March 23, 2006



March 1, 2006

Strategy: Laying the Groundwork

Push-to-talk’s steady foundation in construction is ready to support all the growth to come. --By William Gillis
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Not every construction project is as complex and challenging as a 50-story skyscraper, but even building a single residential home requires a whole lot of hard work, cooperation and, perhaps most important, communication. A single small-scale project may involve a building owner, a contractor, multiple subcontractors and multiple building inspectors.

Tony Meadow, president of Oakland, Calif.–based Bear River Associates, a provider of enterprise information solutions, says that it is extremely challenging to deliver IT solutions to the construction industry. “First of all, the market is complex,” Meadow says. “There are the owners, the prime contractors and the subcontractors. … There are no consistent standards for the management of data about construction projects.”

How then does the construction supervisor ensure that the building inspector arrives on time at one project, while confirming that the plumber is at work on another project and the electrician is showing up tomorrow? Developers such as Bear River are working to make all this happen, without requiring that supervisor to make hundreds of phone calls. But regardless of what solutions developers can offer the construction industry, one thing is for sure: Construction workers won’t be throwing away their push-to-talk (or PTT) phones any time soon.

Sprint Nextel All the Way
If there is one constant in the construction industry (other than hard hats), it is Sprint Nextel PTT mobile phones. Visit almost any construction site and you’re sure to hear the phones’ familiar chirps. It is no secret that Sprint Nextel has achieved a dominant position in the construction industry. The ease and low price of PTT make it a no-brainer for most contractors and subcontractors. What’s more, Sprint Nextel now offers a ruggedized phone, the i530, which is sure to be a hit with construction workers.

“[Sprint Nextel] has achieved a very dominant position in those parts of vertical business markets where push-to-talk is a valuable tool,” says Alyn Hall, director of wireless research for market research company In-Stat. The consensus among analysts and solution providers is that Sprint Nextel has such a hold on the construction industry that new solutions must work in conjunction with PTT.

“I think the only way for new technology to enter this market is to ride along with a technology that workers are already familiar with, which is cell phones,” says Doug Peters, VP of mobile products for Brookfield, Wisc.–based Penta Technologies, a provider of mobile platforms for construction companies and other enterprises. The attitude among many construction workers, Peters continues, is “I’m not going to carry another device.”

Comstock Brings Everyone Together
Greg Benson, president of Comstock Homebuilding Companies, based in Reston, Va., agrees that the overwhelming majority of people who work at construction sites are using Sprint Nextel PTT phones. Though Comstock is employing other solutions to increase efficiencies for its construction workers and supervisors in the field, Sprint Nextel “doesn’t go away,” Benson says.

Comstock is a 140-employee company that built 700 residential units in 2005 in the Raleigh, N.C., and greater Washington, D.C., markets. In 2000 Comstock went public, and Benson found his company growing quickly but struggling to keep up with that growth. The company’s own financial and scheduling systems, and those systems used by the companies Comstock worked with, could not communicate with each other. So the decision was made to deploy iConnect’s Builders Co-Pilot, a Web-based information portal that keeps everyone—employees, contractors, supervisors and sales staff—on the same page. The solution handles scheduling, workflow, blueprints and house plans, revenue, accounting, vendor information, sales information and even FCC disclosure requirements, essential for a public company.

The system can be accessed on any PC or Tablet PC in the world with a Web connection or on a PDA with Wi-Fi connectivity or connection via a cradle. Vendors can log in through the Web to check project status and confirm scheduled appointments. “No matter where you are, it’s the same screen, the same house plan,” Benson says. “The plumber can know 24/7 where he needs to be. There are no excuses. It’s exactly the same thing, as long as the vendor has Internet access in the back office. You can see where bottlenecks are. It’s a much more collaborative effort, because everyone’s really on the same page.”

Benson says that quantifying actual cost savings can be difficult, but the business benefits are clear:  Back-office duplication is a thing of the past, vendors arrive when and where they are supposed to, and the company is working toward eliminating invoicing, because Builders Co-Pilot can generate reports in place of invoices. And though his workers in the field are still using their Sprint Nextel phones all day, they may be making half as many calls a day, thanks to the improved scheduling that Builders Co-Pilot provides.

Though others in the industry suggest that building mobile applications into PTT phones is the future, Benson takes a different view. “We really try to focus on how people work,” he says. “Some people make assumptions about how people should work. … If you watch people work the way they do, they prefer having a phone separate from a handheld device.”

Upon Closer Inspection
Just as solution providers are working to bring owners, contractors, subcontractors and inspectors together, they are also recognizing the unique needs of certain construction industry workers. For example, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) has thousands of employees responsible for overseeing major construction projects, such as retrofitting the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge for increased stability during an earthquake.

Because of the number and complexity of its projects (some projects require as many as a dozen major contractors), Caltrans inspectors were dealing with a large quantity of data and were having difficulty getting a handle on it.

