A firestorm erupted recently in the computer community when the Harvard Business Review published "I.T. Doesn't Matter," in which Nicolas Carr asserted that information technology was now a given in corporate infrastructure, like plumbing. Critics countered that Carr ignored a basic computing truth: that the successful implementation of IT, especially application software, is a key strategic activity that greatly influences a company's bottom line.
For design or construction companies, this hardware-versus-software debate is most pronounced in the handheld computer market. Since the first Palm Pilot was introduced five years ago, a steady stream of new hardware, featuring more memory, faster processors, better screens, increased durability, even built-in cameras, has been introduced.
Yet the devices are hardly ubiquitous. That fact keeps potential users guessing what the next big thing will be.
Realistically, handheld computers in construction are growing at an evolutionary, not revolutionary, pace. But the seeds of growth are starting to sprout.
Finding good "apps" for handhelds isn't as straightforward as for project management, estimating, or CAD. Most software vendors for handhelds are small firms, and some target only the residential homebuilder.
To counter the Carr argument, Kamel S. Saidi, Carl T. Haas, and Nicole A. Balli, of the civil engineering department at the University of Texas, Austin, point to several areas where handheld software can make a difference in engineered construction.
The researchers say punchlisting on handhelds works because the information needed is typically collected into a form. Punchlisting also is cyclical: It may occur repeatedly throughout the project, and some items may be relisted on the punchlist if not satisfactorily completed. They report that using handhelds can cut punchlist processing time up to 46%.
The Automated Punchlist System, from Onsyss Mobile Systems, Casa, Alaska, has been used by Framingham, Mass.-based Perini Building Co. recently to help deliver an $870-million, 4.9-million-square-foot expansion to the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Conn.
According to Gary Havas, punchlist coordinator on the project, the system cut his 60 hours a week on punch activities by a factor of four. "Being able to sort the punchlist electronically by area or subcontractor into a customizable, typed list is a great boon," he says.
Perini faxed computer-generated customized punchlists to about 30 subcontractors on a regular basis. They were also able to capture roughly 21,000 punch items using the software, with up to seven handhelds simultaneously collecting punch items.
Another strong entry here is PocketPunch, from Aktera Development Systems, Naples, Fla. It runs on Windows CE devices and can wirelessly share construction data with Microsoft databases. Data sharing is enhanced because the program is organized according to the common Master Format developed by the Construction Specifications Institute.
PocketPunch's synchronization feature allows "live" punch data to be shared with subcontractors via the Web, e-mail, fax, or paper. Multiple punch lists can be handled at once for different floors or different projects. The system can be set up to broadcast faxes or emails whenever punch data is changed.
Project management vendor Primavera Systems, Bala Cynwyd, Pa., has had its Mobile Manager handheld program available for over a year, as has Folsom, Calif.-based Meridian Project Systems, with its Prolog Pocket. While both offer a peek at some of the data generated by their big-brother systems P3 and Prolog, punchlist data is a strong component of what they help users manage.
Having to search for the right tools and materials wastes time and money on a job. At a time when late penalties are getting increasingly stiff, a good materials tracking system can quickly pay for itself many times over.
The UT researchers point to the elimination of handwritten notes and less reliance on human memory as key benefits of handhelds. Their report states that utilizing a handheld materials tracking system could save up to 95% in time by eliminating nine elementary tasks.
Waterwheel Software, Los Altos, Calif., claims that its Tracker 7 software cuts wasted time "looking for stuff." User Stanley Beck, of the MCC Group, Metairie, La., says: "The jobs know that we can show them what they are expected to have on their job, and they then do a much better job of taking care of the tools and equipment."
This inventory, tool-tracking, and barcode software has integration tools to let it share data with popular accounting programs such as Timberline Gold Extended. It features a modular tool-tracking system for mid-size to large construction companies. A crib-tracking module lets you check out tools to workers in the morning and check them back in at day's end.
"We tracked tools and equipment by paper before, and this is so much faster," says Curt Cusack, of Dan Vos Construction, Ada, Minn. "It gives us quick access to our history and the tools and equipment locations. You can do a report quickly and then print it."
One last use of handheld software is for tracking billable hours in A/E/C. Bill-Quick CE, from BQE Software, Lomita, Calif., fits the needs of architects, engineers, and contractors requiring billing based upon criteria such as fixed fee, time and expense, hourly billing, hourly billing with a "not to exceed" amount, and contractual billing based upon percentage or progress payments of a fixed fee. It also accommodates project phasing and billing against retainers. Users track time and expenses and create in-depth analysis reports to track project and office profitability.