BY AMY DREW THOMPSON
If seeing hard hats toting iPads makes you wonder when your construction site turned into a coffeehouse, you’re due for a software upgrade of your own. Now more than ever these versatile handheld devices — offering smartphone-comparable portability with laptop-like capability — are helping construction professionals become more effi cient, more connected and better equipped to do their jobs. From price quotes to logistics, client approvals to (yes, even) blueprints, tablets are taking off.
“Tablets are providing a solution to a challenge that contractors have had for years,” says Wayne Newitts, marketing director for Dexter + Chaney, a Seattle-based company that supplies the industry with construction software for business and operations, “better connecting the offi ce with the fi eld, better connecting management with operations.”
Considering a company-wide evolution? Ready to supplement your laptops with something more jobsite friendly? Read on for a tablet tutorial.
HOLY MOBILITY, BATMAN
Are there apps for that? The short answer is yes — with a resounding “but.” Apps are great for simple things — fi eld data entry, equipment usage, time tracking or shooting angry little birds at pigs (ask your kids). They’re great for fi eld ops but, says Newitts, “they don’t address the persistent problem of too much disconnect between the two sides of a contracting business, nor do they help reduce the number of software applications that a contractor has to purchase, learn and integrate with his ERP [enterprise resource planning] software.”
Tablets solve these problems because of what they are, but also because of what they’re not.
“They do it even better than a laptop,” notes Newitts, “because the tablet cannot be a PC.” Simply put, in order to access a sophisticated application, a tablet must connect via a web browser and access the cloud. Cloud computing means you’re accessing a centralized computer resource via a remote device. “As more complete software systems are designed to work in the cloud, the tablet user in the fi eld can tap into the full suite of data and software that is available to someone sitting at a desktop in an offi ce.”
What could that mean for your day-to-day? Quite possibly zero trips from the site to the trailer for blueprints, zero trips to the trailer to send emails to the architect, zero stress about answering when a customer inquires about the location of a truck, and lightning-fast turnaround on approvals or input from multiple stakeholders on a given project.
“The tablets we deploy have 4G hotspot and voice integration,” says Eric Carter, who started Approach Technology, a construction IT-focused company, four years ago after a stint with W.G. Clark Construction, an AGC of Washington member, where he moved the company to an entirely cloud-based model of IT operations. “With these components employees can immediately begin work in the field when site work begins while waiting for more robust, fixed Internet/voice delivery. Teams can ramp up faster at the jobsite.”
OLD DOGS, NEW TRICKS, POSSIBLE RISKS
“Anyone familiar with purchasing Apple products knows that when you buy an iPad, there are almost no instructions,” jokes Newitts. “This has been a driving design principle of Apple’s for years: immediate, out-of-the-box use.” And those of you using the Android platform might note that the strategy has been mimicked by other players. The good thing? “From a hardware perspective, there is little or no learning curve.”
For software, however, it depends. “Every app is different,” says Newitt, “but if designed for the cloud, which is where the tablet shines, software has likely been designed for multiple devices.”
In simple terms, if a program is designed for use with a mouse or a larger display, the tablet won’t be the most effective device on which to use it. Sometimes you won’t be able to use it at all.
“We’ve heard that one reason more and more contractors are deploying tablets in the field is because the software is actually more friendly to the project manager or supervisor — there aren’t the elaborate menus and complex navigational schemes one can encounter.”
Veteran superintendent Hank Darmer says that information at the fingertips of dirty-booted engineers is the undeniable wave of the future, but doesn’t think the process will be as fluid as it needs to be for a few years. “Not until connection and download speeds and things like 3-D modeling can be viewed in the palm of your hand in an efficient manner.” That said, he and his colleagues at W.G. Clark Construction are vigilant about pushing the bounds of technology in the field.
“We’re testing,” he says, noting that he and the layout person on their current project are in constant contact. “The bottom of the excavation is nearly 30 feet below street level. To communicate effectively, one of us has to migrate up or down.” It’s a waste of time they’ve been steadily eliminating via email. “It does work,” he says, but notes that there have been hiccups with marked-up PDFs. “You can’t see the markings on the iPad — but maybe we can fix this.”
While tablet technology continues to develop at light speed as IT professionals work to fix issues such as the above, many contractors have other concerns, most often expense, durability and security.
“Security is always an issue,” says Newitts. “With tablets, the issues are simply different. Assuming the tablet is used as a mobile device for cloud software, the information passed back and forth for most business apps is going to use secure socket layer (SSL) security — which means data is put through 128-bit encryption and the servers must be certified. This is the same level of security used for online banking.”
As for expense, most find that the time tablets save will offset the costs, but even so — an iPad is not a replacement for a traditional PC. “Also, the 4G component is often not unlimited,” notes Carter, “and so there can be additional costs by using them as hotspots.” People are now carrying around multiple devices. Integration with printers and scanners, he admits, can be cumbersome.
Darmer, whose company is still experimenting with their use, pronounces tablets drawback free, “except that it’s a fragile device.” Dust, debris and the inevitable watch-in-slow-motion-as-it-hits-the-dirt accidental drops are what real life is all about. You won’t be able to protect your devices from every pitfall, but ever-improving ruggedized tablet and heavy-duty case options can help you minimize impact and protect ports from infiltration.
ADVENTS IN APPS
Much like the advent of paperless billing, so too, predict experts, will go blueprints.
Perhaps not entirely, of course, but technology is making the process of updates faster and less expensive, since the real cost of drawings lies in perpetual updates and management thereof. Applications such as PlanGrid allow blueprints to be stored in the cloud, then marked up onsite and emailed to necessary staffers right from the field. Architect’s Formula includes hundreds of formulas that help with calculations for plumbing, carpentry, electrical — even parking area and swimming pool designs. User-friendly SmartBidNet allows for the creation and tracking of bids and can be shared with subcontractors, bringing greater ease to the estimating process.
In Darmer’s mind, the sky’s the limit. “It’s ever evolving, so the possibilities are endless …. But it would be nice if it could rub my shoulders after a long day.”