Digging Up the Data
Unearthing your company's most important asset.
Little did the late Steve Jobs realize the type of impact he would have on—of all things—the construction industry when he introduced the world to the iPad in 2010. Sure, mobility was already well entrenched in this industry at the time, and the idea of using a tablet on a job wasn’t groundbreaking by any means. Rather, it was the way in which such a device transformed the average person’s expectations of technology that would have the most profound effect on construction—along with many other industries—creating a trickle-down effect, essentially altering the way software and services would be delivered and consumed from here on out.
Truth be told, up until recently technology wasn’t very exciting. In fact, the average construction worker viewed the use of software more as a means to an end—a necessary evil, if you will. Sure, software helped streamline standard processes and reduce some of the more common, mundane tasks associated with the job, but by and large the average user still experienced much frustration with getting technology to conform to the way they conduct business. But this was all simply part of the experience; the limitations of technology, right? Not so fast.
Thanks in part to what some have coined as the “consumerization” of technology, expectations have been altered. In the consumer realm, the average person won’t tolerate complicated user interfaces, cumbersome connection speeds, and less-than-ideal performance. Therefore, this has forced developers to rethink the way in which technology is being delivered—changes that in essence have crossed over into the business realm, including construction.
Such transformation has subsequently set off a domino effect in construction in which everyone involved, from those using the technology to those creating the technology, are forced to think in new and innovative ways. Those involved are flipping the script on such things as collaboration, cloud computing, software interoperability, and more. And when new thinking begins to infiltrate the market, good things tend to happen.
Such questions are certainly large in nature and ones that nobody should anticipate being fully resolved in the year ahead. But what the next 12 months should bring about is opportunity to start down a path that will ultimately bring the construction industry to a level of true sustainability through the use of technology. Those passionate about making a difference have the world at their fingertips, encumbered only by a lack of ingenuity for the long run.
The Tools to Do More
Given the confluence of macro trends at play in construction today, including BIM (building information modeling), IPD (integrated project delivery), and mobile, companies can no longer afford to work with technologies that play isolated roles on the job. Today’s technology tools need to blur the lines and become more present across multiple disciplines and initiatives in construction. This is where trends like mobility and the cloud come into play as becoming catalysts that help reshape the way companies think about what is possible.
“We are headed towards a new integrated model of technology which will rely on things like system interoperability, but also hybrid technology platforms with private and public cloud applications,” says Philip Dixon, vice president, business development, marketing, Construction Imaging, www.construction-imaging.com, Rocky Mount, N.C.
Cloud computing itself is nothing new. What is new is the fast migration more technology developers are making to the cloud, creating greater functionality and better capabilities to mission-critical applications for construction. In addition, things like Web services and standardization for APIs (application programming interfaces) will help create a new layer for integration of applications regardless of platform, including enterprise solutions, point solutions, and even mobile applications.
“The value proposition of ERP has been automation around the data,” adds Dixon. “You start to introduce things like the cloud and now applications like content management or time tracking, for example, are able to collect and push data automatically with enterprise solutions, whether they are public or private.”
Dixon also points to the consideration of connectivity and bandwidth with regards to the use of public or private platforms in relation to data and large object files. “As connectivity and bandwidth increase, so too can the deployment of larger data and file sets to a public domain,” he adds. “Given the adoption trends of cloud computing and considering your company culture for information governance, interoperability between platforms and applications provides for more opportunity to manage the entire lifecycle in a combination of public and private environments.”
The question becomes whether or not such a transformation in technology essentially reinvents what we now deem as being “the enterprise” in construction. Leigh Jasper, CEO, Aconex, www.aconex.com, San Bruno, Calif., is of the opinion the enterprise is becoming less of a “home” for software. While he admits certain types of software, like accounting, will continue to make the most sense running in the enterprise, other things like project designs, models, and inter-company processes will be better served when shared via the Web. This way they become more accessible, and foster better collaboration and workflow management, says Jasper.
It is a fundamental change that has enterprise software providers rethinking the way they have long delivered their solutions. Roger Kirk, president/CEO, Computer Guidance Corp., www.computer-guidance.com, Scottsdale, Ariz., believes current market conditions are driving demand for hosted or cloud-based solutions. He says: “Since most enterprise solutions are now widely accepted and readily available as hosted or cloud-based solutions, contractors have the ability to leverage software solutions with a flexible business model that allows them to optimize their IT infrastructure while taking advantage of the functionality. Hosted or cloud-based solutions have increased in demand as they require minimal upfront investments and provide ubiquitous access with reduced risk management.”
Perhaps more so than the enterprise argument is the way in which newer technologies will impact the collaborative environment, both internally and externally, of construction. This idea is the impetus behind such collaborative solutions as TeamLink Portal from Corecon Technologies, www.corecon.com, Huntington Beach, Calif., which allows all team members to have access to project information without having to purchase their own subscription to Corecon V7.
