How mobile technology can help construction companies close the labor gap
Article courtesy of Association of Equipment Manufacturers
As the U.S. faces the daunting task of repairing trillions of dollars’ worth of dilapidated infrastructure, the construction industry’s worker shortage is becoming a major concern. People like Ralph Gootee, co-founder and chief technology officer for PlanGrid, believe the industry can better leverage technology to begin solving this issue on two fronts.
First of all, technology can help improve both project management and jobsite efficiency, helping construction companies do more with less. Secondly, a younger and more tech-savvy labor pool could gravitate toward the construction industry when modern technology is more widely embraced.
“It can be a challenge to find employees with industry experience who are also cutting-edge when it comes to technology,” Gootee says. “On the other hand, when you’re in search of an IT director to lead your technology team, you can look more horizontally—maybe even from the consumer goods world.”
To successfully recruit those types of candidates, though, construction companies need a digital strategy that makes technology a cornerstone of its operation. According to Gootee, we’re not just talking about things like AI (artificial intelligence) and machine learning. “We’re also talking about the use of basic software and mobile devices—each of which can help a construction business become better organized and operate more efficiently,” Gootee says.
PlanGrid is a provider of mobile construction software that gives builders real-time access to things like blueprints, punch lists and daily reports. Gootee recently spoke with CONEXPO-CON/AGG about how the construction industry can use technology to help attract a new, younger and more tech-savvy talent pool.
KEYS TO SUCCESSFUL IMPLEMENTATION OF MOBILE TECHNOLOGY
According to Gootee, much of the technology historically deployed by construction companies has been geared toward desktop computers. In some instances, the software has also been difficult to use.
“A lot of the software has primarily been focused on the office side,” adds Jon Minick, a PlanGrid customer advocate. “So there has been a gap in the flow of information between the field and office. User-friendly mobile technology can help close that gap.”
Construction companies must think strategically about the technologies they are trying to leverage. The technologies need to work, and employees must want to use them. Software that is mobile and more intuitive can better appeal to both younger workers and industry veterans.
“My biggest frustration was when none of my guys in the field would use what I thought was a great piece of technology,” says Minick, who led R&D for a general contracting firm prior to joining PlanGrid. “The bottom line is that if the technology is not easy to use, construction professionals will naturally go back to the way they’ve done things for years. They should be able to pick up on how to use the technology in a day or two. Then they can set their legal pad and pen down for good.”
PlanGrid places significant emphasis on usability, constantly gathering feedback from the field to make improvements to its mobile software. A more recent change relates to screen resolution. After shadowing a jobsite and noticing that it was difficult to view the app under the anti-glare screen protectors many field workers had on their devices, PlanGrid developers changed some coding to make sure colors and other differentiators were visible under the screen protectors, especially in brightly lit settings. Load time is another key focal point. PlanGrid has built a proprietary file format so renderings and documents load with virtually no lag time.
One final consideration is that construction companies must be diligent in their vetting of potential technology partners. It’s important to take things one step at a time, implementing the technology and training in a logical fashion that helps the company see gains as quickly as possible. “It’s not a bad idea to test different tools (i.e. apps) on some smaller projects,” Gootee says. “Then you can iron out any bugs, see which tools employees like best, retrain as necessary, and scale from there.”
Of course, technology providers must operate as partners and support their customers to help them find success in implementation. PlanGrid, for example, has a dedicated consulting team that provides onsite training sessions for customers.
EASING 3 MAJOR PAIN POINTS
Minick says there are some notable ways for construction companies to leverage mobile technology solutions to improve jobsite efficiency. Opportunities exist at both the pre-construction, construction and post-construction levels.
Document control is a big issue. “Construction companies have to get drawings out to personnel in the field, and then give that personnel an opportunity to collaborate and provide information back to the office or whomever else,” Minick says. When a good mobile app can reliably serve as a single source of truth for those documents, significant gains in efficiency can be achieved.
“Historically, paper drawings have been the common method,” Minick says. “This inefficiency is made even worse today because of the tendency to use a design/build approach on many projects. The problem is that you have all of these updates to drawings, which results in additional documents. Having to print and deliver these documents over and over results in a great loss of efficiency. A good mobile app will allow numerous people to add notes to the same document. Since apps can store all of this data in the cloud, all updates are in one place for anyone to see at any time.”
Another paint point for construction companies is RFIs (request for information). Different project stakeholders need questions answered regarding designs, specifications and materials. A cloud-based app provides a much more efficient way to communicate, especially for employees in the field who need access to the information just as quickly as someone in the office.
A third area where mobile technology can help is with task tracking. There are many ongoing issues and tasks that must be tracked throughout a project. For instance, in the pre-construction phase, project managers might find value-adding opportunities and task their colleagues to look into them. During construction, project managers might encounter instances where installation and materials don’t fit as planned, and task their colleagues to find replacement solutions.
“A lot of people have been using digital cameras and Excel spreadsheets to keep track of these types of items,” Minick says. “I’ve often seen people using tape recorders to record their notes. Then when they get back to the office at night, they gather up all of their notes to send a report to whomever needs it. Again, this isn’t very efficient. Good mobile technology will allow people to instantly capture all of those tasks, along with additional details like photos, notes, assignees and due dates, right then and there.”
This same type of benefit can be seen in the post-construction environment. “Closeout can be difficult, and often there is project data that gets lost in handover,” Minick relates. “When you’re not working from one place, you have to pull all kinds of information together for your owners or the general contractor. With the right mobile solution, all of this information is stored in one place. At the end of a project, you’re able to quickly organize and share it with the owners for turnover. That cuts out a lot of manual effort and also helps you become a more reliable partner.”
Minick says construction companies are using solutions like PlanGrid on iOS, Android and Windows smartphones, tablets and computers—maintaining a seamless connection from the office to the field. On a jobsite, a variety of personnel are benefiting from having mobile technology. “PlanGrid is being used by project foremen and superintendents,” Minick says. “We also see quick adoption and high engagement at the project engineer level because, as Ralph mentioned, younger talent gravitates toward modern technology.”