Mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones are revolutionizing construction by simplifying communications and making time spent on the job site more productive.
There have been exponential improvements in tablet technology since the first ones were introduced more than 20 years ago. Numerous alternatives are available today, with Apple’s iPad and Google’s Android platforms claiming the lion’s share of construction-related applications.
The key to productivity is building up a core suite of apps you know well and use routinely.
Most tablets provide a basic suite of apps to handle web browsing, e-mail, note taking, calendars, maps, photography/video and so on. Many others, like to-do lists, more sophisticated notepads, drawing applications and calculators may be inexpensive or even free to download.
A tablet can give you quick access to mounds of technical documents and articles stored on Dropbox (a Cloud-based storage service) or locally on your device. These might include photos of old jobs, building code documents, estimates and agreements, tool manuals and others.
“We keep all the building codes in Dropbox, and all the guys have a copy of TACBOC (provided by the Toronto Area Chief Building Officials Committee). It's a visual guide to all the building codes,” says Andy Foot, partner, Dwell Design Build Inc., Toronto.
Suppliers are jumping in, too: stores like Home Depot and Canadian Tire have apps that give you thorough exposure to their inventory and manufacturers like Milwaukee Tool and Snap-On Tools provide applications that detail their product lines and provide related information.
Project management can now go way beyond a Gantt chart to detailed, annotated assessments of tasks on each job and field management. There are a number of powerful packages in this category offering varying functions, including Viewpoint Mobile Field Manager, Procore, BuildTools and Basecamp.
Time tracking is a problem for many managers. Keeping tabs on staff and trade hours can be accomplished with a number of applications, with PocketClock/GPS from ExakTime as one commonly used app, along with OfficeTime, which helps individuals track billable hours and expenses.
A suite of apps from HCSS lets contractors quickly record an entire time card including diaries, photographs, cost-coded employee and equipment hours and production quantities. The apps can be integrated with corporate accounting systems.
A CAD viewer will let you look at DWG drawings in e-mail or online to verify details. One is Autodesk Inc.’s AutoCAD WS, which lets users view, edit and share DWG files, and supports annotation and revision. Another example is TurboViewer.
Blueprint apps like iBlueprint let users create floor plans and provides quick access to blueprints on the job site. MagicPlan lets users measure, draw, and publish interactive floor plans on the Web by taking pictures. cadTouch actually lets you draw floor plans, land surfaces, facades, mechanical and structural parts, diagrams, and field notes, and then send drawings via email or FTP.
It is even possible to access your desktop computer remotely, with an app like LogMeIn or GoToMyPC.
EllisDon has supplied four corporate iPads to support the Krembil Discovery Centre in Toronto. The project is a 10-story, 325,000 sq. ft. hospital addition.
The assistant superintendent and the field engineers are using the tablets quite a bit. The CAD operator on site is doing coordination drawings and related tasks, notes Joe Day, project manager, A.B.E. a Joint Venture that includes EllisDon.
The team is using SiteWorks for 80 per cent of what is done in terms of punch lists, recording deficiencies and collaboration, notes Day. Blue Beam Revu, useful for annotating PDFs, is also in common use.
Documents in the form of PDFs or spreadsheets are uploaded to Dropbox, where they become accessible to all users.
“If you have a detail that doesn’t quite work, you open up the drawing and make some notes and take some pictures and email it to the architect. That’s from standing on site, right where the problem is,” says Day.
“We have a coordinator that walks with the architect to record deficiencies, including notes and photos. We send the report generated by SiteWorks to the architect and he puts his cover on it and sends it back to us. So we have the deficiencies the second that we walk off the floor,” says Day.
They use the Numbers app for spreadsheets. “That has really simplified maintaining inventories in the field,” says Marc Nord, superintendent. “I have the spreadsheets on the tablet, and the tablet is always with me.” It is simple to share the data with the trades.
Day notes that the tablets can eliminate those quick trips to the office to grab a document you need. “If you make trips like that 10 or 20 times a day, you’ve consumed a big part of your day just going back and forth to get information.”
“You don’t have to carry around a big pile of reports and drawings. It all fits in the iPad. We have never maxed out the capacity of our iPads. On that one little screen, you’ve got the entire requirements of the project,” says Day.
When you compare the tablets to using pen and paper, “The time savings are just unreal,” says Nord. “Everything is right there with you in the field. It’s hard to imagine going back.”
The MARS project
The MARS (Medical and Related Sciences) project in Toronto is a million-sq.-ft. facility for research and innovation organizations. This project, too, is being accelerated with tablets.
PCL has a Bring-Your-Own-Mobile-Device program. A variety of mobile devices are in use on site, ranging from laptops to smartphones.
“The company has been very good about integrating all these mobile devices,” says Aaron Yohnke, construction manager at PCL Constructors Canada. The devices give staff access to PCL systems, including the Project Document Control Centre, e-mail and safety management.
A large number of third-party applications are in use, and staff is encouraged to find solutions that work for them. “One of the neat ones I’ve seen the field engineers using is iAnnotate. It lets you take the plans and overlay and take pictures. When an issue comes up, you can show someone where it is in the plan with a picture and the relevant notes,” says Yohnke.
FaceTime has been useful too. Yohnke says that sometimes the easiest way to handle a phone discussion is flip the video camera on and show the other party what you are talking about.
PCL has created a site known as “Technology for Builders”. It gives staff a forum to share information on the applications they use and how useful the apps are.
In terms of productivity, Yohnke says it is the little things that matter, like quick e-mail searches and sending notes and photos about deficiencies to the trades. “It means you’re not waiting until the end of the day to get all this stuff in motion.”
“I like to take notes in Notability at a meeting. When we stand up to walk out, I have already emailed everyone the meeting notes,” he says.
Yohnke is fond of using the iPad to handle routine admin during his 45-minute train commutes. Instead of dead time, he can be productive. It is a small but important task.
“The company understands how crucial this is to the future,” says Yohnke
Not all apps are useful. Some, in fact, look slapped together by developers who do not know much about construction. “We’ve seen too many apps in construction that are difficult to use and don’t work the way that contractors work,” says Carlo Perez, founder and C.E.O. of app developer Hammerati Inc., Toronto.
“Each contractor has unique differences in how he or she operates, and no software is tailored to any construction organization out of the box,” notes Stevens.
The Construction Field Productivity Cost Calculator from Stevens Construction Institute helps contractors assess construction field productivity, return on investment, contracting breakeven revenue and costing of overhead to direct costs for contracting.
“What’s this thing called the business of construction contracting, and how is it different from other businesses?” asks Stevens. “There is a unique set of knowledge and calculations that a construction contractor needs. A general business approach can be very dangerous, as many people have seen over the years,” says Stevens.
“The industry in the U.S. and Canada is really about the small guy… It is a huge market of contractors with one or two employees. Tablets are good for those users, because often they lack IT support and the apps tend to be affordable. As well, they are portable.”
They can get useful guidelines and metrics from calculations on elements like field productivity. This is especially useful if they do not have the resources for large-scale business apps.
Regardless of the size of the contractor, the effect of tablets on a job site can be dramatic. Mobile devices can almost be seen as a business lubricant, improving efficiency, speeding things up and minimizing friction.
Jim Barnes is a contributing editor to On-Site.
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