By Greg Norris
Mobile devices are becoming as common as hard hats on heavy construction job sites. While they can’t prevent injuries – at least not directly – they can protect profitability.
Contractors that implement software with robust mobile capabilities can streamline key operational processes ranging from scheduling and field tracking to equipment maintenance and safety. They take paper out of the equation and free up time that employees would otherwise spend finding, filling out and transferring that paper.
More importantly, mobile technology fuels data-driven decision making by providing real-time access to accurate information about all aspects of the business. That benefit is compounded when the software and the mobile stack are connected to enable collaboration across workflows.
Being able to view and adjust a centralized schedule on a mobile tablet in real time allows employees across workflows to work collaboratively to optimize resources.
Scheduling and Dispatching
A shortcoming of typical construction scheduling solutions is that most are housed in and focused around the company office. That’s where the scheduler/dispatcher sits with whiteboards and spreadsheets and juggles phone calls, e-mails and text messages to keep people, equipment and materials moving to the right place at the right time.
Construction, however, happens in the field. That is where circumstances impacting those resources can change quickly and unexpectedly.
Monitoring and managing the schedule from the field is a critrical advantage in optimizing resources. That requires mobile technology. With a modern, online solution, including mobile functionality, managers and foremen (with appropriate permissions) can make resource requests, create needs and modify assignments and resolve conflicts wherever they are. Likewise, equipment managers and mechanics can validate the location of equipment, act on requests and make status upates impacting the field and the schedule from anywhere. All of this communication and collaboration between the office, the field and the shop takes place in real time.
Field Performance Tracking and Reporting
Contractors that continue to rely on paper-based field logs and performance tracking systems tend to struggle with the accuracy of the infomration they get back from the field. Unstructured data and the lag time in getting it back to the office also limits and delays their reporting capabilities. They may fill out a field log on a Monday, get it back to the office on a Friday and then get a report back from their accounting system a week or two later. By then, it may be too late to act on the information and address challenges in the field that threaten the project.
Mobile technology opens up the opportunity to know on a daily basis how a project is performing in comparison with the estimate or plan. Tablets and electronic field logs allow contractors to capture information on employee and equipment hours, productivity and material utilization as close to the time and location where those activities take place. That drives accuracy and immediacy.
With structured data in an electronic format, reporting is faster and easier. Supervisors get the timely data they need to adjust operations to keep projects on schedule and under budget. Tangible reporting of actual versus planned productivity on a daily basis has also proven to be a powerful motivator for crews in the field.
Mobile technology allows heavy construction companies to capture information about activities when and where they occur and to communicate that data instantly.
Mechanics using a specialized maintenance management software solution and equipped with smart phones and tablets become “mobile mechanics”. The technology cuts down on their “windshield time” spent driving back and forth and increases “wrench time” spent completing repairs and preventive maintenance.
At many construction companies, mechanics responsible for maintenance and repairs in the field no longer begin their day by coming to the shop. Assignments, and any changes to the schedule during the day, instead arrive electronically. They go directly from home to the first job site and the subsequent sites, saving time and increasing efficiency.
Once on site, service personnel can access, create and manage work orders on a tablet. Mobile technology connects them to the parts inventory and necessary documentation such as repair manuals and warranty information. They can also synch the maintenance staus with the schedule in real time and submit their time cards online.
For an industry focused on hands-on work and physical results, there is no shortage of paper in the heavy construction process. Most supervisors and foremen say it’s enemy number one and emphasize how much they would rather manage “real work” than paperwork.
Mobile technology moves that ratio in their favor. Contractors that equip their field teams with tablets and implement an electronic solution for data capture and analysis streamline workflows and free up personel in the office as well as the field to focus on other tasks. Equipment inspections, toolbox talks and safety reports are among dozens of everyday use case examples.
Customized forms can be created or edited quickly and easily. They then move around the organization and through an approval chain with the click of a button. A richer range of information – like photos, e-signatures and GPS and time-stamp validations – can be captured, and features like drop-down menus, pick lists and mandatory field keep the data accurate and structured.
As with field tracking, the biggest payoff with electonic forms may be the reporting and analysis capabilities. Instead of being trapped on paper, with an extensive manual effort required to extract it, the structured electronic data can be turned into actionable reports quickly, easily and automatically.
Mobile technology and an electronic solution for data capture and analysis makes it easier to create, complete and submit forms and to report on the data.
Connectivity and Implementation
Before implementing a random collection of individual mobile solutions, contractors should consider how those solutions talk to each other. Many end up with excellent but incompatible mobile solutions for their various workflows. The time they save and the accuracy they gain at the individual workflow level are then lost when employees struggle to communicate, collaborate and share information across solutions.
A single source for operational data like employee, job and equipment lists that can be used within the mobile solutions for each workflow is ideal. Updates made to this data in one mobile solution can then become visible and actionable instantly in the other solutions. The errors and added work of maintaing and synching multiple, redundant databases are eliminated. A common user interface across mobile solutions also makes training and utlization easier.
Finally, contractors should not overlook implementation. Synching with back-end software and legacy data, connectivity outside of the office, security and device selection and management are potential challenges. These four steps can help to ensure a smooth transition.
Establish a Plan
Construction companies should have a big-picture technology plan. This provides a reference point, so mobile solutions can be evaluated according to how they align with and support the plan.
Choose a Champion
Establishing a go-to person or a small team for vetting mobile solutions and coordinating implementations across the company is a proven best practice.
Get Buy In
Resistance in the field can threaten even an ideal software or mobile solution, so it’s important to communicate how it will make it easier for individual employees to succeed and that it’s part of an overall plan to make the company more successful. Starting with a pilot program with a select group before rolling technology out company wide can also make the transition smoother.
Invest in Training
Mobile technology should be easy to use, with a “construction logic” that makes it intuitive for even the least tech-savvy employees to embrace. Still, it’s important to support the investment with employee training, particularly at the outset.