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Harness Mobile Tech & Get Control Over Your Materials Problems


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Many setbacks on construction projects are caused by materials delays. Whether it’s because they are required but not purchased, or in the wrong quantities and types, you always know it’s going to be a frustrating day when these problems arise. 

In the old days, your best defense for materials problems was a time-consuming process of physically checking, counting, calling, rechecking, recounting, and making call after call. Even today, there’s no substitute for staying on top of material orders and deliveries, but mobile technology is taking much of the tedium out of the process while reducing risks. 

Basic Systems

Today, you could set up a database to store information that identifies each material, along with a location. When those materials have barcodes or RFID tags attached to them, you are able to easily scan them with mobile devices. Going one step further, if the scanning device also has a GPS system, the location of the material gets automatically recorded as you scan. By bringing these components together, you’ve already drastically increased your control over the materials you already have. But, what about those in the pipeline, or those not even ordered yet? 

Construction projects have three basic types of materials. Everyday materials are readily available off-the-shelf, and include items like lumber and fasteners. But, two other classes of materials are not so readily available. They are the ones that must be specially engineered for a particular part of the project life cycle, or those that are prefabricated off-site for final assembly on-site. Both have greater lead times not only because of the submittal process, but also the time it takes to fabricate and deliver them. Even in this case, mobile technology can help keep things on track and organized.

Starting with Submittals

If you use a cloud-based project management solution like Procore, you’re going to have greater control over the submittal process. And, since it is cloud-based, you can interact with the submittal process no matter where you are by using your smartphone or any other handheld device. With the submittals under control, you can gain more certainty over the rest of the specialty material life cycle by using a mobile identifier as early as possible. For example, if a barcode is assigned at submittal time, you are then able to track the item from submittal through final assembly.

Mobile devices with photo and video capabilities make it easy to document and share the conditions of materials and how they’re stored in real time.

There are also opportunities to use mobile technology for materials in streamlining work processes and making them more efficient. The setup takes a while longer, but for repetitive tasks with the same specifications, it could pay off big over the long run.

Material Misuse

When it comes to point-of-use there are a couple of negatives, and it starts with using the wrong material. When a carpenter mistakenly uses header material where it shouldn’t be used, that’s waste. The problem begins with availability. Too many choices leads to waste on repetitive tasks. 

For example, when the lumber truck arrives and drops a banded package of lumber at the job site, carpenters begin to sift through the pile as work progresses, often making their selections based on speed and ease. Most of the time, this leads to more waste since choices aren’t always based on the best piece of lumber for the task, it was just convenient since it was on top of the pile. 

But, if the lumber is packaged and labeled for mobile identification according to task, the possibility of using the wrong material is reduced. 

For example, a bundle of lumber is barcoded and labeled as the “west exterior wall.” This reduces the possibility of the framers using lumber destined for exterior walls, when framing interior walls. There’s also the bonus that you can account for lumber at the task level. Before breaking the bands, the carpenter scans the barcode on the bundle which allows you to track the action directly to a task. With the right setup, you could even update material orders to verify receipt. And, with GPS technology, you could track the location of the material at any specific point in time.

Material Dangers

A second problem that happens with materials at the point of use is the three-prong problem of loss, damage, and theft. Materials often get misplaced as they get shuffled between stops. From weather, to drops, bumps, and bangs, it’s difficult to protect materials all the time. Theft is also an ongoing material problem. With today’s mobile technology, you regain control. GPS technology by itself, or coupled with RFID, provides the basis for tracking material locations. Mobile devices with photo and video capabilities make it easy to document and share the conditions of materials and how they’re stored in real time. 

The options for improving material handling in construction are immense. With new options coming out all the time, we are constantly able to push the limits on what’s already possible. Anyone who needs more control over materials can assemble a system using off-the-shelf components to immediately get greater visibility on how their job materials are handled/used. But there’s also the possibility of setting up comprehensive systems that begin tracking materials before they even leave the supplier, and these can also get hardwired into back office systems so data entry is eliminated and information is constantly refreshed. 

With materials accounting for a large portion of any project cost, the less left to chance, the greater the efficiencies and rewards.

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