Like a kid jumping into the pool feet first, the construction industry has rapidly gone from lagging to leading in the use of computers. A mere 10 years ago, the world was just getting used to Windows 95. And although some progressive contractors were already using office automation, such as word processing and accounting, to gain a competitive advantage, many resisted, continuing to use their tried-and-true methods.
Today computer systems and the software that drives them have gone from being individual tools applied to specific tasks to being an integrated part of how almost everything works. And software improvements, rather than something to be feared or resisted, now often make the same piece of equipment perform better. Contractors have jumped aboard with these improvements, and computers have become a vital tool in nearly every contractor's arsenal.
A new definition
There used to be a clear distinction between the different types of computer system components. Hardware was what you took out of the box and connected together with wires and cables. Software was the programming that came on floppy disks. Each new piece of software was a collection of secret code words and phrases that, once mastered, allowed you to crunch numbers, move letters and characters, or render fancy graphics.
Today, speed, capacity, and connectivity have dramatically improved in both hardware and software. And as the technology has advanced, the cost per unit of productivity has continued to drop. The result is that computer technology today offers contractors a powerful array of tools to do what needs to be done better and faster, more efficiently and more effectively than most of us even dreamed of a decade ago.
Where it is and what it does
Today software is at the heart of most technology that we regularly use without a second thought. Software enables all kinds of data collection, storage, and management, data transfer, and voice communication. Measurable benefits include reduced cost and leveraged functionality—software often is what allows us to get more bang for our buck.
It used to be that individual programs performed discrete functions, leaving it up to the user to correlate the resulting information. That approach included inefficiencies such as requiring duplicate data entry, which also increased the probability of errors. Today integration has increased the productivity attributable to computer use.
Traditionally, business software applications for construction dealt with either finances or operations. This included software to assist with things like bidding and estimating, payroll and accounting on the financial side, and project management and scheduling on the operations side.
The problem is that putting together a good bid requires current and historical information from both the financial and operational sides of the business. And keeping a project on schedule and on budget requires that the people running the job have access to all of the data related to the project. This need for more access to information once kept separate led software developers to improve system integration to enable the dynamic sharing of data.
CMiC ( www.cmic.ca) is one firm that specializes in integrated, comprehensive software for project-based businesses. Known as “enterprise” software, this type of system is designed to operate company-wide as a financial and project management tool. It is also designed to work with data in existing software, so that no investment in previously adopted systems is lost in moving to CMiC's higher level of integration.
When Sandy, Utah-based Layton Construction went to CMiC a little more than three years ago, it did take some work getting it set up, says B.J. VanOrman, Layton's assistant controller. “But the accessibility of information is greatly improved,” he said.
Layton previously had been using separate financial and project management packages, but that left its superintendents without easy access to budget and other useful information. Now the company has more than 100 people using the system, including the accounting, human resources, and safety departments as well as those in operations. VanOrman says the last group, which includes project managers, superintendents, engineers, and assistants, is the main user group. “It's where they handle all their RFIs (requests for information), submittals, and change orders,” he says. They also use it to review job progress, check costs, and maintain daily journals for each project.
VanOrman says the data integration provided by the CMiC system “is a great tool that gets the project teams better information in a timely manner and allows them to be more efficient.”
Sage Software (www.bestsoftware.com) offers a variety of integrated solutions based on the needs of particular businesses. Designed for small to mid-sized companies, Sage Timberline Office is financial and operations software tailored for the construction and real estate industries. Its roots go back to 1971 and the Timberline accounting and estimating software. Now it provides integration for data from numerous programs that work seamlessly with it, thanks to the company's Development Partner Program that supports the developers of third-party tools that work with Timberline Office.
Dexter + Chaney (www.dexterchaney.com) is another example of a software product with roots. Its flagship product, Forefront, began as simply a project management package. Over time it has developed into an integrated project management tool with more than 30 modules to handle specific tasks common to heavy and highway projects.
