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Contractors Partner With Software Developers to Get the Tools they Really Need

When is the last time your construction company sent out a fax? How about burned a CD? Or made a call from a landline? Chances are, it wasn’t recently. As new technology evolves, outdated methods of communication and data sharing—including traditional email—are dying out. 

For contractors small and large, technology is inseparable from doing business. From the moment a worker arrives on the jobsite, he’s relying on handheld devices and mobile tablets for communication, intuitive software and PDFs for updating project details and relaying them to the whole project team, voice command apps for reporting conflicts and safety issues, and cameras for envisioning the entire project along the way.

The future will call for not just one piece of essential technology, but rather, several pieces—all leading construction teams closer to true collaboration and the ability to work from a universal “bible” of information.

Construction Executive talked with a few experts to get their take on what’s next for construction technology. By making their needs known to the tech industry, contractors are helping shape the future.

Jobsite Tech: The ‘Swiss Army Knife’

Texas-based general contractor Rogers-O’Brien has a history of being ahead of the game in terms of technology. Six years ago, the company adopted BIM before many other contractors even knew what the term meant. In 2013, it deployed 230 iPads for all of its professionals in the field. Most recently, it has been experimenting with recreational drone cameras for aerial jobsite views. The company also is testing out thermal imaging cameras to check buildings for missing insulation, overheating circuits or the need for water mitigation. Additionally, it’s working with software developers on enhancing mapping technology for the construction industry—piggybacking on successful programs like GoogleMaps—but also incorporating BIM tools, detailed zooming ability and first-person perspective used in gaming technology.
In its day-to-day technology arsenal, Rogers-O’Brien relies on Viewpoint for big-picture project management, FieldLens for daily mobile reporting, and Bluebeam for document viewing and hyperlinking information across the team.

“We feel like we’re always at the leading edge on technology,” says Todd Wynne, construction technology manager at Rogers-O’Brien. “But we went through the same evolution as the rest of the industry, from fax machines and Nextel phones to where we are now with smartphones, cameras and robust software.

You’ll see it on every project, anywhere from a $75 million hospital job down to a $200,000 bathroom renovation.”

Step one in embracing the world of technology options was shifting the company mindset away from paper, Wynne says. For example, Rogers-O’Brien served as a beta tester for Bluebeam when the software developer was designing its Revu function for PDFs—offering so much specific feedback about its needs that it now considers Bluebeam its “Swiss army knife” in the field. The tool provides communication, tracking and efficiency through digital workflow solutions for paperless submittals, RFIs, bid sets, punchlists, as-builts, operations and maintenance manuals, and more.

“Our whole goal was to move away from siloed, paper-based workflows to collaborative workflows, and to bring everyone into the digital world,” says Bluebeam Vice President of Strategic Alliances Sasha Reed, who works with AEC leaders to better understand the long-range goals of the industry. “We did that by leveraging the PDF file format for takeoffs, estimation, red lining, drawing review, design review and tracking changes between drawing revisions. This is really important as project timelines become condensed.”

Reed says the PDF format is a natural fit for the contractors, who are traditionally visual learners.

“We thought, if everything on a job from punch to closeout happens in a visual realm, why would we switch from traditional drawings to an Excel spreadsheet? It doesn’t make sense. So the idea was to leverage all the project data, which includes drawing data and sketch sheets, into PDF file format, where it can be linked, marked up and commented on,” Reed says.

Creating a Single Source of Truth
Also sticking to tradition, new software honors the fact that contractors are familiar with having important conversations and making decisions around a conference room table, where a series of paper documents became the “bible” for the project. “We wanted to keep that same concept, but let everything happen digitally so that teams didn’t need to be confined to one geographic location,” Reed says. “Contractors can grab information on the cloud from their desktop or mobile solutions, but still walk away with the same single source of truth. This has changed the way construction firms are able to collaborate.”

The key to tracking a project is keeping all of the information in the same place and allowing everyone to access it.

“We speak of our guys in the field being ‘data alignment managers,’” Wynne says. “This means we may have 15 different silos of information on a project. Say a technician has a small problem installing a door hinge. Before, he would have to manually align all of the data that has to do with that door hinge before solving the problem. So much of the information was spread out, preventing field techs from making a decision and moving along with the job.”

Similarly, another software solution, PlanGrid, manages the whole life cycle of an RFI, tying together blueprints from beginning to end as if the project team were standing in the same jobsite trailer. Contractors can easily share and sync plans, markups, photos and reports, as well as view PDFs, all while the information is backed up to a secure data cloud.

