The last few years have seen an avalanche of mobile field-technology options that promise to help construction-industry professionals address job-site needs. Many mobile tech solutions, however, have been under-utilised, with some never having been rolled out, according to Aiden Dalley, product marketing manager for software firm Viewpoint.

A variety of factors contribute to underutilisation, Dalley said, including the following:

  • BYOD, meaning the software requires users to bring their own devices, regardless of the operating system, such as IOS, Android, or Windows 10.
  • Off-line capability, or lack thereof, as construction sites don’t always have connectivity. Store and forward capabilities are needed.
  • Inadequate flexibility, which facilitates easy adaptation to each company’s specific field forms and workflows.
  • Sketchy integration with ERP, or enterprise resource planning, which enables data flows with appropriate approval layers and without re-keying.
  • Lack of a solid training and implementation program for field workforces.

Mobile technology, once the domain of early-adopters and outliers, is now mainstream, thanks to improving connectivity and mobile device computing power. Mid-level firms that just a few years ago could delay the adoption of mobile technology must now make a substantial investment just to keep up with their competition. Ordinary tasks that utilise mobile technology, such as project management, offer substantial advantages in real time over legacy approaches.

In addition, utilisation of technology offers substantial benefits for the entire AEC sector. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, the Australian construction industry is “a serial productivity underperformer.” Boosting the sector’s productivity by just one per cent would bring $1.25 billion in benefits.

A US survey highlights the trends for mobile tech usage in the construction industry. According to the survey:

  • Firms using more than five mobile business apps hit 36 per cent, while firms using more than 10 mobile business apps reached 23 per cent.
  • Most-used mobile apps were inspections at 61 per cent, work orders at 49 per cent, and checklists at 31 per cent.
  • Popular features were signature capture at 64 per cent, and image capture at 60 per cent.
  • Construction firms see value in integration, with 69 per cent favoring integrating core business applications such as Quickbook, Salesforce, Square and Dropbox.

Dalley offered a few tips for construction firms looking to adopt mobile field technology. First, the systems must be “platform agnostic,” or compatible with all common platforms.

“If a company goes shopping for mobile devices, it really needs to be available on all platforms. If you’re an IOS house, and you buy a punchlist management tool that’s only available on IOS, and then your subcontractors use Windows or Android, well, that’s bad,” he noted.

Integration of functions is also crucial, Dalley said, with the ideal scenario being the ability to capture all your field processes in a single tool.

In comparison, with a stand-alone app, Dalley said, “what you’re missing out on is having all the information pulled together in order that you can draw out actionable insights by looking at all your data across projects and across workflows, and you really can’t do that when you have all these disparate little systems.”

For example, firms may purchase a punchlist app, a daily logs app, and a defects app.

“They have a lot of information, which is stored in various databases,” Dalley said, noting that this can lead back-office people to “hack integration together by exporting data and trying to build spreadsheets. It’s time-consuming and it doesn’t work because it’s not apples to apples.”

Furthermore, stand-alone programs lack accounting integration, which can offer powerful time-savings by automatically providing updated costs, projections and budgets in the case of, for instance, a change order.

Enterprise resource planning, or ERP, is another vital function in mobile field-tech, enabling information management across the entire organisation, from the crew in the field to the CEO to subcontractors. Integrated mobile technology offers the field crew the functionality they can use on mobile devices, while providing the office staff with increased options.

“Mobile is great, and you want to be out in the field collecting that data on a mobile device, but you don’t necessarily want to be reviewing it in the back office on a mobile device,” Dalley noted.

The project management team, for example, Dalley said, needs more features and functionality than mobile may readily provide as they look to analyse collected data, and draw actionable insights from it.

Mobile technology for field crews also keeps them abreast of changes, such as getting copies of updated drawings.

“You really want to make sure that what is being built is built on the latest drawings,” Dalley said. “So it’s very important that when a revision is made, a new drawing is being pushed out to your project management team, your foreman, your superintendent.”

Mobile technology also captures a wealth of data that’s useful for tracking purposes, such as employee start and stop times and equipment utilisation. This ties both workers and equipment to a specific project to better provide a true accounting of the project’s cost.

“Construction margins are very very thin, so if you’re not properly tying your employees and equipment to a project, you could think you’re making money when you’re really not,” Dalley said.

That functionality also aids a firm’s bidding process, allowing companies to understand their true costs for carrying out a job and giving them information to either bid competitively or, in some cases, not bid at all if they risk losing money.

“You’re never going to have that without systems in the field to capture that data, and having that data integrate with your accounting system, with payroll, and so on,” Dalley said.

After the building is complete, mobile tech can help the field crews manage the close-out phase of the project. Take, for instance, a case where a project has a minor flaw such as a broken door handle. The foreman can, using just a tablet, take a photo of the door showing the broken handle, then annotate the photo with the location. The door will appear on the plan showing the location, and then the foreman can assign the task to someone, including subcontractors. The team responsible for the fix sees that they have a task, and it gets done. When it’s fixed, the sub can note that as well, and show that it’s ready for inspection. Following that, the project management team can evaluate how quickly the repair was made, helping to evaluate the subcontractors and hire smarter.