The Trades Go Tech

Digital Tools Make the Leap From the OFfices of professionals onto the job site

By Dennis Boone

Recent years have brought sweeping technological change to the construction sector, but for much of that time, many of those high-tech toys and tools have been in the hands of professionals—the architects, the engineers and designers. Using Building Information Modeling and other sophisticated applications, they’ve been able to make a huge impact on the efficiencies of laborers in the field.

"Instead of Driving to the office to get something, you have it immediately, so I'm sure you're looking at 7 to 8 percent efficiency improvement." - Bill Iler, president, Design Mechanical, Inc.

More and more, though the technology is moving out to where people get dirty for a living—onto the job site.

“A couple of years ago, we decided to try to come up with a way of doing more electronic work, but the systems out there were pretty expensive,” says Bill Iler, president of Design Mechanical, Inc., a mechanical engineering firm based in Kansas City, Kan. “With iPads, we’ve come some of the way—we’re close to having that happen.”

But what’s happened already is nothing to sneeze at: “We got everybody a pad, e-mail, Internet access,” Iler said, “Now, that’s part of the advantage: If you’re on the roof, you can have a wiring diagram e-mailed, or even a whole operating manual, or go on the Internet and look up information you might need right there, without having to go to your truck” to phone home. “Before, you had no choice; now, you can also take pictures, e-mail those back to the office and by looking at that picture, we can price the repair without going down and out to the truck.”

One might think a series of down-ladder/up-ladder moves wouldn’t amount to much in terms of lost productivity. One would be wrong.

“It’s made a difference, but we have-n’t tried to measure so much of it yet,” Iler says. “The guys in the field say it’s a whole lot better to get information quickly. Basically, instead of driving to the office to get something, you have it immediately, so I’m sure you’re looking at 7 to 8 percent efficiency improvement by being able to get the worker in the field the information they need.”

What’s happening there is part of a global trend that encompasses not just construction, but virtually every business sector imaginable. The market intelligence firm IDC projects a nearly 35 percent increase in the worldwide mobile worker population—to nearly 1.2 billion people—by the end of 2014. Smartphone and tablet usage, of course, make that possible, but businesses are increasingly dialed in to the need for remaining connected, whether employees are in a cubicle, in a hardhat or in their pajamas, at home.

Paul Neidlein, the chief operating officer for J.E. Dunn Construction, said the region’s biggest contractor was realizing similar benefits from the new tools.

“We’re doing more and more” with field technology,” Neidlein said. “A couple of years ago, there was a lot of stuff we tested or tried,” but the effectiveness was spotty. With the advent of more rugged computing equipment, “now, we’re finding things that work really well and implementing use on a regular basis. There are a lot of tools now being used to increase efficiency.”

One of the best examples, he said, was the use of site-enabled WiFi. “So instead of hoping for a decent connection and wandering with a phone or an iPad, we’re putting stacks throughout a building, so even if a guy is on the 8th floor of that building, it has its own hot spot,” Neidlein said. “We pair that with digital kiosks, so instead of an old, ratty set of paper plans on somebody’s job box—they get torn or spilled on, and you only hoped you had the right, latest information—now you’re on a digital plan table on-site with real-time updates.”

On-site workers can use camera phones to show designers back at the head office what kinds of issues they’re running into. “We can download that much quicker to get it to the architect,” Neidlein said.

Certain trades, such as mechanical or electrical contracting, are reaping the benefits now, but the use of tech tools will eventually apply to almost any building craft, the construction pros say. “Everybody is affected, and even though it’s probably been adopted by the more complex trades, our foremen and supervisors are getting more comfortable with the technology, too,” Neidlein said.

Jay Steinmetz, general manager for engineering at Lenexa-based Kiewit Power Engineers, said the technology was making things easier for his construction specialty, as well. “From the design side, you can go ahead and place your plates and vents, and we’ll do some of the things for you that you no longer need to do as a designer or engineer,” he said. “So that’s reducing hours. We’re really seeing, I think—finally—the technology, the computing-based technology where the physical computer is running fast enough to actually run and not crash, and can do all these things we want.”

To this point, the technology has been embraced in the field, but it hasn’t yet altered the structure of that work force. That dynamic might not hold for long, which could be a good thing. The prolonged downturn in construction has seen thousands of experienced craftsmen and young college graduates move into other lines of work. As the sector rebounds and tries to make up for some of that loss—and a concurrent loss of older, more experienced workers on the threshold of retirement—the kinds of tools being used in the trades will make a difference.

Chuck Teter, a vice president for Lockton Companies, said that for the newest members of the work force, “their generation is way more technologically savvy than we were. So as the construction industry continues to evolve and continues to become technologically savvy, it will attract the younger generation.”

What it all comes down to, said Design Mechanical’s Iler, is the ability to deliver a better product, at a better price. “You’re more competitive,” he says. “For the customer, it might reduce callbacks on a service call where the guy does have the information… It helps the customer communicate with the technician.”

The ability to pass savings back to the client, Neidlein said, “is absolutely the ultimate goal. And there are two ways to do that: On a project, for example, if an owner needs to cut a schedule  by 30 percent, instead of just throwing money at it and working overtime, these tools allow for more collaboration from all the different stakeholders—the contractor, the architect, the owner, the subcontractors. You can get all of them together to figure out bottlenecks and pull that time out of there. In a lot of cases, what you thought before could only be solved by just working more hours.”

So whether it’s cutting the costs up-front, he said, or allowing someone to open the doors of a business sooner to generate revenue or avoid paying rent on another space, “There’s a lot of ways that savings can be realized.”