Communications and Technology

Communications and Technology

Like most businesses, the construction industry continues to undergo significant technology transformations. Internet and digital applications, along with wireless systems, are influencing the entire industry – from project planning, design and materials procurement to coordinating operations on the worksite.

For an industry that in the end relies on hands-on skills and workers who don't mind hard labor, contractors, business owners and management personnel have access to hundreds of computer programs to make life easier.

The following list describes several categories of software that specifically target the construction industry. Keep in mind, though, most experts stress that inter-program compatibility is key for optimal value.

Pre-integrated business applications. Software firms are designing programs that allow even small business owners to maintain full control of every phase of a project. Some of the more comprehensive products include tools for proposal drafting, choosing subcontractors and suppliers, managing project execution, achieving consistent forecasts and streamlining revenue collection.

CAD and CAL. CAL (Computer Automated Layout) programs supplement traditional CAD (Computer Automated Design) software. CAL provides the additional ability to interpret and print the wall-framing layout for any structure – including placement, dimensions and measurements of framing components – onto a rolled tape, according to the blueprints, for direct transfer to the wall plates.

Trade/subject-specific applications. A number of software packages are tailor-made for various specialists, such as commercial builders, HVAC contractors, plumbers, electricians and masons, to name a few. While some stick to completing the job, others also include project management capabilities. Narrower programs focus on building codes, calculations, legal issues, energy design, estimates and other construction-related topics.

Lasers have become increasingly prevalent in the field, especially for large-scale commercial contracts. Besides facilitating processes such as leveling, plumbing, squaring and aligning, lasers also have applications in pipe installation and excavation. For safety purposes, construction lasers are low power, and accuracy may fluctuate among models. Read the manufacturer specifications with care, and go for equipment with leveling accuracies measured in arc-seconds.

Ruggedized Devices

Information may be power, but only if your device can provide it when you need it. Because construction managers and workers need durability as well as mobility, a growing number of ruggedized communications devices have been developed to survive the harsh conditions and rough treatment they'll experience on most job sites.

A number of laptops, mobile phones and tablet PCs with integrated wireless capabilities have been designed to operate outdoors, and to survive routine bumps, bruises and falls that would send plastic consumer-grade devices in for repairs.

Panasonic's Toughbook line of laptops and tablets have long been popular with the construction trade, law enforcement, the military and other users who demand durability.

For mobile handsets, Motorola and Casio both offer devices that meet military specifications for durability and performance, and some offer slide-out QWERTY keyboards so you can respond to email or text messages from the field. Most also offer GPS navigation, so you can get to the worksite easily.

Rugged phones are typically wrapped in high-impact plastic and rubber, so they can survive drops and resist water and grit. They may not look stylish or play the latest animated games, but they're designed to perform effectively under difficult conditions.

Other ruggedized tech devices aimed at construction crews include still and video cameras, multimedia players and radios.

On Time, On Track

To prevent costly delays, construction management requires allocating time, crews and materials efficiently, and a variety of mobile solutions have been developed to help construction firms keep everyone informed and on schedule.

Mobile broadband and project management tools can help companies manage schedules, distribute changes to project plans, coordinate crews and subcontractors, and keep track of the many punch list items that must be completed before a project can be wrapped up successfully.

Advanced mobile handsets offer push-to-talk communications, email, text and picture messaging, and other tools to keep people up-to-date and to answer emerging jobsite issues.

Some construction firms use live video conferencing and collaboration tools to bring supervisors, managers, architects, clients and other people together for updates and issue resolution.

Field force management apps help supervisors manage crew schedules, keep track of when workers clock in and out, and monitor labor costs as a job progresses.

Leading mobile apps include PlanGrid, ConstructionHelper, BuildCalc, Green Pro and SmartBidNet. Most offer a blend of field service automation, work order management, project tracking and other functions.

GPS Grade Control System

Equipped with a small screen, GPS grade control systems let those conducting earthmoving and fine grading view the design in the cab as they work. More advanced versions of these devices use 3D displays and compare the blade position to a digital site plan. The device then signals the worker to raise or lower the blade based on the design requirements.

Certain versions of GPS grade control systems let workers create flat, single and dual sloping planar designs (roads, highways, driveways) right at the job site. More technical designs can be uploaded to the device after creation with a flash memory card. By literally drawing out the plan for the machine operator, these systems decrease – if not eliminate altogether – time spent phoning the main office for related project information.

Fleet Tracking Systems

In the construction industry, a business is only as capable as its machinery. Using wireless communication devices to pinpoint the location and operation status of each machine can help increase productivity and diminish excess costs.

Fleet tracking systems, which pair the GPS technology with wireless communications, let construction firms keep a close eye on machinery and coordinate crews. Specifically, owners can use this service – along with smartphones, laptops or other portable devices with Internet access – to view the exact location of a vehicle, determine if the vehicle's ignition is currently running, locate travel direction, road speed and more.

Some advanced fleet tracking software also sends automatic alerts and updates via email or smartphone. This includes engine-hour reports, special condition alerts (temperature or oil pressure, for example), stop and idle time reports, boundary alerts (if vehicle goes beyond allowed limits) and more.

In turn, more and more construction companies are using fleet tracking technology to help improve equipment utilization, combat theft, cut back on fuel usage, better predict maintenance and set up more practical field logistics.