Tablet PCs and mobile field software revolutionize construction field work.
Using mobile devices and mobile software to manage work in the field is not a new development for the business world. Package delivery drivers no longer carry reams of manifests that customers need to sign, but instead track packages and have recipients sign their names with a digital pen on handheld devices. Car rental company employees log vehicles in using mobile devices. Even municipalities are using handheld computers equipped with small printers to create, log, and print parking tickets.
Likewise, civil engineering firms could benefit from automation and digitalization of work in the field. In a paper-based system, information gathered in the field on substandard work, quality assurance and quality control (QA/QC) issues, safety issues, or progress on punch lists may take days or weeks to aggregate into a computer system or a master paper document, which results in costly delays. Just as problematic, however, is the lack of visibility that managers and executives have into the status of work in the field. Millions of dollars in shoddy work, for example, may not be discovered until after the work crews have left the job, leaving construction managers to clean up the mess after the fact. Or worse, information may get lost in the shuffle and the sub-standard work may never be repaired unless it is discovered by the owner, the general public, or through an accident.
In Boston’s Big Dig project, for example, subcontractors used inappropriate fasteners to attach multi-ton concrete pieces to the ceiling. After the tunnel opened for traffic, the fasteners failed, causing a block to crush a car, killing a woman. Proper inspections and good records could have helped identify the problem and avoid the fatal tragedy long before the tunnel was finished.
Mobile solutions can help solve these challenges, improve the quality and safety of our nation’s infrastructure, eliminate delays, and save taxpayer money. Additionally, with many economic experts anticipating a sharp recession, civil engineering firms will have fewer resources and will need to do more with less. Technology can help bridge that gap.
However, the civil engineering industry has only begun to adopt mobile field management technologies. And there’s good reason for that. Until recently, hardware and software solutions could not meet all of the requirements for field technologies. Consider that on a work site, engineers need to be able to accomplish the following:
- View plans, drawings, and specifications—Personal digital assistants (PDAs) and other handheld devices have screens that are too small for viewing site plans. Engineers and contractors on-site need to be able to look at and understand large and highly detailed plans.
- Write notes on the move—Laptops require users to type on a keyboard and, to do that comfortably, one needs to find a relatively comfortable spot to sit down, protected from harsh elements or bright sunlight. On a construction site, finding any place to sit may be difficult, and finding a comfortable spot may well be impossible. Besides, civil engineers are used to doing their work while standing and making notes with a pen or pencil directly onto plans and documents. Any solution that requires a drastic change of habit will not be adopted rapidly.
- Have confidence in their devices—A construction site is not like an office complex, and conditions are not kind to sensitive electronic equipment. Civil engineers need to know that their field technologies will stand up to the rigors of a work site.
In the past couple of years, however, solutions have come onto the market that meet these needs. New mobile software works on any standard PC, but is usually installed on a rugged, long-battery-life tablet PC so that those on a work site can make notes on the screen using a specialized pen, just as they would on a paper document. While on site, field personnel can also update QA/QC lists, work lists, and punch lists, and insert virtual pushpins onto maps to mark issues that need to be resolved.
However, tablet PCs often do more than replace paper. In many cases, field personnel are replacing their laptops, desktops, and PDAs with tablet PCs, allowing them to work seamlessly between the office and the field with a single device.
In addition, wireless telephone companies have in the last few years considerably strengthened their data capabilities. Consequently, in many locations, even if the site is not connected via landline to the Internet, construction professionals can still access the Internet at acceptable speeds.
But not all sites are within range of a cell tower that can handle wireless data, so today’s field management software does not require a constant Internet connection to work in the field. Instead, it can operate in an "occasionally connected" mode. When users get back to their trailer or to the office, they can synchronize all the new information with the central database, which ensures that all parties get updated quickly and can get to work on tasks immediately. And because data is gathered on-site and not entered manually into a system back at the office, transposition errors are eliminated.
Use of mobile field solutions during the last few years has enabled organizations to do the following:
Accelerate projects—On average, organizations have been able to speed up delivery by at least two days per month, and save eight to 10 hours per person each week because they no longer needed to retype field information into a computer system from paper documents. Most of the schedule time savings, however, comes from elimination of delays in relaying to work crews and other parties exactly where problems exist and what work needs to be completed.
Hold work crews accountable by understanding of the cost of quality—Each identified issue can be assigned a cost, which is then input into the construction management system. By tracking this cost of quality, project managers know how much deficient work is on the job at all times. This ensures that work crews are held accountable so that the construction manager does not pay for work that is not up to the contractual standards. This also ensures that work crews are delivering the project to the contracted quality and at the estimated productivity rates to the forecasted profitability.
Track safety across subcontractors and work crews—Tracking safety for individual subcontractors and work crews across projects enables executives and supervisors to trend safety performance and identify unsafe behaviors quickly so they can differentiate between isolated incidents and chronic safety problems. Plus, the software creates an auditable paper trail of consistent, repeatable processes that gives owners visibility into safety performance and helps protect against lawsuits, creating a "duty of care" document.
No one wants to be responsible for the next bridge collapse or see their names in the headlines as having been responsible for a wildly over-budget, late public infrastructure project. Through adoption of new technologies, the industry can learn from these past mistakes and not repeat them.
Mobile field technologies may have been a long time coming to the civil engineering industry, but now that powerful, rugged, usable solutions are on the market, companies are adopting them rapidly. Within a few years, a field inspector carrying a roll of drawings and clipboard may seem as quaint as a phonograph playing vinyl records. Like package delivery and many other industries, civil engineering firms will soon be using mobile devices instead of paper in the field.
Adam Omansy and Josh Kanner are co-founders of Vela Systems, a mobile field software company for the architecture, engineering, contractor, and owner industry based in Burlington, Mass.