The hottest construction apps: A cautionary guide to adding business functionality in 2017
February 28, 2017 by Jacob Stoller
When people ask “is there an app for that?” the odds these days are pretty good that the answer will be “yes”. Even in construction, which is not known for being on the leading edge of IT, there are apps for the most specialized tasks imaginable.
Of course, acquiring an app and adopting one in an organization are two different matters. As we have frequently warned in these pages, software, more often than not, requires people to develop new skills and work habits, and furthermore, the new app has to be integrated into the existing IT infrastructure in order to achieve its full benefits.
The danger of falling short on the integration front is that we create “islands of information”, that is, pockets of stored data that are not easily shared within the organization. This forces people to create time-consuming manual processes to move the information from one application to the other.
On the other hand, even the most fully integrated app will turn into a boondoggle if people won’t use it. A common problem is that organizations invest in solutions that look great in a demo, but don’t match the workflow and the culture out in the field. Partial adoption then leads to inconsistent processes and information, which in turn can create more harm than good.
To explore this conundrum, we talked with Charles Cooper, whose background in this sphere is somewhat unique. In the past, he worked as a systems integrator, helping clients get a variety of apps talking to each other on a common platform. Today, he’s the founder and owner-operator of Huntsville, Ont. – based Muskoka Hydrovac, and, like most contractors, spends his days trying to find ways to make his business run more smoothly and efficiently.
Cooper’s early experiences as an end user have been a mixed bag. On one hand, he’s impressed with the variety and power of solutions that are available. On the other, he is continually stymied by the lack on integration capabilities of many cloud solutions.
“One of the things that I’ve found really frustrating is the closed communities found in cloud-based solutions,” he says. “I went to the cloud to automate my back office, but instead I now have more manual process to move information between these cloud providers.”
The cloud does, however, have a silver lining – it does make it incredibly easy to test new software with live users in order to determine if there is a good fit with the organization. There are no servers to buy, no software to install, and free trials in the majority of cases. Consequently, organizations can get a strong sense of how an app will work in their organization before going through a lengthy and expensive implementation process.
“With many apps, you won’t get to the full level of efficiency if they’re not integrated, but they improve your efficiency drastically over not having the app altogether,” says Cooper.
Our bottom line advice for 2017, therefore, is to go ahead and experiment, but beware of possible dead ends that won’t allow you to fully automate the processes you are taking on with your new app. Here are the top 5 areas to experiment with in 2017.
Contractors are constantly estimating, and calculations can get quite complex, especially when the result is determined by the specific physical characteristics of the building material involved. Consequently, hundreds of apps have emerged for specialty estimating. Concrete is a popular example – programs like Xsec Structural Concrete and Construction Estimator are easily acquired online and loaded onto a smart phone. Some of these are very specific – there are apps to calculate, for example, all the deflections and pitches in the construction of a storm sewer.
Other popular areas include carpet and flooring estimators such as MeasureSquare, roofing apps such as RoofGenius.com, which takes into account roof pitches and angles. There are also apps that help calculate highly technical matters such as the deflection in a steel beam.
Many of these, Cooper points out, are vendor specific, but are significant time savers.
“If you’re very specialized, these apps makes sense,” says Cooper. “The app is a way to save you the call to the tech support team. Otherwise, it might take a day or two to get your answer.”
As environmental concerns find their way into the corporate agenda, more organizations are seeking LEED compliance for their projects, and expect contractors to support these efforts. The challenge is that LEED credits come from many sources, including materials, transportation, jobsite management, and design of the facility. Managing all of these parameters across multiple projects is particularly difficult.
Sometimes, LEED calculation software is sold as modules for existing suites such as those by Procore or AutoDesk. Eadoc software includes a paperless LEED tracking tool as part of their project collaboration suite. Green Badger Software provides a comprehensive solution that allows contractors to track LEED performance across multiple projects and clients. (See On-Site, March 2016)
Finally, vendors such as adhesive manufacturer Mapei offer LEED calculators specific to their products.
