Sparkling, assistant professor of construction management technology. “With newer processes, practices and systems, we hope to help companies develop their people more effectively. ”

Prior to earning a master’s degree in construction management and a doctorate in planning, design and construction from Michigan State University, Sparkling spent more than 20 years working in the industry, first as an apprentice electrician, then as a project foreman, superintendent and other management positions. Sparkling’s long experience has helped them recognize the challenges the construction industry faces in creating the workforce it will need over the coming decades.

Explicit vs tacit

Sparkling said the industry is struggling to successfully impart two types of knowledge to new workers. People who want to work in the various skilled trades in the industry often receive classroom training from an instructor, learning from explicit knowledge – techniques and skills codified, written and / or recorded in books, videos or other media. Subsequent (or simultaneous) practical training on construction sites, under the direction of tutors, helps to develop individual skills.

Throughout the years of on-the-job training – from the early days as an apprentice to obtaining journeyman status and eventually recognition as masters of the trade – observation, imitation and repeated practice help workers develop deep-rooted habits and skills. This experience becomes tacit knowledge and is difficult for the masters of a trade to pass on to the apprentices.

“Technologies like virtual reality could help the industry find the right mix of traditional and modern training techniques,” Sparkling said.

Virtual Reality (VR) technology could help trainees learn useful techniques and skills more effectively from seasoned industry professionals.  This scene depicts a hallway in Purdue's Engineering & Polytechnic Gateway complex, which is under construction and is slated to open to students in January 2023. Wearing virtual reality glasses, a student can look in any direction or

“Compared to explicit knowledge, the tacit dimension is relatively unexplored in the construction industry,” Sparkling said. “We try to help potential retirees pass on what is second nature to them through virtual reality experiences, train new professionals and transfer this knowledge from one generation to the next. It may take 20 years to be recognized as an expert in the field, so we are trying to shorten that time. ”

Ramyani senguptaConstruction professionals become accustomed over time to converting 2D drawings of mechanical and electrical systems, for example, to systems built in the real world (3D). Ramyani Sengupta, a graduate research assistant at the Polytechnic of Construction Management Technology, works with Sparkling on research, turning construction drawings from 2D blueprints into 3D virtual reality scenes and comparing how students learn to using both types of tools.

“We measure how people perceive things differently,” Sengupta said. “Do trainees need less time to learn a new skill through an immersive three-dimensional experience compared to reading or reading ordinary slides? Virtual reality could help make their learning more effective.

Additionally, increased use of virtual reality could help reduce the use of real-world resources like metal and wood.

“Organizations like the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) are really interested in this,” Sparkling said. “The NECA Research Foundation is looking for better tools to train newcomers. Traditionally, students train using real products such as metallic electrical tubing (EMT or conduit) that generate waste in the field. A VR training module could prevent the consumption of these materials. ”

Sengupta obtained a bachelor’s degree in construction and civil engineering from the University of Jadavpur and a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University. She hopes to continue her research into the use of virtual reality in construction management education after completing her doctoral studies at Purdue Polytechnic.

“We were doing virtual reality sessions with students and I saw how they reacted to it,” Sengupta said. “Compared to just sitting in regular classes, they reacted very differently. This clearly improves education, and there is a lot of room to expand the use of this technology in the construction industry.

Virtual reality technology can help construction industry professionals see the routing of mechanical and electrical systems in 3D inside the walls of a structure.  (Image courtesy of Ramyani Sengupta)

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