Teaming Up With Tech Developers
Regardless of the type of software or application, it’s essential for contractors to make their needs known to tech developers.

“We beta test new software constantly. Some of it is good, and some of it is not good,” Wynne says.
“We’re looking at the relationship we have with the software company even more than the software itself,” adds Joe Williams, director of technology for Rogers-O’Brien. “Some companies may have a great product, but we’ll pick a software provider based on their responsiveness to us. Ultimately, we are the soldiers in the trenches using the product, so we provide strenuous feedback.”

Rogers-O’Brien often travels to New York and Los Angeles to meet with developers to ensure its voice is heard. In the case of Bluebeam, the Rogers-O’Brien technology department sat down with the software engineers and listed 79 specific features it had requested that were not in the test application.

Bluebeam takes this feedback seriously. It also met with several other construction companies, including Mortenson and Turner, to ensure its PDF tools provided the right functions for the people who would be using them. These collaborations led to drastic improvements and new ideas, such as the ability to create batch overlays—replicating a traditional light table on which drawings are laid on top of one another.

“In a matter of four years, we’ve seen the contractor go from the technology advisor to the technology driver,” Reed says.

In other words, the dynamic is shifting from the contractor being treated as the “end-user” to the contractor being treated as a technology visionary.

“App companies, whether desktop or mobile, often are trying to make our guys better end-users. We want them to make our guys better builders. We feel that the only way they can do that is by actually spending a day with construction guys like us,” Wynne says.

That’s exactly what Rogers-O’Brien and Bluebeam did: spend time together in the field and have many, many conversations about how to get the tool just right.

For example, during development, Rogers-O’Brien tracked the amount of time it took one worker to manually hyperlink all the digital elevations for a project; it wound up being 40 manhours, or nearly a week’s worth of time. Now, after years of tweaking, the software can automatically scan through hundreds of drawings to search for specific project details and then hyperlink them—all in less than five minutes.

Contractors Call for Handheld, Wearable Tech
A plethora of new mobile technology apps make it such that a superintendent doesn’t have to walk all the way back to the trailer to find related construction documents; he can pull them right up on his phone—or better yet, view them through smart glasses.

For example, Newforma offers a set of mobile apps that enable access to project team information, documents and field reports via smartphones and tablets. Users can update plans and notes all in one place, making emails among team members almost entirely unnecessary.

Asta Powerproject recently released a new mobile BIM solution that includes the latest in 4-D planning. Users can see where the project should be at various stages and even adjust the timeline by clicking on an element in the BIM model to bring up its corresponding schedule. Mobile capabilities mean project leaders can instantly update progress reports with jobsite photographs and associate them with various tasks or stages, without the need to return to the office.

JBKnowledge’s SmartReality mobile app was recently integrated with Epson Moverio smart glasses that allow contractors to view 2-D paper construction plans as 3-D interactive BIM files, providing a more advanced, real-world perspective about a given structure.

Other software developers, including FieldLens and Procore, are experimenting with new functionality in GoogleGlass, which has left the general consumer marketplace, but is being adopted by the construction software industry. 

For example, Resource International, Inc. recently unveiled Construction Smart Hat, an innovative technology that integrates its iiCollector mobile asset manager with Google Glass and Google Maps to collect data, geo-tag assets and create reports during infrastructure and facility construction projects.

Employee Onboarding
Once a contractor’s tech department has chosen the perfect tool, it’s time to get employees to use it—and that’s not easy. Employees aren’t always quick to accept new technology, as old habits die hard.

At Rogers-O’Brien, Wynne has observed three types of adopters. First, there are the early adopters—often the younger generation—who embrace new tools immediately and are eager to teach others about how to use various programs. Then, there are the tentative adopters—those who want to read case studies and see the technology in practice before they’ll trust its benefits. Finally, there are the refusers—those who push back on almost all new tools and ideas.

At first, the company focused hardest on getting the refusers to change their minds. But this wound up being a time-waster. “We realized we needed to focus not on the guys we were pushing, but rather the guys that were already pulling,” Wynne says.

By concentrating its tech training on the project managers, field superintendents and specialty workers who were eager to learn, Rogers-O’Brien worked a bit of reverse psychology into its project teams. The “refusers” began to see the “adopters” next to them performing tasks faster and more efficiently on a mobile device, and then their competitive nature took over. The refusers didn’t
like seeing their fellow workers beat them at the job, so in the end, they came  around to adopting the technology.

In a way, this experience can serve as a metaphor for technology adoption within the industry at large. Contractors will need to get on board or get left behind.  