Caltrans contracted with Bear River to build an enterprise information system that would essentially act as a daily construction diary. The result was the ePeg Construction Diary, which allows inspectors to collect, store and access schedules, budgets and legal project records on handheld devices. “It means that Caltrans has a very complete record of pretty much everything that happens on a project,” Bear River’s Meadow says.

Through ePeg, Caltrans has saved thousands of dollars in claims filed by contractors, says Meadows. He explains that on large construction projects, a contractor might submit a claim for millions of dollars of additional work. Usually, such cases go to arbitration, and unless Caltrans can submit evidence to the contrary, an arbitrator will usually award the contractor at least a portion of its claim. Before ePeg, Caltrans would have to dig through thousands of reports, all of which were handwritten and with no consistency in how the data was organized. Now, Caltrans has accurate, easy-to-access records showing who did what, when and for how long on any given project, as well as what equipment and materials were used. “Should the matter go to arbitration, Caltrans is in better shape, because the contractor doesn’t have as good records,” Meadow says.

Time Saved, Money Earned
The building inspection division of the city of Jacksonville, Fla., works on smaller-scale projects than Caltrans, but it is no less busy. Its 135 employees, including 80 inspectors, serve an 840-square-mile consolidated city and county government jurisdiction.

A year ago, each inspector was required to report to Jacksonville’s City Hall each morning to sign in to a payroll log. The division wanted to do away with this wasted travel time, so last August it deployed Xora’s GPS TimeTrack, which operates on the inspectors’ GPS and Java-enabled phones. The inspectors are now able to record timesheet and job-status data, while the back office can monitor their movements and actions.

C.L. Googe, the administrative assistant principal for the division, says the solution has eliminated 45 minutes of travel time for each employee. He said this time savings is essential, because in 2005 the city saw an increase of 30 to 40 percent in single-family home building compared to 2003. Under the old system, Googe says, the division would have been forced to hire five additional inspectors to handle the increased volume.

Googe says that his division is also considering adding geofencing to its mobile solution. This would allow the division to set specific areas or addresses such as “no go” zones during certain hours of the day. Such location-based services are also the name of the game for Joe Astroth, executive VP of Autodesk Location Services, which has built out location-based services for companies such as Sprint Nextel and is in the process of doing the same for Verizon Wireless. Today, millions of users in the construction industry are fed with Autodesk-generated products, enabling access to blueprints, schematics, billing and order information. With location-based services, Astroth wants to take the construction industry to the next step, so a worker using a ruggedized device could automatically have access to a construction site’s information simply by being there. That same worker would also be able to determine exactly where the electrician is and what time the roofing crew will arrive.

Astroth says that the location-based service Sprint Nextel is offering today is just one more reason it has such a grasp on the construction industry. “[Nextel] really zoned in on that sweet spot,” Astroth says, “that, ‘Where are my workers?’ question just shouted out.”

For those worried about the Big Brother aspect of location-based services, Astroth says Autodesk builds solutions with privacy considerations in mind. He says that a field worker can set when he is locatable based on his work schedule. In other words, if it’s a worker’s day off, his whereabouts are kept private.

Will Sprint Nextel Have Company?
As Astroth makes clear, companies such as Verizon Wireless and Vodafone will be rolling out mobile phones with PTT and location-based services, and they will hope to pry away at least a part of the market that Sprint Nextel has secured so well. The question is whether Sprint Nextel will be savvy enough to hold on to its existing base of business customers. Like Astroth, In-Stat’s Hall believes that location-based services could be a crucial differentiator, but the key might be wireless data capabilities. One challenge to providing solutions for the construction industry is its conservatism, says Hall. “Vertical industries, like construction, are not keen to spend money in technology. They need to see value, so they tend not to be the earliest adopters.”

Bear River’s Meadow also feels there is a cultural obstacle in convincing construction industry decision-makers to adopt mobile technology besides PTT. Many construction companies—especially smaller, mom-and-pop operations, have little to no experience with IT. While PTT may still be king, reducing the amount of time engaged in PTT calls can result in real business benefits and savings. The experiences of Comstock, Caltrans and the City of Jacksonville make that clear.
Autodesk’s Astroth supplies further proof, with a survey his company conducted of small and medium-size businesses that deployed a low-end mobile product, such as location-based functionality. The survey found that the average cost of a mobile worker for such businesses is $85,000 a year, or $7,100 monthly. For those businesses that implemented a low-end mobile solution, Autodesk found a 10 percent improvement in productivity right away, with one additional call a week for each worker “right out of the gate,” Astroth says. That translates to a savings per worker of $700 a month, whereas implementing location-based services can cost as little as $15 a month.

Whether construction workers are using PTT on Sprint Nextel, Verizon Wireless or Vodafone networks in the coming years is, in a way, irrelevant. The crucial question for decision-makers in the construction industry is: What can you add to PTT to increase productivity and see real business benefits? •

William Gillis is a freelance writer in New Jersey.

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