New technologies are being introduced into the construction field at a dizzying rate, literally forcing construction professionals to adopt or risk being outpaced by competitors. The following paragraphs explore adoption issues the industry is currently struggling with and help equip construction professionals with the tools to understand what technology options are available, the language of technology and how to move an existing analog business to a digital platform for an effective construction technology solution.
LONG-STANDING BEST PRACTICES
As our desktops moved to computer screens in the early 1990s, new software tailored for the estimating process entered the construction industry and has yet to yield its hold: Microsoft Excel. Excel is so ingrained in construction that whole generations of contractors have grown up with the concept that it is the best and only solution. Most degree programs in construction and building technology even require coursework in Excel. However, Excel does not integrate every system that a company may adopt, including accounting or scheduling, and does not have the processing power for large, multi-user projects involving complex calculations. Excel requires users to build formulas that can be altered, creating false or erroneous results that can impact job profitability.
DRIVERS FOR CHANGE
For a workforce hanging on to old systems, many solutions still in use create a situation in which multiple iterations of the same data exist on a project. This is compounded by a lack of access, which opens the door for potential errors through shortfalls in synchronization and collaboration. When construction professionals utilize tools that don’t integrate, data silos are created. In 2015, a report found that 32 percent of construction companies do not have full integration between their technology solutions. Fifty-three percent reported one or more under performing project in the previous year. Companies begin to search for solutions when they have grown frustrated with the capabilities of current systems. Making the transition to the next-generation construction professional requires an understanding of the players and the playing field. The following are some fundamental building blocks for these considerations.
UNDERSTANDING THE HARDWARE
The tools for change that may have been cost prohibitive in the past are now readily available. These include: 3-D laser scanners, 3-D printers, Internet-enabled printers, drones and even the new Google Glass. While we will hear more about these jobsite accessories in the future, the biggest hardware drivers today are items that have matured and reached “hammer” status as construction tools: mobile devices. The computing power of phones and tablets has increased to the point where they are virtually as capable of performing most jobsite functions as well as a laptop. According to an On Center survey, over 70 percent of construction professionals utilize some type of mobile device in the performance of their duties. Construction analysts have seen increased usage of 35 percent year after year. The advent of 4G and LTE networks represented a shifting focus from delivering voice to delivering data. For the construction professional, this infrastructure means that mobile devices can now become reliable sources of transmitting plans and photos, accessing cloud servers and conducting real-time conversations and asset tracking. Today’s hardware and powerful networks have ostensibly converted the jobsite into an extension of the office. The enabling element in this scenario is the cloud-based software platform connecting all sides of the communication channel through the mobile device. In a broader sense, this reflects the maturation of the Internet of things in the construction industry.
Understanding the language of technology is critical to making informed selections as a next-generation construction professional. Licensed software, Software as a Service (SaaS) and cloud solutions all refer to different methods of delivery and software ownerships. Specialized software exists for all phases of the construction process. These specialty packages are all available in varying formats. It is crucial to understand what these formats are to make an appropriate decision that will solve the problems of a business. SaaS and cloud computing are two terms that have grown to mean almost the same thing. Originally SaaS referred to any software that was accessed online and did not reside on a company’s servers. Cloud computing used to be the realm of software developers and IT departments that needed virtual computers/servers, data storage capacity and development environments. However, software companies realized there was a massive market for applications delivered to everyone.
MOVING FROM ANALOG TO DIGITAL
As previously indicated, most companies start with Excel. For purposes of this discussion, let’s assume that a current company is using Excel or paper. Also, assume that the company has reached a tipping point for many reasons. A construction professional with a working understanding of the options available can confront change from an enlightened standpoint. Your company should approach a technology move with the same methodology as a construction project: it must be broken down into parts. The process begins with a needs assessment.
- What issues is an organization struggling with? Is data loss a problem? Has a server crashed?
- Is it necessary to deal with inputs from multiple subcontractors? Consider a solution that provides input into a single document from multiple sources. What are the mobile capabilities of these solutions?
- How many solutions does a company need? Specialized programs exist to cover every aspect of the construction building cycle. Is takeoff and estimating enough? Is collaboration during the project necessary?
- What type of integration is necessary? In an ideal world, your solution should integrate with other solutions in the marketplace.
Once a construction professional has determined the solution that will fulfill a company’s needs, the selection process begins. It is critical to demo any solution under consideration. As you begin a relationship with a new software vendor, consider long-term support.
- Does the vendor offer training? What kind of ongoing support does the vendor offer?
- Does the vendor’s solution seem intuitive? Does it seem to specifically reflect a construction industry experience and mindset?
- Does the vendor offer more than one solution, enabling future growth?
- Is the vendor’s product based in professional construction experience offering business solutions?
Or is it based in professional IT experience? Making the change from an analog to a digital construction company requires careful consideration of your needs. Once a construction professional has taken the steps to create a more technologically advanced company,interfacing with a rapidly evolving jobsite, expectations for increased efficiencies will occur naturally. This professional will be able to resolve the issues that have vexed the industry for decades, including providing real-time access to all project participants, having a readily accessible archive and minimizing errors.