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There’s a lot for contractors to be excited about on the technology front: drones, BIM, mobile apps, sensors, wearables, telematics, smart tools, video documentation, robotics, 3-D printing, laser scanning, generative design and much, much more. But the prospect of all the analytics, alerts and automation can quickly turn overwhelming without a firm strategy and capable IT staff in place. The trick is finding the sweet spot between doing what’s right for the company and not falling too far behind competitors—all while heeding employees’ appetite for change and making sure the technology is actually suited for construction environments.

For Bartlett Cocke General Contractors (BCGC), a commercial builder working across Texas with about 560 employees (about half of which are self-perform personnel), the big-picture goal is improving business intelligence. For Doster Construction, a family-owned general contractor based in Birmingham, Ala., with more than 200 employees (only a handful of whom are on each project site), the push is toward improving collaboration and communication. Read on for these contractors’ insights on achieving the right portfolio of digital tools—as well as a look at four companies advancing tech solutions for the construction industry.

Technology Lays the Foundation for Business Intelligence 

BCGC has a 10-year BIM résumé, and these days 3-D modeling touches every end of the project life cycle—from site logistics, visualizations, renderings and takeoffs to constructability reviews, clash detection, as-built documentation and the handoff of digital deliverables to clients. 

“BIM was the proof of concept for so many other technologies and process improvements across our company,” says Luis Berumen, BCGC's director of construction technologies. “Experienced operations staff saw technology could help us do our jobs more effectively. It changed how we pursued projects. We also can go into client interviews and meetings with a full visual plan of attack. Through a collaborative BIM and preconstruction process, we have much better bid-ability and build-ability.”

Next came mobile solutions to attack the company’s paper problem: iPads, PlanGrid, iAuditor, Microsoft Power BI and BOX to name a few. BCGC recently went live with DocuSign to streamline and accelerate contract approvals with e-signatures, implemented digital invoice routing and approvals to expedite vendor payment, and has begun a drone implementation program, with three employees passing the certification exam to provide aerial photography/videography and progress tracking.

“I’m a pragmatist. I don’t implement technology for technology’s sake. There has to be a potential efficiency or ROI in mind,” Berumen says. “And we didn’t get here overnight. When it comes to new technology and processes, we take a crawl, walk and then run approach. I never throw too much at our project personnel at one time. When we get veteran superintendents looking to PlanGrid instead of their paper sets, crossing that generational gap is a big win.”

The simpler the implementation the better, but skimping on training is a big no-no. BCGC developed an intranet to house a modern training site with videos, diagrams and how-to documents so users are empowered to help themselves. In person training is done too, heavily supplemented by remote instruction via Skype for Business so BCGC can make the most of its lean IT team.   

Looking ahead, Berumen has his eye on augmented reality, 3-D printing of materials on the fly and carryover from the shared economy (e.g., Uber for commercial construction vehicles and materials). But the big priority is business intelligence especially important as baby boomers’ retirement creates a brain drain. 

Five years ago, BCGC formed an internal steering committee comprised of the executive team and department heads to identify broken processes and set strategic priorities. Transitioning from the company’s separate accounting and project management system to an integrated ERP platform shot to the top of the list, which meant cleaning up its database and restructuring information so personnel can query meaningful data at any time. Through CMiC’s integrated platform, BCGC now has direct insight into project- and department-level KPIs.

“This real-time visibility is big for us. The key is making data-driven decisions and allowing us to track trends we didn’t know were related before,” Berumen says. “We want to get more into predictive analytics, automation and alerts, but we have to lay the foundation now and ask our data the questions that we really want the answers to.”

With that goal in mind, BCGC hired a team of three business analysts who bridge the gap between the construction and IT sides of the business. All were promoted from within: tech-savvy construction operations staff with a good handle on accounting principles. 

“You don’t have to be a data scientist to harness the power of business intelligence anymore; it’s not just for the big guys,” Berumen says. “Through Microsoft Power BI, we are empowering our field operations teams to manage their projects and personnel through real-time reports, dashboards and KPIs available on any device. We’re providing insight and information where it’s needed most: on the project frontlines.”

Connectivity Yields Better Relationships

Having that strategic vision in place helps when it comes to weeding through the tech pitches IT staff is inundated with on a daily basis. 

“Another company may be using something cool, but it doesn’t necessarily fit in our model. They may use it because they’re bigger or structured differently,” says CJ Rainer, IT manager at Doster Construction. “Wearables and jobsite cameras that take snapshots every day are great, but then you see the price tag or what it takes to put that technology in place, and the brakes come on real fast.”

In Doster’s case, as a non-self-performing general contractor with a small IT department, the priority is fostering communication and collaboration among clients, subcontractors and the small group of employees who are onsite. Five years ago, that meant switching from a Polycom system to Lifesize for videoconferencing. Higher-speed internet, cheaper high-definition cameras and cloud capabilities made the transition possible; the ease of use made field staff jump on board; and the secure portal met Rainer’s requirements. 

