A Mobile Construct
May 2003 - By Marianne Cotter


To the casual observer, a construction site today looks much as it did 10 or 15 years ago: men on the move with large equipment, hand tools and walkie-talkies. But take a closer look. What looks like yesterday’s walkie-talkie may actually be a sophisticated, ruggedized, wireless device that combines voice and data capabilities to communicate with scores of subcontractors while downloading payroll data and completing safety checks.

What industry is a better candidate for mobile technology than construction? What looks like a lot of grunt work is actually a highly coordinated dance of entrances and exits as materials arrive and workers attend to their tasks, preparing the stage for the next set of props and performers. Any misstep must be resolved quickly before the music stops … because in the construction industry, music is momentum and momentum is money.

The project manager is responsible for scheduling labor and materials. On a residential project he may be responsible for 15 homes spread over a distance of several miles, while for a commercial project he may manage a nine-story building with 130,000 square feet on each floor—all while coordinating the work of 20 subcontractors and communicating with architects and engineers. He is also responsible for the payroll and safety of his workers. Most importantly, he needs to be on top of communications and paperwork while maintaining a physical presence on the site.

When technology began revolutionizing the construction industry in the 1990s, there was a push to wire desktop computers into construction trailers. This resulted in better data and improved communications but required too much trailer-bound supervisory time at the expense of the site. Today the drive is to move technology—and thus, supervisors—out of the trailer by equipping them with mobile technology that brings greater accuracy and efficiency to project management.

Spackling the Seams

Subcontractors are seldom known for technological innovation beyond cellphones, but Magnum Drywall in Freemont, Calif., is the exception. While shopping for cellphones and a wireless provider for foremen to use on site, Shannon Kennemore, Magnum’s controller, was impressed with Nextel’s data capabilities. From there she found a GPS time-tracking application from Mountain View, Calif.-based Xora that would run on the mobile phones and began to see her payroll nightmares fading away.

“Xora’s GPSTimeTrack is an inexpensive, wireless, hosted service,” says Kennemore, “that allows the foreman to clock in workers on his Nextel phone as they arrive on the site and clock them out when they leave.” The GPS capability pinpoints exactly where the worker is and wirelessly transmits the information to Xora’s Website, from which it is downloaded into Magnum’s payroll system.

Magnum chose the Nextel i58 phone, manufactured by Motorola. “Nextel has several phones with GPS capability,” says Kennemore, “but we chose the i58 because it’s a military-spec phone that is ruggedized for the foremen in the field.”

Productivity is tremendously important to Magnum, which provides drywall expertise to contractors on commercial projects. With anywhere from 150 to 1,200 employees working on multiple job sites at any given time, completing timely, accurate payroll records was a constant challenge for both the foremen on site and the payroll clerks in the office.

“We used to have timesheets faxed to us weekly,” says Kennemore. “And then our payroll clerk would have to input the data into our system. Now the foreman punches people in and out and the data comes to us wirelessly in real time. Even if the foreman is in the concrete basement of a building—which happens all the time—he can hit the button and as soon as he steps outside the building it transmits the information to us.” The payroll clerk quality checks the data on the Xora Website and then imports it into Magnum’s Timeberline software.

The foreman opens the communication channel each day when he arrives on the site by entering his ID number and his job number. From that point the GPS receiver in the phone pinpoints his location as he checks workers in and out. At the end of his shift he punches in his ID number again, then enters the two-digit cost code and the day’s productivity is calculated.

“In the office we can go to the Website, click on any employee and receive his location when he punched in, then it updates his location every hour,” says Kennemore. “We can get updates more frequently than every hour, but all we really want to know is where they are when they’re punching in and punching out.”

In addition to payroll processes, Magnum is now able to track productivity in the field on a daily basis. “We can see how much is getting done on each job every day and we immediately know if there’s too much cost going into it,” says Kennemore. “We can see if there are too many guys working too many hours and not getting enough done.”

Magnum began its implementation on a limited basis to make sure the foremen knew how to operate the units and to verify the accuracy of the incoming data. They found that accuracy was not a problem. Magnum kept time cards for two months and then phased them out completely. Kennemore reports that ROI was achieved almost immediately.

Building Benefits

The first time Andy Bell, CEO of Webcor Builders in San Mateo, Calif., held a Palm Pilot in his hand, it was love at first sight. “I’ve had them all,” he admits.

“I never forced them on employees, but they saw me using them and began buying their own.” Today every salaried employee at Webcor is issued a laptop, a mobile phone and a Palm device. “We have hundreds of them in the company now,” he says.

Unlike most companies in the construction industry, Webcor has been aggressively developing its own custom applications like time card, contact list and safety checklist. All applications are written to support wireless connections as well as desktop synchronization.