Tech for Better Customer Service
Contractors often need external technology solutions to improve their customer relationships and complete service calls more quickly. Climatech, a 43-year old commercial and residential HVAC company that serves clients in western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, West Virginia and Tampa, Fla., was looking for a better way to integrate its service dispatching and accounting into one software unit.

In 2006, the company reached out to software provider Data Basics, Inc., to develop Climatrak, a tailored asset management piece that allows customers to access their own HVAC service order history, including calls, purchase orders, equipment repairs and billings.
“This gives Climatrach users a valuable way to manage their business, especially when they’re budgeting how much capital they need for things like equipment replacements,” says Brad Taback, president and owner of Climatech. “They can simply go online and view their past service history as compared to budget.”

Climatech also launched a mobile app called Techanywhere that allows technicians to use a smartphone to pull up job tickets, create purchase orders, capture signatures, use GPS and manage documents. Climatech technicians can quickly diagnose and resolve HVAC problems using their phone, as opposed to returning to the office or their vans to look up work history on a particular piece of equipment.

“Faster resolution saves us time and our customers money, so the tech product is a tremendous help from that perspective,” Taback says. Also, the shift from pen and paper for service orders to touch screen technology not only looks more professional, but also has made the office staff’s life easier. The company has seen a 75 percent reduction in turnaround time for invoicing, which positively impacts cash flow.

“The techs in the field are now generating everything except the invoice. When they complete a call, our billing department already has everything they need in the system,” Taback says. “Engaging these two technology solutions definitely sets us apart from our competitors and results in better overall service.”

Contractors Weigh In
Last year, Viewpoint Construction Software conducted a Construction Technology Survey that gathered opinions from 250 North American contractors, with half being company principles or executives, and 38 percent being engaged in commercial and industrial work.
Following are a few highlights from the survey.
  • More than 50 percent of respondents said they would be investing in technology in 2014.
  • More than 80 percent of respondents reported they use three or more technology applications to effectively perform job-related tasks on a daily basis.
  • 82 percent of respondents are currently taking advantage of mobile technology to perform job-related tasks.
  • More than 50 percent of respondents stated they are not currently using BIM technology.
To access the survey results, visit info.viewpoint.com/Blog_TechSurvey2014.html.

Tech for Faster Payments
Cash: It’s what general contractors and subcontractors are constantly seeking to keep their businesses alive and growing. So, it makes sense that a technology company would respond to this need with a tool that helps the construction industry manage and finance its payments faster.

Textura Corporation, a provider of construction collaboration solutions, partnered with a financial services company and Turner Construction Company to develop the new Early Payment Program (EPP)—a financial tool that enables general contractors to pay their subcontractors on average 45 days sooner than usual. Turner is launching the first EPP, and Textura soon will introduce the program to other general contractors nationwide.

Using Textura’s Construction Payment Management (CPM) system, more than 300 general contractors and project owners had already begun shifting from manual accounting processes—for billing, progress claims, lien waiver collection, compliance management and more—to electronic payment systems. However, construction is still behind other industries when it comes to obtaining underwriting and financing for accelerated turnaround on payments to business partners. Traditionally, financial institutions have deemed construction too risky of a business to float capital ahead of schedule.

To solve this dilemma, Textura found a partner in Greensill Capital, which will perform the EPP’s underwriting and provide funding for accelerated subcontractor payments. Greensill Capital has committed a minimum of a revolving $250 million of its own funds to EPP financing and plans to deliver an initial minimum of a revolving $10.25 billion in EPP financing from a combination of its own balance sheet, third-party banks and the capital markets (with the assistance of Morgan Stanley).

“We’ve been looking for a partner to help us solve this problem for 10 years,” says Patrick Allin, chairman and CEO of Textura. “Through technology, we are able to connect general contractors and subcontractors to the global capital markets.”

When a general contractor signs an EPP agreement, Greensill Capital arranges funding based on the strength of the general contractor’s balance sheet. Then, the general contractor offers Textura’s EPP to its subcontractors, which can decide whether to participate in the accelerated payment program. Subcontractors that choose to participate agree to a small fee for each payment tied to the amount of their invoice. Subcontractors then submit invoices as normal and are paid—by the EPP funding source—soon after invoice approval. Once the general contractor gets paid by the project owner, the general contractor repays the early outlay funds back to the funding source.  

This option significantly benefits a subcontractor’s balance sheet and reduces project risk. Typically, subcontractors must wait until the general contractor has been paid by the owner to receive payments, which puts them in a bind when it comes to paying for labor costs in the month they are incurred. “It’s strange, when you think about it in terms of labor costs, that work in progress is funded by the subcontractors,” Allin says. “The subs have the highest cost of capital and the least ability to access capital. They are cash-strapped. If they can’t support payroll, they go out of business.”

