Whitepaper: 01.24.2012

Maximum Mobility Maximizes Productivity

The state of mobile technology is taking construction to a new level

With the automation of most things in our lives and the ease of connectivity becoming more of a personal right than a privilege, it’s probably not too big a surprise that much of the information that used to be gathered with a pencil, paper and clipboard on the jobsite – is now documented, stored and accessed without using a single one of those tools.

The rapid adoption of the tablet computer across the industry is simplifying this process, allowing the information to be entered right on the device and, at the very least, uploaded to the network upon returning to the trailer. Now that WiFi and 3G are available, the options are unlimited as data can be entered and accessed in real-time, from anywhere there is a connection at any time. This is true not only for those managing the work, but for the entire project team of subcontractors, designers and the owner – thanks to sophisticated project management tools, which can provide more information to more people than we ever imagined just a few years ago.

As we peek into the not so distant future, the industry is going to see some rapid innovation of the technology we’ve been using for a while, plus some completely new ideas. Keep in mind, until WiFi and 3G are accessible globally (and 30 feet underground surrounded by rebar and concrete), some of this will have to be done offline when in the field, but that is also something to be on the lookout for in the near future. Here are some exciting things to watch:

Expanded Use of Video and Photography
We’ve seen webcams and project photography, and those tools are great. In addition, now look for more imagery to be overlaid on BIM, step-by-step streaming video of procedures and processes for everything from installation to repair, and greater use of video for quality and safety purposes.

An App for Everything
From drawing reviews to safety and quality inspections, punch lists, commissioning and more – new construction-related apps are being created as you read this article. The primary focus of these apps is anything that involves visual inspection and subsequent documentation, but the sky really is the limit here.

Facilities Management
Look for electronic operations manuals to be the norm. No more shuffling through papers wondering which version is the right version or antiquated information. Manuals will be stored and updated in the cloud – noting each time something is replaced or repaired.

Internet of “Things”
Rather than being driven by people initiating communication, one device can tell another that lights have been left on or a window or door is unlocked or open. That device can alert a person or possibly even fix a problem itself. Enabling this type of technology in a large building can simplify security and consolidate maintenance for staff.

Materials and Productivity Tracking
Managing materials and labor well can be the difference between a project that completes on time and within budget and one that spirals out of control. Using Bar, QR or RFID coding, this type of tracking is becoming simpler and more integrated every day.

Cloud Computing
What sounded strange and risky just a year or so ago now stores and manages data for many of the largest businesses in the world. Why? It’s dependable, accessible, secure and operates in real-time. Now that some of the questions about it have been satisfactorily answered, the construction industry is starting to follow suit. BIM imagery, estimates, schedules and other project documentation are just too large and fluid to work any other way.

Context Aware Computing
Context Aware Computing enables the facilities crew to orient themselves within the model, alleviating the need for constant navigation. It has the added benefit of having the QR Codes hold maintenance data. No longer would facilities personnel have to identify the problem, head back to the office and look up the information, head back to the part that need service, fill out a work order, log the work order back at the office, order parts if needed, and service the equipment. With a Wi-Fi connection, equipment could be scanned and the QR code on that piece of equipment would be embedded with the current facilities information and all related as-built information.

When adopting new technology on your next project, there are a few very important things to keep in mind:

Standardization of Apps
As mentioned earlier, apps are rapidly changing the way builders work on behalf of clients, but these can also get out of hand. Project teams get excited about new and exciting applications, but at the same time, teams (including owners) need consistency and quality training on these new and exciting tools to be effective. Finding a happy medium will serve both.

Security of Data
Cloud computing is indeed the way of the future, but which cloud? And how secure will the data be there? How will you know? The answers to those questions will likely lead to other questions that should all be answered prior to committing to one or another. It’s important to ensure that any data held on any device can be encrypted, password protected and in case of a true emergency, wiped completely of all information stored on it.

Security Policies and Procedures
It might seem like a no-brainer, but the smaller and more portable the tools, the easier and more likely they are to be stolen or lost. That means valuable data and other company-related information could be floating around in a world where competitive advantages are sometimes very slight. Implementing a strict yet manageable procedure for how to keep these devices safe and what to do if one is stolen will help keep these expensive and highly powerful tools from compromising the success of a project.

The Bottom Line
Though the construction industry lagged behind as many other industries led the technology charge in the early 2000s, we’ve been making up for it over the past couple of years in very big ways. What’s most important is that all this automation and innovation, though admittedly very cool, is really there for one reason: to make the project run smoother and more efficiently – and in a more transparent way – so everyone involved can have the most accurate and up-to date-information.

Things can and do go wrong on projects that have nothing to do with communication; yet, as true builders we know that re-work and a host of other issues are often the result of poor communication. The more we, as an industry, work to improve the quality of the information and the speed at which it is provided, the better chance we have of eliminating problems and enabling owners to focus on running their hospitals, schools, airports and other businesses that are so vital to the customers and communities they serve.

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