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Tools of the Trade

CONTRACTORS GAIN COMPETITIVE EDGE WITH CONSTRUCTION SOFTWARE TOOLS

BY SHERYL S. JACKSON

Although new technologies designed to promote collaboration, improve project management, increase safety and enhance the bottom line are continually emerging, the construction industry is slow to adopt these tools.

Photo courtesy of The Beck Group

In fact, a recent AGC of America survey, 38 percent of respondents indicated they do not use BIM. Fifty-one percent use Dropbox to share files online. And, 26 percent believe the biggest IT challenge in construction is implementing and training personnel on new technology.

“Gray Construction’s customers expect the use of BIM, but our industry as a whole has been slow to adopt new technology because we have proven, repeatable, predictable systems in place,” says Brian Jones, chief operating officer of Gray Construction, an AGC of Kentucky member. “It is hard for construction firms, especially smaller firms, to try something new when the system in place is working.”

There are two types of software that should be evaluated: Software that improves “back of house” operations by tracking costs, productivity and quality, and more “forward-facing” tools that help contractors execute the work and communicate with clients to improve the bottom line and project delivery.


~ Ron Spinoli, chief information officer, McHugh Construction

The adoption rate of BIM or other technologies may depend on the market or region in which a firm works, says Ron Sinopoli, chief information officer of McHugh Construction, a Chicagoland AGC member. “It also depends on the type of work performed by the firm — general contracting, subcontractor trades or construction management,” he says. “Then, it depends on the expectations or requirements of owners because certain clients and projects require a different level of collaboration and technology integration than others,” he adds.

“For example, a general contractor building a strip mall or other small institutional project in a rural area may not realize an adequate return on investment for technology used in that one project, while a contractor working on a complex project such as a hospital or data center can see a return on investment in technology almost immediately,” says Sinopoli.

SOFTWARE BUCKETS

There are two types of software that should be evaluated, suggests Sinopoli: Software that improves “back of house” operations by tracking costs, productivity and quality, and more “forward-facing” tools that help contractors execute the work and communicate with clients to improve the bottom line and project delivery.

The flood of software solutions for construction can be overwhelming, and the first inclination might be to look for one software that can handle everything — but it doesn’t exist, says Sinopoli. “We use Procore as our primary platform to share models and manage projects, but we also have other applications that enable us to integrate technology into more of our processes and operate even more efficiently,” he says. One of these solutions is StructionSite, which uses a 360-degree camera to capture images of the site as a supervisor or project manager walks around. The video can be used to share progress updates with the client and to give subcontractors a chance to “walk” the site from their mobile device to see what is ready for them.

OLD DATA MEETS NEW SYSTEM

Contractors should not be wary of layering in multiple applications to their workflow because most applications already integrate with major construction platforms such as Procore, says Sinopoli. This was not the case 10 years ago, when technology companies were reluctant to open their platforms to other tools. “Now, we can integrate multiple applications along with our legacy systems, but the challenges include cleansing old data to be sure that predictions are based on accurate information,” he says.

Today’s programs are inherently more valuable as they rely on artificial intelligence and predictive analytics to identify time and cost savings while providing opportunities to improve quality and reduce risk. However, they need “clean” data, says Sinopoli. When you merge multiple systems, not all of the original data is entered in the same format or at the same level of detail as the new tools require, so you do need to plan to address data quality to be sure the information on which you base decisions is accurate, he adds.

The value of construction management platforms that include multiple software tools is that all tools are in one location that is easy to maneuver, leading to less software exhaustion, says James Norris, director of virtual design and construction for The Beck Group, a member of multiple AGC chapters. “A platform like Procore is a basic requirement, then we push capabilities further with other tools,” he says. “The first to use advanced tools will have a competitive edge in our industry.”

MUST-HAVE TOOLS

Examples of tools that expand communication and coordination include:

  • ClearEdge3D’s Verity

“About 5 to 10 percent of a construction budget represents rework of mistakes,” says Norris. “Verity automatically compares what is in place to what has been designed to identify mistakes before they become expensive problems, which is the difference between making your projected profit or not.”

  • Microsoft HoloLens

Another way to check building models against work performed is the Microsoft HoloLens, a wearable technology that mixes holographic images of plans with the real world image that is seen as the contractor walks around the jobsite. Although the mixed reality technology has been around for years, it wasn’t until a few software firms developed a hard hat solution that allows the “glasses” to be worn with a hard hat — taking advantage of the technology while remaining compliant with safety regulations.

“Synchronizing the HoloLens with the scheduling tool also lets me know if we are on schedule as I walk around a jobsite,” says Norris. “We schedule in 2D but work in 3D, so combining the two into one view gives us a better comparison of what should have been done versus what was done.”

  • BIM Track

“We do our clash detection in Navisworks and send reports to the design team but communicating across a team — internal or external — can be difficult when they use other design tools,” says Norris. “BIM Track allows everyone — architects, designers, engineers, subcontractors and contractors — to see clashes in most software they use, such as Revit or other authoring software used to develop building models.”

THE WHOLE PICTURE

With all of the construction-related technology solutions available, it is important to look at software technology needs holistically, says Marcel Broekmaat, director of project management at Trimble. For example, a drone that uses photogrammetry, 3D scanning and IoT [Internet of Things] capabilities to communicate with other applications can be valuable for some projects, he says. “However, does it add value to the planning process?” he asks. “If the technology creates a knowledge that leads to a more constructible, safe, cost-effective project, it adds value.”

Gray took a close look at the company’s technology ecosystem this year to determine what tools were being used and how effectively they worked. “Any tool that enhances collaboration with the customer or improves communications among the team is critical to future success, but we have to make sure the technology solves the problem you need solved,” says Jones. For example, predictive analytics can help you become more efficient and reduce risk, which helps you do more with less — a solution to the tightening labor market, he explains.

An added advantage of increasing the use of technology is the workforce challenges in the construction industry, says Broekmaat. “We have a problem attracting new talent and when we do, it takes longer to bring them on board if the tools they need to support them are not available,” he says.

When Trimble ran an experiment to compare the decision-making ability of experienced members of a construction team and younger, less-experienced members, there were some interesting results. “We asked both groups to use traditional tools — spreadsheets and pdfs — and to use BIM so we could compare decisions reached,” says Broekmaat. “More experienced contractors made good decisions based on traditional tools while those with fewer than 10 years in the industry made their best decisions with BIM.” As the construction industry workforce ages and retires, providing tools that help younger employees do their jobs better will become even more important to attract and retain employees, he adds.

As construction companies look at adopting more robust technology, it is important to look at BIM as the foundation, says Jones. “We need to get the use of BIM to 100 percent, which opens up the opportunities to add more technologies,” he says. Tools that allow contractors to compare photos of work done to the model to check quality, evaluate material quantities and deliveries to keep a project on schedule, and a digital audit that can be shared with subcontractors to keep everyone on track, build on the value of BIM, he says. “In the future, we’ll be able to meet with customers in a virtual setting to tour part of the facility under construction.”