Pillar Technologies’ journey has been exciting to say the least. Pillar is a construction site risk management company that has raised $3.3 million in seed funding over three rounds of fundraising. CEO Alex Schwarzkopf has been traveling across the country attending construction conferences and working to bring the Pillar device to construction sites around the world.

Alex speaks about the design process of the pillar device, the future of construction technology, and some heartfelt advice for those working within the construction industry to the community.

What was the design process like when you were building the Pillar device?

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Photo Courtesy of Pillar Technologies

There were a number of important steps in the design process that we used, and every process was a little different. For us, we were focused on building a product that really fit within the industry we were working in. So, in our case, that would be construction. One of our significant challenges was trying to figure out what was out there. We didn’t find anything interesting that was designed for construction to solve the problem that we were focused on. We found a bunch of other adjacent sensor technologies, but none of them were rugged, durable, and made for the environment. They didn’t have a great business process around it. Every product that you build needs to have the user in mind, and I call that “user empathy.”

One of the things that we have learned throughout this design process is that you’re not necessarily selling a product anymore; you’re selling the experience to people. People expect your product to work and to fulfill their needs. We were able to take that concept, along with a lot of learning, and apply it to our first prototype. Our first prototype consisted of off-the-shelf components that we had purchased prior. We bought a Wi-Fi module and put sensors on this off-the-shelf metal box. We were hacking it together and we built about 40 of these things. My CTO, Matt Joyal, did most of the heavy lifting. He probably spent 80 to 100 hours making these things. It was chaos, and it was almost like building with LEGOs.

You never really know what is going to work, so you have to put it together and see for yourself. We deployed them on-site, and we learned a lot. Construction is incredibly harsh. The first batch of prototypes were hot glued together, and a bunch of them were breaking. It was a disaster. Since then, we have learned a lot of lessons. We had deployed the prototypes for about three months, and we actually ended up proving out some of the use-cases for the construction clients with whom we were working, which was exciting. From there, we went back to the drawing board. We had to find out what broke, what changed, what we needed to add, and what we needed to take away. That’s when we found a project manager to help us with the next iteration.

We got an industrial design firm involved, and they had actually helped to take us through a more formal design process. We had to figure out what this thing needed to be, so we asked ourselves, “what does it need to do, how does it need to live in the environment, and what are the daily interactions that people are going to have with it?” The whole concept was fascinating from a product development perspective. One of the main reasons that I think we’ve been so successful is that we really took the time to step back and say, “Where does the product fall short? Where did it succeed? What could it do better?” It took about four months to go through the process. We picked the best one that we felt was an accurate representation of what we envisioned and that’s the story of how the Pillar device was born. We found a contract manufacturer and got the design all squared away, and got it made – the rest is history.

Where do you see construction technology heading in 1-2 years?

That’s such a loaded question for a number of different reasons. First, construction technology is so massive. The idea of construction technology touches literally every single process on a construction site from planning and design, to execution and physically building the structure. There are literally machines you’ve never even heard of that are doing things that are absolutely critical. You’re like, “wow, I never knew that existed.”

However, I can give you some stats on what is going to happen in broad strokes. Boston Consulting Group shared a statistic that said about $700 billion to $1.2 trillion in savings could be unlocked in the construction industry if we digitize the current process. For me, what that means is that we take a manual process, like someone making a physical observation or someone physically updating a schedule, and turn it into an automated process.

With automation, it is going to streamline the process like a constriction point. It is sort of like an hourglass when it comes down. That is what effectively happens in construction all the time. You have someone waiting for someone else to tell you something about a process that needs to be done. If they don’t get back to you in two hours, you can’t do what you need to do, and that’s two hours of labor time wasted. It stacks up against these projects that are sometimes three years long. I’m looking at it from a perspective of any type of technology that can automate or digitize a process that is either currently manual or currently not optimized that will eventually take over a job site.

On the flip-side to that, any contractor or any company will have to embrace automation. If not, they might find themselves bankrupt. That’s a pretty aggressive statement, but I stand by it. Construction is an industry where folks are competing on margins of 2% to 3% per project, any amount of optimization and movement can lead to severe and significant savings just on your bottom line. I think that’s also the world we live in; the competitive marketplace. It’ll be interesting to see how things shake out in the next couple of years.

How do you think predictive modeling and the power of AI will benefit the Pillar device?

For the last three years, we have been collecting data that didn’t exist in volume. Before you think about doing any type of AI, you need to have a dataset, and it needs to be a good one. We’ve spent the last three years focusing on that and we’ve made some key hires to flesh out the data science part of the business, and we’re excited. One of the trends that we’ve seen is the difference between two identical sites in two different geographies with two different project teams. That’s starting to tell us a lot about risk profiles.

We’re seeing some new metrics where we can tie the environmental data we’re pulling from to the project site cleanliness. Clean jobs are usually safer jobs. We hope that we can start to provide our customers with early indicators or ominous warnings about these situations, so that they can take action to get these projects back on track. Honestly, the challenge is that construction gets a bad rap. They say, “it’s dangerous, and these guys don’t care.” I think that’s absolutely untrue. I think these people care a lot and they want to be safe. It’s just that there’s a ton of things going on. I call it structured chaos, and it is a mess. There’s not enough manpower to be everywhere at once to make sure everyone’s being safe. That’s why we’re looking at it and saying, “let’s automate some of this data capture and then generate insights from it.”

Any words of wisdom you would want to give out to the community?

Hardware is hard; building software is a lot easier. When I got started with my two co-founders, we didn’t really know what we were doing. A lot of it was learning and being dynamic, and willing to accept mistakes, and pivot, and iterate. I think we did that pretty well. The other piece of advice I’d give is be very thoughtful when designing your team. People don’t really think about designing a group.

What I’ve found is that as your company grows, you can’t do it all. We are designers and we are engineers, but most of my day was spent doing business stuff. There might be someone better at that job than me. As you go forward, especially with the founding team, and say “are we well-rounded enough to have most of the bases covered from a technical, sales, and marketing standpoint, to a business, and operations standpoint?” While I don’t expect young people to know all those things, it’s good to have an idea of who’s going to take responsibility for what. Then, you can make that part of the business part of their job description or overarching task.

Some of the biggest challenges we’ve had at Pillar is that we had to go find the expertise to get the company to the next level. One of the biggest things I see companies struggle with is putting together the right team at the right time. Make sure you’re really passionate about what you’re doing, and that everyone on the team has that can-do attitude. Be thoughtful about who you bring in because you’re basically getting married to these people for three or four years.

Are you currently hiring now, or getting more teammates?

We’re always looking for talent. It depends on what type of role, but if people are interested in looking into what we’re doing, they can reach out directly. We are looking for folks to participate in internships with us. The full-time roles are mostly focused around software for right now – software and data science. If there’s anyone out there that has the expertise and is interested, reach out to us.

If you’re looking to work for Pillar Technologies, visit this page.

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CEO & Co-Founder of STEAM Boston

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