February 1, 2014 by Jacob Stoller
Contractors aren’t reputed to be early adopters of IT. This might explain, at least partially, IT’s diminutive presence at Construct Canada in Toronto last December—amongst hundreds of booths, only a scattering featured IT products.
Regulators, suppliers, and large clients, however, are forcing the issue, and digital documents are rapidly becoming the de facto standard. The challenge for contractors is that resistance remains high among the rank and file, especially in the field, and many of the digital systems still face a steep adoption curve.
Several vendors who appeared at the show are targeting this problem, tailoring their solutions to the archetypical site supervisor who has been in the industry for a few decades and has no time for technology.
Construction-friendly digital devices
Austin, Texas-based Motion Computing, Inc. is taking direct aim at the adoption issue with a family of site-friendly tablet computers. As Canada country manager Scott Ball explains, construction workers tend to leave their personal devices in the truck for a number of reasons—connectivity to the web is unreliable, particularly in sub-basements and in remote areas, many mobile apps call for too much keyboarding, or the device is likely to get damaged.
“Our biggest competition is pen and paper,” says Ball. “What people will do is take a piece of paper with them, gather their information, and then come back to the truck, turn the computer on, and sit there and type.”
The Motion Computing devices support the standard Windows operating system, are available with large touch screens for viewing and editing drawings, and are robust enough to withstand tough job environments.
The connectivity issue is handled through an offering called LINCWorks, a family of portable networking gear that sets up a wireless network on the jobsite and links it to the outside world. “It’s wireless, cell, and mesh all in one,” says Ball. “It allows us to create a mesh network over a site, but also connect out to the cell environment.”
Documentation for those who don’t get around to it
Defects that were missed and then covered up can be a supervisor’s nightmare. Luis Pascual, who began his career as an electrician, knew all about this when he co-founded Vancouver-based Multivista Construction Documentation. “It all started with a basic philosophy, ‘where are the wires?’” explains business development representative Ben Morse.
The Multivista application stores inspection photos and indexes them to the working drawings so they can be readily viewed in context. When the company was developing the product, the question of compliance came up, i.e., would contractors be consistent in taking photos and storing them in the system?
“Execution is critical—if you miss a certain section of wall, or if you miss a certain area of the building, then the software isn’t going to save you,” says Morse.
To fill this need, the company now offers a complete photo documentation service—for the typical client, Multivista photographers snap hundreds or even thousands of jobsite photos at specified points on a periodic basis.
The photos are then stored in the cloud along with their respective drawings, accessible through a web interface. “We’re allowing people to keep doing what they’re doing, and what they’re good at,” says Morse.
Markups for the traditionally-minded
Doing markups on screens isn’t for everyone, particularly when the drawings are very large. Recognizing this, Toronto-based Inktronic Technology (ITI) has brought the digital world right onto hard copy drawings.
Inktronic’s software creates a “smart print” of the drawing, which allows Inktronic’s digital pen to recognize its location on the drawing. Because the pen “knows” its location on the drawing it is able to track and record all markups made on it. The marked information can be sent back to the central project repository using a Bluetooth connection or a docking station, where it is archived instantly.
The software is hosted in a secure cloud, so drawings can be accessed through virtually any digital device, such as a laptop, tablet, or large touch-screen viewer. Markups from different sources take place concurrently.
“A team member can be working with pen and paper in the field, while another is working on the same drawing at the same time on their computer in a site trailer, or back at the office,” explains Nicolle Brown of ITI.
“There is a big push for the industry to adopt digital processes, but many people still prefer traditional methods. We see our product as the bridge between the two.”
The bottom line
These offerings are encouraging signs. After years of being asked to change their ways to accommodate the ins and outs of technology, contractors could be seeing a new phenomenon—vendors who bring the right tool to the jobsite.
Jacob Stoller is principal of Toronto-based consultancy Stoller Strategies. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org