Webcor recently rolled out its time card application. “Everyone’s time card can either be synced or wirelessly downloaded [depending on the Palm model or the connectivity status of the site] into the database,” says Webcor CIO Greg Davis. “We have a custom application that keeps track of where everyone is in the company. We have about 30 different sites where we need to locate people.”

The time card software solves many problems at once. “We had supervisors in the field who spent their entire Fridays trying to remember what happened during the week,” says Davis. “Now when someone goes home sick the super clocks him out immediately. As a result, time cards are done completely and
accurately on the fly everyday. It saves us a tremendous amount of time and increases our accuracy.”

The custom wireless application that Webcor has implemented most widely is its safety checklist application. The old process required someone to walk the site at the end of the day, filling out a paper checklist that included items such as the proper covering of trenches, fencing, storage of ladders and equipment and shoring. “The finished checklist would be faxed back to the office and filed,” says CIO Greg Davis. “But there would be no analysis, no interpretation. Now the inspections are done on the Palm, and the information is transmitted wirelessly back to the office and into a database. We can run reports and pick up trends such as whether certain subcontractors may be committing the same safety violations at different jobs sites, which we never spotted before because no one knew what was going on at other sites. We can now easily see if a particular subcontractor is leaving trenches open at more than one site and we can address the issue. Our concern is trends in safety violations that will lead to improved safety, which is our number one concern for our employees, our crews and the people walking on the street near our job sites.”

Like most construction companies, Webcor has had to lead its contractors toward the adoption of current solutions. “Subs generally have not embraced the new wireless technologies,” says Bell. “Two years ago we issued minimum standards for our subcontractors—things like getting real e-mail at their own domain name instead of Yahoo!, being able to communicate electronically over a broadband connection to download drawings and specifications and to have the hardware and software to collaborate with the team through the Internet. We used to send out a lot of paperwork, but now we tell them they have to receive it electronically or they won’t be eligible for the job.”

But even Webcor, with all this technical savvy, is waiting for the next great thing. “Most of our employees carry both a cellphone and a Palm,” says Bell. “We’re looking forward to the day when Palm comes up with a device that does both well.”

No Place Like Home

Ryland Homes is one of the largest builders of residential communities in the U.S. Its corporate headquarters is located in Scottsdale, Ariz., but each regional division has the freedom to implement its own solutions. Michael Linert, who heads up IT in Dallas, has adopted a Palm-based project management software application from Primavera, a developer in Bala Cynwyd, Pa.

While Primavera has a wireless version and offers to host the application, Linert has chosen to mange the software in-house and have supervisors synchronize from the on-site sales offices. “I have so many outlying communities where wireless data and cellphone connections are not reliable,” says Linert, “that I decided to stick with the existing broadband connections in the sales offices. Right now we’re syncing once or twice a week.”

Linert describes the project management process as follows: “Every house is a project for us and every step in building that house is called an activity. We have a laundry list of activities that need to be completed.” Ryland foremen walk through a house and check off activities as they are completed, then sync those changes to the corporate server.

“The activities that have changed are extracted and the related purchase orders are fed into our J.D. Edwards accounting package,” Linert continues. “In the future we’ll set up auto-pay for the contractors, subcontractors and other vendors who have sent purchase orders to be paid. It cuts the builders’ paperwork and uses their time more efficiently. That’s a major benefit.”

In the Dallas area, Ryland commonly boasts approximately 700 homes in varying stages of being built. Each builder has 10 to 15, maybe as many as 20, homes to supervise, and uses a Palm running Primavera as a project management tool. “This tool has allowed us to focus on the steps of building a house and the logistics of getting all the vendors in the right place at the right time to reduce our cycle time,” Linnert explains.

Primavera has a payroll feature that Ryland has not yet implemented. “Down the road when we’ve seen the efficiencies we’ve invested in now,” says Linert, “we’ll start to leverage more out of the software applications.”

Constructing Connections

Headquartered in Dallas, Turner Construction is one of the largest commercial builders in the U.S. With approximately 5,000 employees, Turner builds schools, hospitals, hotels, airports, office buildings and large venues such as the San Diego Convention Center.

When looking for a mobile solution, Turner needed to accomplish several goals. “First, we were looking for wireless communications because we don’t have phones on job sites,” says CIO Doug Nies. “We also wanted to combine the cellphone and walkie-talkie into a single device. And the other very important priority was the ability to collaborate in real time.”

Neis found what he was looking for with Motorola phones running on Nextel network with the proprietary Direct Connect feature, which allows users to push a button for instant access to other Nextel users. Each user has a PIN, which can be programmed into the phone and organized into groups, allowing “conference calls” between many people working on the same project. In this way Turner was able to achieve on-site, real-time collaboration.