“With a telephone call, you really don’t know if someone is paying attention on the other side. The market is in video and seeing people. Now, any jobsite can call another jobsite, or a project manager on the road can fire up the system on his laptop or tablet and easily connect,” Rainer says. “We are a people-first company. Our company purpose is building lasting relationships, so maintaining that face-to-face connection with personnel is key to our success.” 

More recently, Doster has been flying a drone for aerial photography and video, experimenting with a virtual reality unit, and offering BIM and laser 3-D scanning services to clients. The company also is working to put its invoicing system on the cloud so staff can make approvals on an iPad. Drawing on employees’ familiarity with iPads, Doster built a 55-inch touchscreen for PlanGrid on a job in Ohio and will move it to future projects to satisfy the demand for digital collaboration. 

To be fair, some resistance always accompanies that demand. Rainer recalls a senior superintendent who, up until 2015, was computer-free since joining the company in the early 1980s. He always got someone to do digital tasks for him, including email. 

“We got an iPad in his hands and he said it was the greatest thing we’ve ever done for him. If you get guys like that to embrace the change, they’ll tell others they can do it too,” Rainer says. “The fact we’ve been able to prove solutions work for them is key.” 

Having a system of pre-screening technology and pushing it out to smaller groups prior to full-scale deployment has worked for Doster and will continue to be important as it seeks solutions that encapsulate the company in a private way in the cloud and connect all devices to a single location. 

“Jobsites used to be isolated. If we can make it so they feel like they’re connected to the office all the time, we can make more accurate documentation and put everyone on the same page,” Rainer says. “Software and hardware is moving in that direction.”

Wearables Work Toward Industry Safety Compliance 

Perhaps the most important consideration when integrating new technology onsite is worker safety. That’s where many mobile and wearable solutions fall woefully short, according to Ken Hepburn, vice president of marketing for California-based RealWear, Inc

“Virtually all current wearable devices were designed as consumer products that manufacturers then attempted to repurpose as enterprise devices,” he says. “Most cannot even be legally deployed in the field because they are not compliant with ANSI/OSHA safety requirements.”

Additional concerns with smart glasses currently on the market include short battery life and restricted peripheral vision. In response, RealWear developed the HMT-1, a 100 percent voice-driven, head-mounted Android tablet that is field deployable for fully hands-free operation. It is compatible with existing ANSI/OSHA safety gear such as hard hats and safety glasses; ruggedized for 2-meter drops and exposure to high-pressure saltwater spray and dust; and priced about the same as a high-end tablet. 

Making sure the HMT-1 is simple to use was critical to RealWear, so the training consists of just four words: Say what you see. “The voice commands for our device are displayed right on the screen through each step of the process,” says Hepburn, who was a certified welder for 10 years. “Plus, our WearHF platform allows IT personnel to replace tap and swipe gestures with voice commands of their choice without writing any code.”

Getting buy-in from field and IT staff is important for technology adoption, but the real payoffs are in helping transfer knowledge from baby boomers to younger workers and attracting people to the industry who like to work with both their hands and minds.

“Wearable technology represents not only a new paradigm of computing, but also a new opportunity to rethink what higher education means,” Hepburn says. “I see an opportunity for young people to get excited about a career that allows them to use leading-edge technology and embark on apprenticeships where they can earn while they learn.”

Jobsite Sensors Deploy Data for Owners

Sensor technology is adapting to construction environments as well. What seems like an easy task—placing a sensor in a partially completed building and letting it collect and analyze data—is complicated by the dynamic nature of jobsites. 

“The environment is always changing, as is the physical structure. There’s often no Wi-Fi to connect to,” says Sean Iacobone, CPO and cofounder of New York-based Pillar Technologies. “Current technology is worker-centric rather than fully automated, meaning apps require users to enter information.”

Without the need for human intervention, Pillar Technologies’ smart sensors monitor temperature, pressure, noise, humidity, smoke and dust once projects are enclosed or partially weather-tight—in other words, when it’s important to protect the interior from what’s happening outside. They are well suited for jobs in highly regulated sectors, such as health care, as well as renovations in occupied facilities. The sensors operate on battery power for 10 months, wirelessly connect over a cellular network and remain intact until the building is certified for occupancy. 

Pillar Technologies works with project teams to determine where sensors need to be placed (e.g., near millwork to monitor humidity or during the flooring phase to monitor temperature), marks the locations on the floor plan, and uploads the information to a platform where personnel can view dashboards and customize metrics and alerts. Depending on how the team distributes responsibilities, field engineers, superintendents and assistant project managers elect to receive text or email notifications.

The beauty of a sensor-based system is that it has the contractor’s back even when staff isn’t onsite. “Its viewpoint is based on factual reality versus a person’s opinion of what’s going on,” Iacobone says, noting how field staff can be reluctant to self-report problems or conditions in existing apps for fear of raising a red flag. “Our technology is completely automated and runs around the clock.”

With the power of automation comes a responsibility to distribute information appropriately. Notifications must be disseminated without being disruptive, and the data must be valuable and reliable. 