It is an idea that Norman Wendl, president, Corecon, says will transform collaboration in construction. But the idea of creating a truly collaborative environment, says Wendl, requires a centralized repository of data that can be consumed by a blend of devices, including desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones. In his opinion, Web-based solutions will become the preferred choice of delivery now that the technology has matured and bandwidth has improved. Corecon offers subscribers of its Web-based construction software suite an application called Corecon Mobile, specifically tailored for use on smartphones and tablets, allowing users to access, update, and collaborate on important project information.
Smartphones and tablets represent more than 90% of new net growth in device adoption in the next four years, according to analyst firm Gartner, www.gartner.com, Stamford, Conn. Also according to Gartner, increasing application platform capability is creating new innovations where mobile capabilities can be integrated with such things as location, presence, and social information—all around the idea of enhancing the usefulness of the devices. For construction, it will be that direct tie mobile makes to the enterprise that will be of value.
But it seems we are not quite to the point where the enterprise and mobile are sharing as fluently as desired. “Put simply, the line between documents (content) and data is blurring,” says Jay Haladay, CEO, Viewpoint Construction Software, www.viewpointcs.com, Portland, Ore. “The information contained on documents that flow into, out of, and between members of a construction firm must be used in many ways. Effective information management is demanding more and more collaboration between project stakeholders relative to this data. As a result, data needs to be shared within organizations and across companies, on different applications (from desktop to tablet to mobile) and delivered in a way that viewing/editing rights and proper workflow parameters are established.”
According to statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, www.bls.gov, Washington, D.C., more than 153,000 construction managers are currently employed in the industry. It is safe to assume more mobile devices, like tablets and smartphones, are being put into the hands of these professionals than ever before. Therefore, it is imperative the enterprise technology community develop a more efficient way of getting information to these devices.
As Haladay states, “documents and browsers don’t get along very well.” He believes the way in which ERP interacts with mobile will have a lot of implications for how far data can be leveraged in this industry. While this challenge hasn’t quite been figured out fully, steps are being made in the right direction.
An additional hurdle is deciding on a mobile framework to develop your product. Currently the development community is struggling with identifying common links across all major frameworks that make it more cost effective to mobile-enable their respective products.
Take a firm like SAP, www.sap.com, Newton Square, Pa., for example, which claims to have this issue figured out with a product that allows companies to have a single platform that enables them to manage and control any mobile device regardless of hardware or operating system. This includes securing devices, as well as version control, upgrading, and deployment of applications.
Bill Ponseti, vice president and head of the construction and real estate business unit, SAP, speaks to what he refers to as the “multiple-device strategy” related to linking field workers to backend systems, as well as to reliable data on projects, equipment, labor, materials, job progress, contracting, purchasing, etc. “In the past, technology has been an inhibitor in some ways to this type of activity, whereas it now needs to be looked at as an enabler,” Ponseti says. “Technology needs to help contractors get out in front of job overruns, and that means having data at the fingertips of those who need it, in a timely and relevant manner—even those not physically located at the jobsite.”
This type of approach, says Ponseti, also makes true collaboration with all parties, internal and external, possible in ways never before imagined. “Driving this level of efficiency and transparency leads to increased productivity which leads to increased margin,” he adds. By not having this in place companies put themselves at a huge disadvantage, says Ponseti, as others are rapidly adopting technology in support of this imperative.
“Collaborative delivery of information begins at the document, next converts to meta data—featuring information like workflow and business intelligence—then will be delivered to business tools like computers, phones, and tablets via virtualization like the cloud,” adds Haladay. “The smartest businesses, the ones you should engage with, must have a plan in place and a detailed roadmap to address these future content-management collaborative strategies.”
The Time has Arrived
While this all sounds well and good, many question how soon this can become a reality. A dirty little secret in construction for years has been the fact that in many cases technology is forcing contractors to change their internal processes. Talk to any software provider and they will stand by the statement that software should never force you to change your process, but rather the opposite needs to be true in order for software to be truly effective. It was a nice marketing pitch, but unfortunately, given the rigid nature of some solutions and a pure lack of interoperability, this simply wasn’t possible. For all intents and purposes, construction companies were modifying their processes in order to conform to the limitations of technology.
Could this trend be on the reverse as we head into 2012? Couple the fact things like BIM and IPD have introduced a new paradigm to collaboration in construction, with the way in which mobile technologies are delivering data accessibility in ways never before imagined, and we soon may be reaching the point where technology is indeed conforming to how construction does business.
Dan Conery, vice president of customer satisfaction and construction solutions, Newforma, www.newforma.com, Manchester, N.H., believes this change is being led by the trend toward paperless processes.
“The industry has more wholly embraced electronic information, model-based design, and mobile technologies; now the intent is on taking the model into the field, and in order to do that with success there needs to be an integration of project information with that model,” says Conery. The broader vision, in his opinion, for managing information is everyone on a project team would have the ability to organize, find, communicate, and share project information with ease, from wherever they are, and in a way that makes sense to them.
