Software for the digital clipboard

August 11, 2010

Like nearly every other industry, construction has benefited greatly from the development of personal computers. But unlike many industries, much of what constitutes construction is field-based. And that, quite often, is where construction professionals say goodbye to their computers.

Most architects still use paper and pencil when they go on site to inspect ongoing construction and to ensure that contractors are following the plans and specifications. As a result, it may take days, even weeks, for vital information about deficient work to be transcribed from field documents into digital form and then disseminated to the builders, which causes delays. In addition, most safety inspections on construction sites are still done manually, using reams of paper that all too often get lost or misplaced.

While a group of hardware manufacturers has been going gangbusters for more than a decade developing better tablet PCs (see “Tablet PCs are finally poised to make their mark,”, the challenge for the Building Team has been finding design and construction software programs to meet their application needs.

Burlington, Mass.-based Vela Systems is hoping to change that with its suite of mobile software designed for commercial contracting and construction management work. The company offers software modules for a variety of job site tasks, including materials tracking, field repairs, punch lists, and safety inspections. Noteworthy recent users of Vela Systems tablet PC software include:

Gensler, which used Vela’s mobile field administration software on the Gaylord National in Washington, D.C., the largest hotel and convention construction project on the East Coast. With instant access to more than 3,000 drawings while on the site, inspection time for each of Gaylord National’s 2,000 rooms was cut from one hour to just 20 minutes. Principal Don Ghent says his firm was able to save the equivalent of 150 person days during the construction.

• New England construction management firm William A. Berry & Son, which has been using the Vela Safety Inspection Module on more than 40 projects across the globe, including the ongoing Fenway Park renovations. Inspectors complete a specialized checklist electronically and then, if issues are found, reference the related OSHA specification in the field with simple drop-down boxes. Throughout the process, the software automatically creates an auditable paper trail to help protect against lawsuits.

• Boston-based Suffolk Construction used Vela software to streamline work list, punch list, and other field processes on the conversion of a Boston jail into the four-star Liberty Hotel earlier this year. Instead of making field notes on site on paper floor plans, then copying and distributing copies of the marked-up paper plans, project superintendents annotated the electronic version of the plans and sent them to all job participants. This cut in half the time it takes to accomplish the task, according to Suffolk.

Design software and more

After three years of development, groundbreakingly simple design software SketchUp from @Last Software of Boulder, Colo., was purchased by Google in 2006. While the software creates 3D models of complex geometry with variable levels of detail, flexible dimensioning, and text controls, SketchUp Pro v.6 includes LayOut, a tool for creating and sharing professional presentations made from SketchUp models—perfect for job site tablet PC applications. LayOut can place, arrange, title, and annotate SketchUp models, photos, and other design elements to assemble presentation graphics and design documentation for print and screen.

Not to be omitted, CAD heavyweight Autodesk is now offering for the tablet PC market its latest version of SketchBook, called Sketchbook Pro 2009. SketchBook Pro features an artist-friendly, gesture-based interface that translates technology and functionality into a natural drawing experience. A flick of the stylus gives users access to fast, reactive pencils, markers and brushes, pen-driven layers; background templates; a 30-brushstroke “undo/redo” option; and a unique pan/zoom tool.


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