Hassan Albalawi, the cofounder of on-site data tracking helmet WakeCap Technology, would like to believe he can digitize the construction industry in the Arab region.
This industry is filled with many challenges, spanning from securing digital adoption, building digital talent, creating impact from digital technology adoption, and standardizing the processes. By 2030, this old industry is projected to reach $17.5 billion, according to Global Construction 2030, a series of multiple case studies conducted by construction forecast company Global Construction Perspectives and economics research entity Oxford Economics.
WakeCap Technology team might have just finished their first prototype in Dubai, but they are planning to partner with big construction companies like Consolidated Constructors Company (CCC) in Dubai, and Emaar, to test their smart construction helmet, which provides real-time reporting on workers’ activity on site.
During a two-minute pitch at ArabNet Beirut this year, the team demonstrated how the product works: Construction workers wear the usual helmet integrated with WakeCap technology and without having to connect to an app, the helmet sends real-time data on the location of the workers, their activity, their attendance, and the ambient temperature in construction zones by connecting them to WakeCap’s network on site. The data gets updated each minute and helps general contractors and real estate companies track the progress even more closely.
“If a worker spends so much time going to the tooling machines [tools used on construction sites], then maybe [general contractors] need to add more tooling areas at a closer location to save commuting time,” said CEO and cofounder Hassan Albalawi during a call with Wamda.
The goal of extracting this data is to identify construction delay problems, evaluate workers’ performance, and keeping the site well-maintained during humidity and other extreme weather conditions. By doing so, Albalawi hopes to sell his product to more real-estate companies.
“We monitor safety, incidents, attendance, data on environment sensing, ambient temperature, and humidity at all zones and time. This can help us protect workers in each site and know which zones to shut, rather than shutting them all.”
With five team members in Dubai, one in Lebanon, and two in the Netherlands, WakeCap is currently in the final stages of signing an agreement with CCC in Dubai, to test their prototype in Emaar’s Opera Grand Tower Project in Dubai, next to Burj Khalifa.
The project will feature 70 storeys, most of which are residentials floors, and is part of the new Opera District, a cultural destination to promote art.
"With WakeCap, we hope we can further improve safety measures on site whether through evacuating worksite effectively, optimizing emergency response, preventing unauthorized access and thus mitigating risks effectively. We also hope we can potentially digitize worksite operations by quantifying labor productivity through its sensors and thus providing a real time, accurate, and automated data collection on our workers; including time attendance," said Aref Boualwan, Manager of Management Information Systems (MIS) and Business Process Re-Engineering at CCC. The product will be tested over a period of 18 months, according to Boualwan. "The reason we’re after a pilot project before a complete solution is to make sure the product gives an added value to our worksite. We’ll tend to verify the results by comparing the outcomes to similar CCC projects that don’t have the solution deployed. The best part is that all aspects can be quantified, such as the time needed to evacuate the worksite in case of a safety hazard, or the decreased amount of paperwork due to automating manual logistics."
Not a hardware, not a software startup
During our call with Albalawi, the entrepreneur did not want to label his business as a hardware startup - as their technology merely integrates with existing construction helmets - nor a software startup, as they integrate with existing construction management software to collect data received from their helmet technology.
“It’s an accessory to the helmet,” Albalawi said. Without mentioning how much in specific, the cofounder said the manufacturing process doesn’t take a lot of time as the accessories are small. “We designed the hardware and optimized it for mass production for scalability.”
They hope to make the product as seamless as possible, because workers “already have to wear a helmet. Asking them to wear something extra won’t work,” commented Albalawi when asked if workers would like being monitored all the time. He went on to explain that workers will be monitored anyway. Each site has a ‘gang leader’ as he called it, who vet workers’ attendance.
“Workers hate this, but there’s no way to escape,” he said based on a survey he conducted with 50 workers on site in Dubai. Using the smart helmet will spare them the hassle of going to the gang leader to report their attendance and activity. Workers will also be granted a financial incentive from CCC, which is already saving cost by using WakeCap, according to Albalawi.
Even though he refused to disclose the prices of the integrated device and software, the cofounder did explain that they charge 20 to 40 percent of what real estate companies pay traditionally for regular helmets and construction management software. To further explain, he gave the example of a 20-floor project involving 300 workers. “Construction companies pay AED 1.5 million Dirhams (around US$ 409,000) to just supervise workers. We charge 20 percent of that.”
WakeCap charges a monthly software subscription for each onboarded worker and takes a cut from helmet sales, which are manufactured by a construction factory called JSP, in Sharjah.
Albalawi is currently in San Francisco, trying to close a $1.5 million round from investors, ‘who believe in hardware startups’, as he puts it. He is still in the due diligence phase and would not disclose further details, but highlighted how difficult it was for him to pitch to investors in Dubai.
General contractors still use a pen and paper for attendance
WakeCap may not seem way too advanced, especially when we hear about VR helmets such as Daqri, which uses holographics and displays visuals in real-time for users in the field or on their desks. However, Albalawi believes the construction industry in the region is not ready for a more advanced version. He argued that general contractors are still using a pen and paper to check-in workers on the site and a VR helmet would not get adopted easily.
“Construction is really the least digitized sector in the world. They use a pen and paper to get an attendance, so we have to gradually start,” commented Albalawi . “[We have to] show them return on investment, impact then come up with different things. So for now, we can’t leverage VR or anything advanced. Just connecting data and enabling real-time field reporting. It takes them [general contractors] three weeks to know what’s going on on the site. We want to automate the logistics.”
Construction might be a starting point for the WakeCap team, which will be testing the product intensively to improve it and understand what the customers really want out of it. Their next industry might be oil and gas or mining, as both require workers to use helmets on site.