Now, through this collaborative partnership among the construction, tech and finance industries, more small businesses can stay afloat and thrive in a competitive environment. And, with financially healthier subcontractors, the industry experiences less risk (i.e., fewer defaults and lower claims).

Assuming an average of 45 days earlier funding to subcontractors and 45 percent subcontractor participation in EPP, Greensill Capital’s initial revolving $10.25 billion would fund approximately $82 billion in subcontractor invoices a year, which equates to approximately $225 billion to $250 billion in project construction value.

“We are convinced EPP will be very attractive to many subs out there, and this payment model will eventually become the new normal,” Allin says.

Voice Command: The Future of Jobsite Safety and Risk Management

Mobile technology can address jobsite realities such as safety violations and litigation.

One time-saving, voice-activated application called Notevault allows construction foremen and superintendents to report jobsite conditions on the spot and over the phone.

How does it work? Remote transcriptionists (e.g., stay-at-home parents or former construction workers who are on a leave of absence due to an injury) convert spoken notes into written data to create professional daily jobsite reports, tagged with keywords that immediately alert project executives to any safety issues, project delays or team conflicts.
Notevault’s CEO Peter Lasensky says voice reporting offers three main benefits.

It’s faster. People can speak 10 times faster than they can type. The ability to dictate details on the spot provides real-time, detail-rich data, as opposed to terse, handwritten notes that may be illegible and raise more questions than provide answers.

The daily reports look more professional to clients. Owners receive an at-a-glance project update with clear typeface and a selection of key photos.

The information is extremely timely or, in legal terms, contemporaneous. Field workers can describe a situation immediately; they don’t need to remember to file a job report at the end of the workday, let alone remember all of the important details in correct sequence. They can take a quick photo, verbally describe what’s happening in front of them and they’re done.

The tool helps general contractors collect and track what multiple field workers and subcontractors are up to on the jobsite, without administrative hassles. In the old way of doing things, someone in the trailer was tasked with rounding up nearly 30 daily reports.

Instead, many general contractors such as Hunt Construction are using Notevault to document labor activities, track materials put in place and equipment utilized. In addition, Hunt Construction is using the tool to create better transparency and awareness for executives about what’s happening in the field.

The Notevault app uses a keyword search for terms such as “delay” and “change order” to alert executives immediately via email or text if something is amiss on the jobsite.

Legally speaking, the advantages of voice reporting are huge.

“When someone files a lawsuit, it all goes back to the daily reports,” Lasensky says. “When an arbitrator or judge has to make a ruling, they rely on information in the daily report. In many cases, it’s woefully inadequate. Letters written after the fact tend to be
self-serving. We provide information in a clear, compelling format, which is time-stamped, and we archive the data for the life of the completed operations exposure.”

The data is filed for 10 years—the time frame in which a contractor has completed operations liability in case of a lawsuit.

For Lasensky, the desire to create the tool is personal. As a former contractor, Lasensky had to sue a client for failing to pay for work completed on a ground-up office building in Poway, Calif. Ultimately, he lost the case because he didn’t have enough documentation to prove that the client was lying about his reasons for nonpayment.

In addition to the app’s power to create a strong case during litigation, it can be a lifesaver during a safety-related incident or jobsite accident.

Before an incident even occurs, a field worker can call in an observation such as a loose railing to alert a safety manager and immediately correct the situation. In addition, the tool allows for crowd sourcing. The general public can call in concerns, based on the theory that the more sets of eyes are spotting potential safety problems, the better.

In the case of a jobsite injury, a worker can make just one call using the Notevault app, which automatically pushes texts out to all the other necessary parties: OSHA, company executives, jobsite managers, the project owner, etc. Notevault then texts the worker instructions about what to do next (e.g., how to secure the injured person, perform drug testing, capture witness information, fill out the correct forms and find the closest medical center).

Recently, NoteVault integrated its tools with other software applications for field reporting—such as CMiC’s enterprise resource management software and Autodesk’s Constructware project management software—so that users don’t need to toggle among multiple technologies when they’re updating project data.

Clearly, the trend is toward fast distribution of bite-sized information that helps solve problems as soon as possible.

“In our industry, there’s still a challenge of getting information from the field to the executive office. You have to make it super simple for the guy in the field,” Lasensky says.  

Lauren Pinch is a contributing writer to Construction Executive. For more information, email pinch@abc.org, visit www.constructionexec.com or follow @ConstructionMag.

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