“For example, if it looks like a door is going in the wrong place, the project manager can call the architect using Direct Connect,” says Nies, “ ask if a change was made and then bring the subcontractor into the call to coordinate the change.”

Turner project manager Tom Kempen uses Direct Connect everyday and is pleased with the ease of collaboration. “It works walkie-talkie style,” says Kempen. “You push a button to talk and let it up to listen. Only one person can talk at a time.” He credits Direct Connect with enabling him to solve problems that would otherwise hold up the work. “Often a delivery comes for a subcontractor who is not available,” he says. “The general contractor doesn’t want to accept delivery, nor does he want to refuse it because it may mean waiting another day. He can call the sub and tell him to get over to the loading dock and accept the delivery, which keeps the project moving.”

Recently Kempen completed two middle schools in Briscoe, Texas. The two schools were mirror images of each other, several miles apart, and were under construction simultaneously. “There were 45 contactors,” says Kempem, “and of the 45, 30 were the same for both schools. The supervisors at each school used Direct Connect to call each other during the day and say, ‘Hey, I have this guy over here today. Do you need him over at your school when he’s done?’ That was a big plus.”

Turner relies so heavily on Direct Connect that it requires its subcontractors to use it as well. Kempen finds that they quickly see the advantages and get on board. In the case of architects and
engineers, Turner will provide them with a phone to use during the project. “The only problem we have with subcontractors,” says Kempen, “is when their office is out of the Nextel calling area.”

That problem will be solved by the third quarter of this year when all Nextel customers will have access to Nextel’s national network. Any Nextel user will be able to use the Direct Connect feature to instantly connect with anyone on Nextel’s national network, regardless of the senders’ or receivers’ locations.

Nextel has other features that Turner has yet to implement, including text messaging payroll, scheduling and more. Turner plans to continue to leverage the phone’s capabilities. “Our next step is to do more collaboration using the Internet capabilities,” says Neis.

“Virtual Trailering”

By developing its own Palm applications, Webcor is becoming a constructioncompany with a powerful technology card in its marketing hand.

While most construction companies are happy to adopt commercial applications, Webcor busily develops its own custom solutions to optimize communications between the office, clients, contractors and its many on-site workers. These custom applications (timecard, employee contact list, and a safety checklist application) are used along with a number of commercial applications (Meridian’s Prolog Manager, Timberline Gold Collection, Primavera SureTrak, Mircosoft Office) as part of an aggressive technology program. This program, in turn, is actively marketed to prospective clients.

This innovative spirit was propelled by CEO Andy Bell’s love affair with the Palm Pilot and by his desire to liberate technology from the trailer. “We spent the ’90s trying to get people to use computers [at job sites],” says Bell, “which meant computers and fax machines in the trailer. Being successful in that, we found that people were spending too much time in the trailer. So now we are using smaller handheld devices and wireless technology to get them out of the trailer.”

Webcor uses scanners to replace fax machines in the trailer. They combine these innovations into the term “Virtual Trailering.”
Understanding the value of communications with its clients, Webcor extracts marketing value from its technology as a marketing tool. Go to www.webcor.com, click on Webcor Technology and an interactive flowchart entitled [email protected] details the construction process.

Each step links to a description of the technology used to enable the operation. This level of sophistication is a sign of efficiency to the client.

Webcor is always focused on the next technology breakthrough, especially on the wireless front. “Wireless technology is going to be available for the first time this year at broadband speeds,” says Bell. “We will have a wonderful opportunity to transmit data at a really useful speed.”—M.C.

Product Information
Xora - Xora GPS Timetrack
Mountain View, Calif. www.xora.com
In addition to Xora GPS Timetrack, Xora provides mobile CRM solutions for field service, sales and wireless Email/PIM.

Primavera Systems - Primavera Expedition
Bala Cynwyd, Penn. www.primavera.com
Primavera has developed a set of solutions for the construction industry, including Primavera P3e/c for Construction, Primavera Enterprise, Primavera Expedition, PrimeContract, Primavera Project Planner and SureTrack Project Manager.

Descriptions of these products
can be found at: www.primavera.com/solutions/construction.html

Nextel - Direct Connect
Reston, Va. www.nextel.com
In addition to Direct Connect, Nextel partners with many third-party
technology companies to provide point solutions for the construction and building trades. For example, AirHours by AirPut allows field managers to enter and review employee and project information, eliminating timesheets and other manual entry tasks. ConstructWorks allows contractors to get building permits via their Nextel phone.

For a complete list of these applications, go to:
www.nextel.com/about/enterprise/wbs/building_construction.shtml

Marianne Cotter is a freelance writer based in Southern California.

 


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