Agreeing with the trend, Chris Ramsey, chief operating officer and executive vice president, LATISTA Inc., www.latista.com, Reston, Va., points to the quality of work performed as being affected by this trend, first and foremost. This is where paper-based processes have fallen well short on expectations, opening the door for technologies finally being able to step up and deliver.
This is an area where new mobile devices, coupled with the right technologies, enable instant access to data, offering the ability to record and respond in a timely manner. Given the fact new devices are equipped with the ability to capture things like photos and geographic location, among other data points, contractors are now exposed to a world of opportunities that allow the technology to conform to their “ideal process” and not the other way around.
As Ramsey points out, the ability to further initiate workflows from the field creates an opportunity for a backoffice Web application to execute workflows, where notifications are sent to all relevant contacts. Furthermore, the workflow engine can monitor the progress of issue resolution, and send alerts to management regarding issues that may cause a delay.
The trend even extends out to such things as safety documentation on a job. As Griffin Schultz, general manager, Predictive Solutions, www.predictivesolutions.com, Oakdale, Pa., describes, safety is an area that has been “crying out for more technology,” yet is often held back by limited resources. The ability for applications to leverage functions contained within mobile devices, such as GPS location, voice dictation, photo capture, and RFID scanning, among others, transforms the way data gets collected.
“It is about measuring performance through analytics,” says Schultz. “We have seen instances where the ability for companies to return actionable information from safety results in other critical parts of the business being held to similar standards.”
But perhaps more so than the specific functionality of this technology is the way in which the adoption mindset can be altered.
Technology has elevated user expectations where they desire access to all information at all times, regardless of where it originates. It is a developing trend that will impact both hardware and software providers in the sense it could reinvent collaboration and data communication.
Could something as simple as the need for data sharing amongst “apps” drive the industry further down the path of pure software interoperability? Multiple sources in the industry cite this as a driving factor, believe it or not, with Peter Lasensky, principal, NoteVault, www.notevault.com, San Diego, Calif., even offering out the opinion: “Mobile is a big motivator for driving the need to have different systems talk to each other. There are services that contractors will use on their mobile devices that they will expect to feed into different systems, and even creating opportunities to bring new ‘knowledge workers’ into the mix.”
The Long Run
The idea of having different systems talk to each other is seemingly always on the plate of initiatives for construction. But we could be headed to a critical juncture in this regard in 2012, driven in large part by a growing desire to ease the “handover” process of a facility.
COBie (Construction Operations Building Information Exchange), www.wbdg.org/resources/cobie.php, is gaining momentum, which takes the traditional paper-based methods of collecting equipment lists, product data sheets, warranties, maintenance, and other data and transforms it to a process where data is entered as it is created during design, construction, and commissioning. Naturally this will require different types of software used by different parties being able to interact with COBie information. For designers, the company says COBie can be created using a “save as” and selecting the IFC file format; contractors can use specialized software to update the COBie data with manufacturer’s information, or to enter information in a spreadsheet display of COBie data; and facility operators can import COBie data, formatted in either IFC or spreadsheet, directly into asset and maintenance data. Given the fact there are many different types of projects, COBie can be extended and specified to support specific requirements by owner or facility type.
Such initiatives are an indicator the industry is rethinking the process and trying to figure out ways to tie data together. This correlates with promoting open BIM where multiple systems need to interact. This drives owners, for example, to be looking at design tools in order to help them anticipate the facility lifecycle by gathering data up front so they have it on the management end. Rather than being focused on how a facility looks, this drives the thinking around how a facility functions. Even things like energy analysis become important up front as owners look to run data analysis.
“The handover process should not be separate if you are indeed working in an integrated project,” says Newforma’s Conery. “The model is building up over time, and in the end it should all come together … rather than having to conduct extensive research into each building element in order to complete that final step, this will now be a matter of simply handing over the model that is integrated with published project information.”
Whereas some owners might take a more decentralized and locally managed approach to facilities management, the new trend will encompass this process as part of a more enterprise approach to the business. Companies like Meridian Systems, www.meridiansystems.com, Folsom, Calif., are evolving the model, as evidenced by some of the latest enhancements to Proliance that focus on creating capital program structures that support strategic objectives and allow users to assign project teams to work on them in a more manageable manner.
Bill Clemenson, founder/chairman/CTO, HTS, www.consulthts.com, Los Angeles, Calif., adds another element to the idea of long-term maintenance and management, pointing to integration of technology between commissioning and maintenance-management systems for owners. Whereas in the past commissioning data was not integrated into a maintenance-management system, new models and methods for data collection and integration are allowing this to become integrated into facility models enabled by such things as the BIM model.
In all, these trends are the direct result of technology being able to capture, store, and communicate the right data to the right parties in a timely manner. While the “seamless” integration back to the enterprise part might not yet be fully realized, it is a road down which the industry expects to travel in the year ahead.
Underlying themes like mobile, collaboration, integration, and interoperability have been relevant in construction for years. It’s the mindset around technology—not to mention new solutions—that has changed. In all, this is giving the industry hope for a brighter tomorrow. •