Site Surveying and Inspection
With the entire workforce carrying around GPS devices and cameras on their mobile devices, there’s a stronger argument than ever for using apps to automate aspects of site surveying tasks. Phone apps like Canvas, SurveySnap, and Qube make it easy for surveyors to collect site-specific information, upload it to a hosted web portal, and create customized site reports for a variety of purposes. Site Survey Pro allows users to measure distances of up to 100 feet without a tape measure.
One of the most tedious survey tasks for many contractors is the required process of locating underground infrastructure such as gas lines and electrical conduits prior to excavating. “Doing ‘locates’ is quite cumbersome, because of getting all the paperwork to all the people in order to be compliant,” says Cooper.
The available locator apps, Cooper notes, use U.S.-based models that are not applicable in Canada. He hopes, however, that a new app under development through OneCall Ontario may provide some much-needed improvement. Unfortunately, they don’t appear to be planning to create API’s so that locator information can be shared with other apps.
Site survey technology is poised to improve dramatically as drones and laser measurement devices become more prevalent and affordable as survey tools, so this is a good field to watch.
The truck is one of the most common pieces of construction equipment and represents a significant investment for most contractors, yet few do an adequate job of tracking that investment. GPS-enabled fleet management apps help contractors collect data on trucks, cranes, and backhoes, and store the information on sophisticated databases that support a variety of management reports.
A key advantage is that these apps help manage maintenance scheduling and workflow. An app can send out automatic notifications when maintenance is due, and can warn contractors to check maintenance when sending a driver out to a remote area. They also allow contractors to calculate the ROI of a new piece of equipment by revealing the true operating cost.
Then there’s the legal compliance side. Cooper, who uses a fleet management app called Focus, keeps his tracking data in case of a dispute or lawsuit. “I plow sidewalks in the town of Huntsville, Ont., and I need to leave a GPS trail to demonstrate that I’ve hit the sidewalks when I say I did,” he says.
The app also tells him which crew is on a vehicle at any point, and which attachments on the equipment are being used, so he can monitor if the work is being done properly, and assess the relative performance of the various crews. “That’s big for me because I have limited assets. My plow is run by four different people,” he explains.
Still, there’s lots of room for improvement. Cooper hopes in the near future, the data will be accessible by different apps so he can share it with customers. Geo-fencing, which automatically links equipment activity to a customer according to GPS information, can only be set up as a customization to the program.
Time Tracking and Scheduling
Every contractor needs to track the hours of its workers, and the majority use paper, Excel spreadsheets, or a combination of the two. These manual methods are tedious, require cooperation from a large number of people, and worst of all, rely on human memory.
Time tracking software can replace the tedium and chaos with a much more accurate method of data collection. Apps like ClockShark and ExakTime, which we discussed in detail in the June 2016 issue, offer free trials, and are intuitive and user-friendly to encourage even the most entrenched technology resistors to comply. They are also available through free trials, and are easy to experiment with for a few users.
For Cooper, one of the advantages of “going electronic” here is being able to use the data to measure business performance. “It helps me answer questions like ‘which is profitable?’ or ‘how do I get better?’”
The catch, is that it’s much easier to equate labour costs with income when the app is integrated with the financials. Cooper, who has adopted Freshbooks for his financials, uses their module for time tracking. “I use the Freshbooks time tracking tool so I can identify costs back to my income,” he says. “There’s no way I could poll that data from another app.”
The functionality available for contractors today is staggering compared with even a decade ago, and cloud-based implementation and free vendor trials make experimentation easy. While integration remains a huge challenge, contractors can take advantage of this dramatically lower barrier of entry to avoid the biggest potential pitfall of all – the implementation of an app that will fail because users won’t use it. Good luck!
Jacob Stoller is principal of Toronto-based consultancy StollerStrategies. Send comments to email@example.com.