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By Paul Wilkinson
November 6, 2017
Finding a cost-effective way to overcome inefficiency and waste in your construction project processes does not need to be expensive. Mobile and cloud-based solutions offered on a pay-as-you-go basis can help businesses to add value without adding substantially to their cost base.
In one of the world’s oldest industries, construction projects have been delivered for centuries without digital technologies. Architects, engineers, and constructors have constantly been using their brain power to devise new ways of designing and building. Even today, there will be many industry professionals whose first instincts will be to sketch things out using pencil and paper. And, particularly in the repair and maintenance sector, many small projects will still largely be undertaken by personnel armed with little more than a cellphone and a notebook.
Lots of today’s construction personnel now in their 50s and 60s will recall working off drawings created by hand on drawing boards and preparing documentation using typewriters. However, since the 1980s, we have accelerated their production by investing in computer-aided design (CAD), adopting word-processing and email to speed up written communication. Calculators and spreadsheet software, in addition, have helped us improve the accuracy of our cost estimates and forecasts.
In parallel, in a geographically dispersed industry requiring people to travel frequently to different construction jobsites, a phone became vital for keeping in touch. Construction workers were among the ‘early adopters’ who helped the mobile telephony market expand during the 1980s and 1990s. Since the iPhone revolution started in 2007, the emergence of smartphones and tablets has also started to put enterprise-strength software literally at the fingertips of workers out in the field.
So it would be wrong to describe construction as technology-averse. As soon as affordable technologies allow firms to save time and/or cut costs, they are quickly adopted. Today, most construction businesses will start by covering the basics of telephone, email, website and office software, supported by computers, printers and internet connections. Depending on their specialism, they may then invest in applications specific to their business: CAD if they are involved in design, estimating software if they are contractors, scheduling if they are managing projects, etc.
Look for the ROI
However, the pace of adoption and, later, of expansion or upgrading of IT will often depend on the health of the business. And that will usually be tied to the health of the market.
The prevailing industry culture in many sectors is to compete on price. As a result, many construction businesses work on very thin profit margins, and the industry’s players are often the first to feel the effects when economies take a downturn. This also makes them very cost-conscious when it comes to investing in technology. On average, Gartner figures suggest construction businesses spend just 1.2 per cent of their revenues on IT – about a third of the level found across other industry sectors.
So if you want to grow your business and you have only got a little to invest in extending your technology capabilities, what are you going to spend it on? The answer must be driven by what will help your business most – what will deliver the biggest return on investment (ROI)?
For many construction businesses, this comes down to managing risks. Often, their efficiency is compromised by poor communications with site-based workers or with other members of the project team. Design changes may not be communicated promptly, unexpected ground conditions or poor weather may disrupt scheduled work, different trades may not be coordinated properly, etc. Many of these issues can be avoided by investing in tools to improve collaboration, information sharing, task management, and reporting.
Such improvements often won’t involve investing in expensive new hardware or software. Luckily, the early 21st century has seen an explosion in Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) and mobile applications (and combinations of both) that can be deployed in minutes, and accessed from existing devices. All users need is an internet connection (at least some of the time). As the programs are often based on pay-as-you-go pricing models, rollout costs are negligible and continued use can be tied to the duration of the projects concerned.
SaaS tools can be opened in standard web browsers across desktops, laptops and tablets by authorised users. This gives them access to the latest project-related information, so there is no excuse to be working on outdated designs and no chance of being unaware of requests for information or changes in schedules.
Similarly, mobile applications can be used to capture information on the jobsite and to share it securely in real-time with other authorised users. And where the mobile platform is integrated with a SaaS platform, mobile outputs can be aggregated for progress-chasing, reporting, and audit trail purposes.
Moreover, a growing number of SaaS and mobile applications can be integrated. For instance, data captured in a mobile-first tool such as the daily field reporting app Raken can be be summarised and reported in SaaS platforms including Procore.
Forward-thinking software developers are realising that locking users into a single solution silo often isn’t attractive to customers who want to use combinations of the ‘best of breed’ solutions they know and trust. And, again, the subscription model makes it economic for businesses to trial solutions before committing to longer-term, perhaps enterprise-wide, use of their selected platforms to meet their business needs.
In short, growing your construction technology stack may not require a substantial upfront investment. Measurable improvements can be made by selecting SaaS and/or mobile tools that can overcome some of the common challenges hindering your business’s efficiency and growth.
If you liked this article, here are a few eBooks you may enjoy:
The Extinction of Paper-Based Specs
Break Free From the Iron Triangle
How Construction Technology is Saving Time, Money, and Jobs
Using Tech to Win More Business
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