Utility Contractor Magazine, September 2015, by Paul McKeon – The use of mobile technology on construction sites is not new. The familiar laptop has been in tote under the arms of foremen for more than a decade. Although considered cutting edge at the time, the novelty quickly faded due to the laptop’s cumbersome user interfaces, slow connectivity, limited battery life and, most notably, a lack of unified applications that truly promoted productivity.
As with all good tools, evolution plays a vital role in adoption. The laptop is now giving way to the tablet and smartphone. A mobile tipping point was reached in 2014 when, for the first time, Americans accessed the Internet more frequently with tablets and smartphones than with traditional PCs. In fact, a recent study by Forrester Research predicts tablet sales will overtake laptop sales in 2015. Business enterprises worldwide are expected to buy more than 96 million tablets in 2016, up from just 13.6 million in 2011. This information underscores the fact that mobile technology is becoming the preferred means and an integrated part of how organizations communicate and process information.
This rapid transition is happening because these new devices are more compact, bring a powerful processor, connect to WiFi and cell towers instantly and promote simpler user interaction. However, for construction companies, the hardware is only half the adoption story. The other half is the availability of applications that extract equipment details, maintenance information, safety records, financial figures, work orders, labor hours and other once segregated information, into a unified view.
The need to improve operational efficiency and to organize and use data more effectively is clear. Construction companies need to improve project performance to stay cost competitive and profitable in today’s economic environment; streamlining processes and increasing communication and collaboration are essential to reach this goal. It’s also imperative for construction companies to optimize every asset, including data often locked in independent systems, paper-based processes and spreadsheets or lost within hectic, project-based environments.
Mobile technology needs to play a much bigger role. Although the construction industry often lags behind in technology adoption, the proliferation of mobile devices is helping fulfill the promise of unified, collaborative data. There is hope, the adoption pace is quickening because many younger individuals are already familiar with navigating applications on mobile devices. This in turn makes it easier to use them on jobsites to capture, access and share information.
Beyond the devices themselves, a unified mobile application can empower these employees with the ability to input and access vital project information from all areas of the company, including data often not captured while on construction sites. Mobile devices become the conduit for a single unified software platform that covers a full spectrum of estimating, operations and information management functions that enhance productivity and provide a competitive advantage.
The Implementation of Mobile Technology
In order to take full advantage of this paradigm shift, companies need a well-thought out strategy to leverage the mobile benefits beyond rudimentary tasks. Productivity will not be realized from a shiny handheld device alone, and swapping paper-based processes for more efficient on-line alternatives only scratches the surface of what mobile technology can do. A unified application can drive mobile device adoption and unlock the enormous potential to collect real-time information on site, reengineer inefficient workflows and enhance data-driven analytics.
The advantages of accessing aggregated data through a unified application are numerous. They range from reducing confusion and ensuring everyone is literally on the same page to enhancing collaborative productivity and providing a single data entry point to virtually eliminate duplicate data entry. Unified applications add value to the entire construction process by providing an effective way to manage processes, employees and the vast amount of information involved in any given project.
The era of mobile technology is making it easier for construction companies to:
- Reengineer and streamline processes for improved efficiency.
- Make real-time and collaborative, company-wide decisions.
- Share knowledge and information regarding all field and back office elements.
- Access and share a wide range of data — including databases, reports, signatures, files, photos and more — almost anywhere.
The benefits of these new abilities are first realized by a decrease in paper-based forms and Excel spreadsheets. In lieu of accessing information in siloed databases and manually analyzing data for input to additional reports, a unified platform makes data instantly available “enterprise-wide” for operations and automated reporting.
In addition, all this information is highly customizable right on the jobsite. Now foremen can enter safety information with mobile devices that can notify other workers in the company of next steps, such as insurance and OSHA-related tasks.
Capturing information right in the field leads to real-time collaboration and analysis for better decisions.
Don’t Confuse “Unified” with “Integrated”
Be sure to note the differences between unified and integrated, as the two terms are often confused. Integrated refers to making independent software systems work together. Usually additional programming or synchronization is required, creating an added level of complexity.
A unified platform of software elements, or applications, is designed from the outset to work together. Data flows logically and is shared collaboratively through estimating and operational functions including scheduling, planning, dispatch, job tracking and maintenance. A single operational database is the common denominator, linking all elements to eliminate integration, syncing and redundant data entry while maximizing efficiency accuracy and the opportunities for enterprise-wide visibility and collaboration.
Mobile Technology — Real-World Benefits for Heavy Construction
Simply put, the benefits of leveraging mobile technology to interface with real-time data can help field workers, mechanics and office personnel to share information more efficiently. Here are a few examples:
- Create field logs on the go — efficiently capturing more accurate and informative data on labor, production and equipment, as well as making it instantly visible enterprise.
- Analyze daily production vs. targeted production to make adjustments immediately.
- View equipment status and create repair requests directly from the field.
- Include rich electronic data such as signatures, photos, file attachments, voice-activated text, GPS positioning and timestamps.
- Sign off on or receive approvals instantly.
- Receive, plan and track work orders in the shop or in the field to optimize efficiency.
- Access equipment work order history, repair manuals and other documentation instantly from anywhere.
- Capture mechanic hours and parts usage on the work order for more accurate allocation.
- Automatically provide enterprise-wide visibility on equipment status.
- Add notes, photos and other elements to enrich work orders.
- Review, approve and submit mechanic time cards.
Executives and Office Personnel
- Streamline communications, allowing information from the field and the shop to be immediately linked to all applicable back office functions.
- Generate reports and dashboards automatically based on more timely and comprehensive operational and workflow data.
- Track production and plan and schedule events/jobs based on daily field log data and real-time equipment status.
- Generate or receive event-driven alerts in real time.
In conclusion, most construction enterprises recognize how mobile technology and specialized software can help them improve operational efficiency, data utilization and profitability. Many have begun to take smaller, fragmented steps to separate themselves from the limitations of paper or spreadsheet-driven processes and static data. Sometimes, however, these steps leave them with a non-strategic collection of software solutions that can create as many challenges as it solves, resulting in frustration, resistance to adoption and unrealized expectations.
This scenario can extend to the arena of mobile technology, where multiple disparate applications can limit the full potential of tablets and smartphones. However, a single, unified mobile application covering all operational and information management functions is the optimal approach for leveraging mobile devices to streamline processes, enhance access to real-time data and facilitate enterprise-wide collaboration.
Paul McKeon is CEO of B2W Software.