Special purpose applications
Opportunities still abound—perhaps more than ever—for development of specialty software applications that meet specific industry needs. This is especially true where they are designed to work with the integrated software described above.
The following are only a small sample of what is available today. As this sampling shows, wherever there is a need, there is, or soon will be, software designed to help meet that need.
Communications software has allowed equipment designers to get rid of cables in many control configurations. Schwing America's Vector Control System ( www.schwing.com) has taken advantage of this to provide wireless remote control of its concrete pumps without sacrificing data available to the operator. With two-way communication between the wireless remote box and the concrete pump, the remote not only provides control but also shows machine status and provides real-time diagnostics.
At a different level of control, Caterpillar (www.cat.com/pl) offers Product Link, a management tool that uses GPS to wirelessly collect data from a machine's onboard systems. Software comes into play as equipment owners use Cat's Web-based EquipmentManager fleet equipment management program to monitor and manage their equipment based on that remotely collected data. The software can also map the machine's location online.
Asset and resource management
Tool Watch ( www.toolwatch.com) now offers radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to automate the task of keeping track of tools. The data feeds into its ToolWatch SE software, which still also accepts data generated by scanning barcodes. However, the RFID tags are embedded within the tool, making them much more robust. The tags also hold more sophisticated information, again boosting performance of the program.
Trimble (www.trimble.com) offers Trimble Construction Manager. The program uses Nextel handheld phones to locate and manage assets at construction sites and in-vehicle devices to track mobile assets. The net result is a good connection between the office and the jobsite.
NOGU Technologies (www.dispatchthis.com) introduced a program at World of Concrete in January that provides resource management solutions for the concrete pumping industry. This Web-based program, DispatchThis, is designed specifically to streamline scheduling and communications for concrete pumpers.
ControlBoard, from Congistics Corporation (www.congistics.com), provides a more general-application scheduling, resource and dispatch tool for the commercial construction industry. Putting scheduling information into an electronic format is like making an up-to-date whiteboard full of information available to everybody in the organization.
Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) has been around for many years. However, software advances have made its use in nondestructive testing of concrete structures increasingly useful.
This technology uses radar to generate data on objects embedded in concrete and where they are located. “But the instrument is really nothing without the software,” says Greg Johnston of Sensors & Software, which makes GPR systems. “It all comes together in the software.”
The refined renderings based on this data are far easier to interpret than those from just a few years ago. Johnston says that today's software can show contractors the “invisible reality” of what is embedded in the slab. This information is particularly useful in coring and drilling slabs and in other repair and retrofit work.
Data Builder (www.databuilderinc.com) offers software products designed to electronically collect and organize all the paperwork associated with a project. What that means is the company's programmers have come up with a way to convert all the electronic and hard copy documents—in all the various formats that they might originally exist—into electronic data that is easily stored, managed, and retrieved. Realizing that project data are required by the owner, at project completion, as well as by the project team during construction, the company offers two separate software products that can also work together. Using a project Web site, the Electronic Project Control System enables all those on the construction team to file, manage, and retrieve project documentation as the project progresses. Unlike paper documentation systems, this means the most current version of each document is always available to all who need it. Electronic Construction Closeout captures relevant information at closeout and compiles it into a compact and highly functional tool for facility management.
Health and safety
Quest Technologies ( www.questtechnologies.com) offers a system designed to monitor occupational noise and other hazards. It begins with a variety of hardware—acoustic measurement devices, noise dosimeters, heat sensors and heat strain monitors. Two software packages—QuestSuite and NetLink II—provide the capability of compiling and analyzing the data and making it accessible by way of the Internet. The company says its system goes far beyond required documentation and can even provide alarms when exposure limits are drawing close.
Computer technology has reached into nearly every aspect of the construction industry. Those who understand its contributions as well as its limitations have powerful tools at their disposal. And it's only getting better, as software providers continue to expand the capabilities of their products.