“You can easily get into a crying wolf scenario with too many false alarms. Workers will begin to tune out the alerts,” Iacobone says. “Project teams care about different metrics during different phases, so notifications can be set for a certain period of time and then turned off.”

At a more corporate level, safety directors and risk managers can get a bird’s-eye view of which projects are having problems and possibly identify standard operating procedures that can be refined to iron out inefficiencies, reduce risk and improve safety. Additionally, project owners get a transparent record of performance—what Iacobone calls a Carfax for the building.

“This system is a tool to show owners and insurers that you are doing everything in your power to maintain quality and deliver the job on time and on budget,” he says. “Plus, you have documentation in case of litigation over a defect. You have a body of evidence you can point back to.

“Some companies worry that more data isn’t always good,” Iacobone adds. “But when you view it as a tool to improve, and maybe identify what went wrong so you don’t make the same mistakes in the future, that fear dissolves away.”

Smart Tools Tell Contractors What They Need to Know

Data collection and analytics also is revving up in the power tools category. Offering digitally enabled tools is a new minimum standard for manufacturers to meet. That’s why DEWALT has brought on 80 technologists to help the traditional hardware company undergo a digital revolution. 

While DEWALT has always emphasized sensor technology during the development of prototype tools, it is now responding to customer demand to give that data back to contractors. 

  • How, when and where is the tool being used? 
  • Is it operating within an optimal RPM range? 
  • How much heat was generated? 
  • What’s the battery status? 
  • Did the tool get back to its gang box? 
  • Does it offer health and safety predictors? 
  • When was it last serviced?

DEWALT’s new Tool Connect system allows this data to be reported in real time based on proximity to embedded Bluetooth sensors. “Some contractors are trying to use barcode or RFID systems to track tools, but both of those require manual scanning of the tools, tags or stickers,” says Jake Olsen, vice president of field engineering for DEWALT. “The DEWALT system automatically uploads the Bluetooth data to the cloud in real time and makes it available to all stakeholders, whether they are in front of a computer or on a mobile device.” Recipients may be site foremen only interested in battery charge stats, regional safety directors who want to track safety clutch activations, or tool managers in the shop who need to know what grinders or rotary hammers are in use across various jobsites.

Importantly, data is reported to users via DEWALT’s tool inventory management software, and is available through APIs to integrate with other software systems that contractors are already using.

To further address digital dependency in the construction field, DEWALT will soon offer patented wireless-mesh technology that expands single-location Wi-Fi to the entire jobsite so field staff can connect to the Internet where they need it most. The company also plans to launch an IoT platform.

Time and money wasted looking for tools onsite is another problem that can be addressed through technology, such as an inventory management system that links assets to an app. 

“DEWALT understands how vital the building and construction industries are to local and global economies,” says Tony Nicolaidis, vice president of marketing for Stanley Black & Decker, Inc. “Leveraging technology, our goal is to provide solutions for gathering in-depth jobsite data for better decision-making by general contractors and trade contractors, thus enhancing productivity and safety.”

Telematics Data Generates Predictability, Improves Operations

If there’s one area deluged with data, it’s telematics. Run time, idle time, fuel consumption, tire pressure, geolocation, operating hours, control signals and machine sensors are all part of today’s equipment dialogue thanks to more standardized hardware and decreased costs. 

“While telematics in construction is not new, the standardization and centralization of data collection for predictive analysis is finally taking shape,” says Israel Alguindigue, senior vice president of industrial analytics at Chicago-based Uptake, which is partnering with companies such as Caterpillar to identify the strategic touch points where analytics can transform equipment and the construction ecosystem at large. “We see it applied across a deeper and broader set of IoT use cases thanks to the seemingly endless suite of machine data available.”

Uptake provides data analysis to help fleet operators optimize asset performance, manage fuel spend, improve productivity and benchmark performance. According to Alguindigue, these predictions empower site managers to identify equipment in need of repairs and to act on those insights before a machine fails in the field. Not only would sensors alert personnel to the maintenance need, but the mechanic at the shop also would have the part ready to install, and another piece of equipment would be scheduled to fill in temporarily. 

Then, operations can be fine-tuned based on a variety of contextual information that affects equipment, such as terrain, weather and operator behavior. In short, nearly every part of a construction project can generate usable data that leads to patterns, which can lead to trustworthy predictions.

“The revelation for Uptake has been that once the data is available for analytics, it can be leveraged to serve a multitude of people within an operation. Site supervisors are best suited for the task of monitoring and digesting telematics data. Equipment operators also should be in the know when it comes to understanding and applying recommendations from the data,” Alguindigue says. 

The question construction companies have to ask themselves is if they are prepared to take action on this information. Are they in a position to build and maintain in-house infrastructure to securely store, analyze and leverage all the data, or would they be better off partnering with a third party that can aggregate, validate and map it?

“Knowing what to do with the insights is the critical piece of the puzzle that’s often missing,” Alguindigue says. “That’s where construction companies can derive real value from big data.” 


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