The construction industry’s reluctance to use digital technology is retrogressive and unrealistic… but things are starting to change, says Benjamin Dyer of Powered Now
In the age of digital technology, why is it that so many people are still using pen and paper on construction sites?
The impact of technology upon our society is visible everywhere you go and in every job you do. Unfortunately, to some extent, the electronic revolution appears to have passed the construction sector by, particularly on-site.
Many of the typical tasks required in the building sector are still dogged by paperwork, and when larger companies are involved with their layers of management, this is even truer. For example, this becomes especially apparent when something on the plan needs to be changed, so that a theoretical proposition can be reworked into a viable project. In other words, out comes the pen.
The problem with this approach is that there is an enhanced risk of important information not being communicated to those who require it. This can make all the difference when a completed project is being inspected by planning officers checking that it conforms to the regulations. In one, rather extreme, case I came across recently, a structure had to be demolished after the builder arbitrarily decided to increase the size of some joists by three inches; it no longer conformed to the plan.
Hardware that helps
Contractors regularly have to consult full size construction drawings. These are often fairly sizable documents, because they have to convey a lot of information. However, rather than continually bending over a large sheet of paper, which may be blowing about in the wind or getting damp in the rain, a contractor could use a tablet instead. In addition to avoiding paper, the contractor can zoom in and out to either scrutinise an important detail or, alternatively, obtain a wider perspective of the plan in its entirety. And any changes are saved in the cloud on the communal file.
Most tasks, if not all of them, can be made more efficient through the use of hand-held digital devices such as smartphones, ebook readers and larger mobile computers like laptops and tablets. These devices can improve efficiency and planning on-site through mobile collaboration, telestration (the digitisation of drawings, plans and maps so they can be accessed on-screen) and multi-party conferencing in real time.
However, the problem with this is that these are fairly small devices and they are also far from robust in adverse weather conditions or on dirty and dusty sites. With iPads, this can be countered to some extent by encasing them in protective cases, or by suspending them from your neck or shoulders via specially designed bags and straps. This way they become, in essence, a mobile clipboard.
Other devices, besides the iPad and smartphone, are becoming more ‘ruggedised’ in order to cope with the demands of field conditions. This includes being able to accommodate extreme temperatures and being able to survive being dropped onto a concrete floor, or into a puddle. Devices such as the Rocky II Ruggedised Notebook, Panasonic’s Toughbook range and the Motorola Psion Rugged Computing Range are representative of many of the solutions now appearing on the market.
There are also new ranges of wearable computing devices being developed that can be strapped to wrists or form part of intelligent headsets (e.g. Google Glass) in order to prevent damage from being dropped or contact with substances.
Another response to this problem is ensuring the recoverability of data, so that if the device is damaged in some way, it is relatively easy to recover the information. According to Dan Cox from Streamline Solutions and David Perry from About Time Technologies, who have loaded a series of video presentations on this issue on YouTube, the falling costs of mobile devices mean that the benefits of bringing them on-site far outweigh the costs of replacement if the device itself is damaged. However, while this perspective may be accurate for larger construction companies involved in major projects, it may not be true for small to medium size businesses with limited budgets.
Software for builders
With regard to iPads and smartphones in particular, appropriate software is being developed that is specifically adapted to the range of tasks involved in construction.
For example, App Crawler can enable limited inspection of large documents via an iPad, while in the US one construction company required its employees to switch to the cloud-based Box.net software in order to generate reports on site. Box.net can also help with project bidding, accessing CAD/CAM files, blueprints and other documents via apps such as AutoCAD and PlanGrid and audit, monitoring and control.
Another app aimed squarely at the construction industry is Powered Now from my company. It streamlines paperwork, projects and payment, enabling tradesmen and engineers working in the field to run their businesses efficiently on their iPad or iPhone.
I said above that the construction industry has been slow in making the transition to computing and IT, but the good news is that it is catching up. However, the US appears to be far ahead of the UK in this process, to the extent that conferences and award ceremonies in construction computing are now commonplace. In this country it’s early days yet, but the construction sector is moving in the right direction at last with hardware and software developers designing new devices and apps that can cope with the rigours of a construction site.