With the promise of IoT, mobile, cloud and other emerging technologies, contracting companies cannot slow their pursuit of technology. In fact, construction companies are going to be faced with more options, greater demand, increased complexity and higher costs. If mastered, this situation will lead to far greater productivity and efficiency, better access to information, reduced risk on several fronts, and the potential for a competitive advantage—something for which contractors constantly are striving.
Here’s a look at the most significant technology trends in the construction industry.
Cloud and Infrastructure
Contractors finally have started to embrace the movement of their platforms and infrastructure outside their own firewall. Some merely are moving their data center outside to a managed services company, while others are moving applications to SaaS and cloud-based solutions.
This trend does not show signs of abating and is in fact changing the nature of IT staffing—from those technical souls dedicated to servers, networks and devices to more managerial and application-focused staff. While cost savings is sometimes thought to be the driver for this movement, the experience most people have is not one of greater economy, but instead offers greater flexibility and scaling, as well as improved performance.
Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP)
The players in the accounting and job cost systems field have thinned. Some are far stronger than in years past, and the competition is fierce for the remaining market share. They are striving to increase usage by developing and deploying new applications, such as service management, utility billing, mobile applications and project collaboration. At the same time, they have to embrace integration with complementary products that potentially could rob them of seat revenue.
These vendors also are feeling pressure to deploy on a legitimate cloud platform and, in some cases, SaaS approach. If this were not enough, their customer bases are getting larger and more vocal in their demands for better platforms, more advanced tools to work with the data (e.g., business intelligence) and, as always, increased functionality.
Many construction companies have made the transition to a new ERP solution in the last five years, and probably hope to not address that mass of code again anytime soon. The good news is, those that have made the plunge can channel their IT department, staff and software investment dollars to potentially more rewarding initiatives—ones that ultimately are less disruptive.
Enterprise Content Management (ECM)
Though a decade or more behind other industries in the deployment of ECM technology, construction is now seeing the value beyond the low-hanging fruit: invoice routing. Contractors are deploying ECM for capture, processing and storage of HR and project management documents, billing backup, invoice routing and processing, and field-based forms like QA/QC and safety.
Document management tools were underutilized in the past, but quickly are moving toward confusing. Everyone seems to want to be in the content management business, from Google and Amazon to collaborative storage platforms such as SharePoint, DropBox and Box. All of these solutions handle one or more aspects of storage and retrieval fairly well, but none represent the comprehensive solution of ECM. These solutions provide not only independent and secure storage, but also workflow tools, forms capture capability and record retention.
However, they are more costly and complex to deploy, which will drive many companies to the easier and less costly collaboration platforms. Others simply will store documents within their core applications.
Collaborative platforms for projects are in vogue again. While typically beneficial for larger owners and general contractors, this approach is adding challenges for the specialty contractors that are forced to use one, two or three different systems beyond their own for many project management-related activities. Even some general contractors can be inconvenienced when an owner demands use of a particular system, forcing contractors to maintain important project documents and records in a solution outside of their control.
Software developers continue to change licensing models as vendors move away from local or network-based licensing to SaaS models. The benefit is getting a bundled set of solutions for a fraction of the cost, and they can be accessed easily by people all across the company. Additionally, employees companywide have easy access to software they may have had limited or no access to in the past. This can help to transition processes like BIM to the field.
However, many companies are moving away from traditional licensing completely. Also, some bundles provide solutions the company doesn’t want or need, which can drive up the package pricing.
Many, if not most, contractors have deployed some form of mobile solution to their jobsites within the last three years. Some are using it for timecard collection and routing or entry of production units. Others have integration with their project management and collaboration systems or document management solutions so they can initiate RFIs, capture photographs and access drawings. But with increased access to technology and bandwidth in the field, as well as more tech-savvy users, comes greater complexity and demand for IT support.
The mechanical and plumbing trades, as well as the structural steel supply chain, have been modeling for decades. The movement toward the general contractor taking a leadership role is still relatively new, but only for certain areas of the country. For example, in the West and mountain states, general contractors have been using a BIM process for nearly 10 years.
Many general contractors now have a virtual design and construction (VDC) department and are working to use some elements of BIM on all projects—if not required by an owner, then simply to be practiced and effective at it. Some larger construction management firms also are using BIM-related tools for conceptual estimating and value engineering.
Today’s VDC departments are moving to push the process out into the field. However, some companies cut back on their VDC departments and put responsibility back on the subcontractors to lead, which can result in a lack of project standards being followed and a loss of project streamlining.
The idea of having portions of a construction environment premade to spec in a safe, clean, controlled environment away from the hazards of a construction site is proving compelling. Software that handles the detailing is well integrated with the shop floor equipment. In years past, this was limited to the ductwork detailing software feeding cut specifications to the plasma cutting machines. Today, design/CAD software develops fabrication specs, which then move to the fabrication floor for pulling inventory, prepping material and organizing assembly.
As more companies discover the benefits of BIM and the “build it twice” approach, they are looking for solutions that will help ensure what is being coordinated in a model is actually being installed in the field. More companies are moving toward doing their own smarter layout via the use of robotic total stations and GPS-based systems. This technology allows project teams to take data directly from a model and lay it out in the field so they only have to measure and cut once, which enables prefabrication.
Another advancement is the use of laser scanning technology to accurately collect existing project data. With project contracts putting more of the risk on contractors to make things work the first time, regardless of the field conditions, laser scanning is one of the ways to fully understand the field conditions and the quality of the work. In the end, it’s the best way to verify the actual as-built conditions on a project.
It is now possible to track tools, trucks and people. In particular, tracking personnel is gaining traction as it relates to safety on the project. Several solutions use integrated RFID badging and physical or virtual gates to monitor people onsite in real time.
Firms also are pushing materials tracking. Once a system/element is prefabricated, it is great to actually track it electronically so it can be fabricated only when needed onsite, and allows for just-in-time deliveries—plus reduces the amount of storage space needed onsite or offsite.
Most companies with an internal warehouse are already using tool tracking for their major assets. Companies are now using the same solutions to track consumables. The tracking solutions can be tied to purchasing information and alert a supplier to deliver more of the consumable components so a team in a fabrication shop or in the field is never without a component to do its job.
Contractors with a large fleet of heavy equipment have seen an increase in the deployment of telemetric technology from manufacturers like Caterpillar and Deere. This could be considered an early example of the IoT in construction, with a constant stream of data available from the equipment itself. While the potential value of this data stream is hard to calculate, it is putting pressure on those who handle equipment to have better tools in place to manage the data, analyze it and react.
In the near future, contractors will continue to see more work being put in place with fewer people. One of the simplest ways to make their jobs easier is to eliminate the traditional paper-based processes and move to more electronic integrated processes. Once the best-fitting technology is found, companies need to spend time and money ensuring teams get the most value out of those systems through training and implementation support.
Christian Burger is president of Burger Consulting Group. For more information, visit burgerconsulting.com or follow @burgercnsltng. Todd Ellsworth is director of professional services for BuildingPoint Midwest, a Trimble Buildings partner. For more information, visit midwest.buildingpointpartners.com.