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Technology tools to boost collaboration in construction industry

INSIGHT ARTICLE  | 

In the current construction growth cycle, in which business is booming for most contractors, it’s an ideal time for business leaders to consider strategic technology investments to help improve efficiency, win new projects and attract talent. In fact, companies that hold off on these opportunities put themselves at risk in two ways: losing the window to upgrade systems when the economy is strong, and missing the chance to showcase technology leadership for competitive differentiation.

In this first of a three-part series of technology articles, we’ll focus on how construction companies can use technology to improve collaboration, a step that can help employees, subcontractors and other stakeholders reap the rewards of a more connected and mobile project environment.

Consider the trends: In its 2016 business outlook survey, the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) and Sage Group found that 63 percent of construction businesses using (or planning to use) cloud-based platforms are doing so to improve access to information from any location. Though email and file sharing sites remain the most common collaborative tools in construction, 40 percent of survey respondents said they had purchased more sophisticated collaboration software, such as Building Information Modeling (BIM).1 To date, large firms have been more likely to invest in these newer collaboration technologies, though midsized construction businesses are also taking a harder look at available tools.

“Enhanced collaboration and technology is truly the foundation for the jobsite and the construction organization of the future,” said Bill Kracunas, RSM’s national leader for management consulting. “The latest advancements in BIM, VDI and predictive technologies mean projects are more advanced than we’ve ever seen.” 

Collaborative benefits to BIM software, tips for sound implementation

BIM software evolved out of two-dimensional, computer-assisted design (CAD) products. The technology was disruptive within the industry, as many construction professionals quickly latched onto BIM’s 3-D design, modeling and data management capabilities as a tremendous resource for virtually planning and building projects. In addition, BIM technology can provide real-time, digital information on all project requirements, including specifications, materials, supply logistics and timelines. 

Clearly, the ready availability of this data can dramatically improve collaboration between key stakeholders. In fact, 62 percent of contractors surveyed in a 2015 report evaluating BIM applications on complex building projects strongly believed the technology increased their understanding of a project’s design intent, and 47 percent strongly believed it reduced the frequency of information requests. In that same survey, 63 percent of contractors said the use of BIM tools provided “very high” or “high” contributions toward improved project phasing and logistics.2

Still, many industry leaders believe that advances in BIM technology, such as 4-D modeling (linking 3-D design tools to time or schedule data) or 5-D modeling (linking the 4-D capability with cost estimation tools) are outpacing current levels of collaborative use. In a recent industry report on emerging technologies, the Construction Management Association of America noted that most BIM users are still “searching for a faster and more reliable way to share data with all project team members to improve decision-making, while reducing uncertainty and dissonance.” 

One way to maximize the collaboration potential for BIM tools is to design a thoughtful approach to its implementation and use. Some key tips include:

  • Setting reasonable expectations. The purchase of a BIM system is a substantial investment, and it comes with a learning curve. For that reason, it’s wise to establish a clear, step-by-step plan for introducing the resource’s capabilities – and your specific BIM expectations -- to your workforce, while including them in the selection process.
  • Considering the user experience. As a powerful design and information management resource, BIM can intimidate even tech-savvy workers without careful implementation. From a collaboration viewpoint, that means carefully considering where data is stored, how it is accessed, who should be able to access it and what speed and usability is necessary for a satisfactory remote user experience.
  • Appointing a BIM manager. To best leverage the BIM investment, consider hiring or appointing a full-time resource, with deep expertise in your chosen software solution. If that person successfully fine-tunes your BIM technology to enhance collaboration opportunities for office, job site and third-party providers, the return on investment will be substantial.  

Enhance collaboration with a cloud-enabled job site environment 

While BIM software may be the most comprehensive tool for job site construction collaboration, it is just part of a broader slate of cloud-based opportunities for business leaders to consider.  Consider the following two foundational technology pillars that can optimize office and job site operations for maximum collaborative value: 

Connectivity. This pillar is the baseline for the overall collaboration plan. When you invest in a cloud-based communications solution, supported by secured 3G or 4G Wi-Fi hotspots, guest Wi-Fi and wireless signal repeaters, your team will easily be able to review or contribute to real-time project data and information. Rugged “smart stations,” which can include big-screen monitors, whiteboards, keyboards, printers and full wireless access to BIM or other online company assets, are another tool that can increase on-the-go collaboration among job site teams. In locations where utility access is an issue, consider purchasing a Mobile-ready office solution, which allows remote job sites to gain secure plug and play access to online networks, provided that a cellular signal is available. 

Mobility. A recent survey of construction contractors by Texas A&M University shows that use of mobile tools continues to rise. In the study, 72 percent of contractors polled said they use smartphones on the job, with 50 percent saying they regularly use tablet computers.3 In response to this trend, many major tech providers are creating tough, durable mobile devices that can take a licking, while keeping the collaboration ticking. In a cloud-enabled environment, these tools can easily link to all-in-one software project management solutions, such as Procore or Microsoft Office 365, which allow multiple users to perform a full range of tasks, including sharing files, editing drawings, tracking changes or providing updates.

Without question, apps are the fuel for mobile devices, and a broader range of construction-specific tools are making their way to the marketplace. For example, the BIMx app allows users to view, mark up and share all published layouts, drawings, schedules or other project documents. Similarly, the PlanGrid app allows users to not only share project drawings, but add notes, photos and updated job site measurements. And, Fieldlens is a solid collaboration tool designed to help users build and document daily reports, including the ability to identify and alert other team members to potential job site safety issues that require attention. 

Integration of collaboration tools is critical

Despite the construction industry’s recent advances in technology adoption, overall management of those tools remains spotty. According to a recent survey of construction industry professionals, 30 percent said the use of multiple software programs caused data duplication issues, redundant activity and wasted time. Further, 22 percent of those polled said the use of multiple tools had a negative effect on project efficiency.4 

Regardless of what collaborative solutions you choose, documenting the process, flow of information and job site use is paramount to implementing the right integrated ecosystem. By defining a clear technology vision and carefully selecting tools that work together, you can successfully build a collaborative environment in your company.

 

1“The 2016 Construction Hiring and Business Outlook,” Associated General Contractors of America 

2“Measuring the Impact of BIM on Complex Buildings,” (2015) SmartMarket Report, Dodge Data and Analytics.

3O’Malley, Sharon, “Getting Wired: Contractors Find Value in On-the-Job Tech,” (April 30, 2015) Construction Dive.

4“Construction Professionals Make the Case for an Industry-Specific Cloud-base Document Management Application,” (January 29, 2016) ARC Document Solutions.

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