Mobile Field Software

A Revolution in Construction Field Work Explained

August 11, 2010

Using mobile devices and software in the field is not a new development for the business world. Package delivery drivers no longer carry packing slips that customers need to sign, but instead track packages and have recipients write their names with a digital pen on handheld devices. Returning a rental car also has become paperless in the past few years. Car rental employees log vehicles back in using mobile devices.

The construction industry could benefit greatly from the automation and digitalization of work in the field. In a paper-based system, information gathered in the field on substandard work, safety issues or progress on punch lists may take days or weeks to be aggregated into a computer system or a master paper document. This can result in costly delays and possible transcription errors. Just as problematic, however, is the lack of visibility that construction managers and executives have into the status of work in the field. Millions of dollars in shoddy work, for example, may not be discovered until after subcontractors have left a job, leaving the general contractor to clean up the mess and attempt to collect from the subcontractors after the fact. Even worse, information may get lost in the shuffle and the substandard work may never be repaired unless it is discovered by the owner, which could result in costly and embarrassing litigation.

Manhattan Construction, a more than 100-year-old international construction company based in Tulsa, OK, is one of a growing number of pioneering firms that are now applying these mobile technologies to the field. Manhattan is using mobile software installed on Tablet PCs on a project to build the largest enclosed football stadium in the United States.

Building the new Dallas Cowboys stadium, is a large, complex undertaking with numerous subcontracors. The dome alone will be the world's biggest and features supporting trusses nearly one-quarter mile across. For this project, Manhattan wanted to employ mobile software that could help the organization understand the status of construction in the field in nearly real time.

Manhattan expects this technology will allow it to create a map of where issues exist in the field and how to best handle them. In this way, the company expects to gain more efficient communications while reducing its administrative costs in delivering what will be a world-renowned stadium.

These benefits have been achieved by similar firms. Skanska USA, for example, expects to save $1 million through the use of field software to track concrete pre-cast pieces, and Charleville Development of Miami was able to accelerate the schedule by at least 30 days on a $56-million luxury hotel and condominium project.

The construction industry has only just begun to adopt mobile technologies in the field. And there's good reason for that. Until recently, solutions had not been developed that could meet all the requirements that the AECO (architecture, engineering, contractor and owner) industry had for field technologies.

In the past, PDAs and other handheld devices had screens that were much too small for viewing highly detailed site plans.

A person had to sit or prop a laptop in a comfortable posisiton to use the keyboard, too many devices depended on constant Internet connectivity and lacked long-lasting batteries.

In the past couple of years, however, solutions have entered the market that meet these needs. This new type of software works on any standard PC, but is usually installed on a rugged Tablet PC with a long battery life, so that those on a work site can make notes using a specialized pen right on the screen, just as they would on a paper document. While on site, people can also update punch lists and insert virtual pushpins onto construction drawings to mark locations of issues that need to be resolved.

As many are quickly learning, these Tablet PCs are doing much more than replacing paper. In many cases, field personnel are replacing their laptops, desktops and PDAs with this single device, as the Tablet PC allows them to work seamlessly between the office and the field.

Furthermore, this new field management software works very well with the long-range, high-speed wireless data services now offered by many cellular providers, and it does not require a constant Internet connection to work in the field because it can operate in an “occasionally connected” mode. When users get back to their trailer or to the office, they can synch all the new information with the central database, which ensures all parties get updated quickly and can work on tasks immediately with the most recent details available. And because data is gathered on site, and not entered manually into a system “back at the office,” transposition errors are eliminated.

Mobile field technologies may have been a long time coming to the AECO industry, but now that powerful, rugged, usable solutions are on the market, companies are adopting them rapidly. Like package delivery and many other industries, the AECO industry will soon be using technology instead of paper in the field.

Author Information
Josh Kanner is co-founder and vice president of marketing for Vela Systems, a mobile field software company for the AECO industry based in Burlington, MA. For more information on Vela Systems, please visit www.velasystems.com.
         
 

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