Learn what mobile applications best fit your company’s needs
by Barry Frangipane
April 7, 2016

Over the past decade, mobile apps have become prevalent in construction. It’s important that construction businesses have a mobile strategy that provides a solid return on investment. Doing so requires making sense of the multitude of mobile apps—what processes can leverage mobile applications, what’s popular, what’s available, what functionality is needed and what to do to leverage the right tool for the right job.

Foraging for Data in the Field

Not long ago, a foreman would write timesheet information on a napkin or piece of cardboard at the end of the week (trying to remember what happened 5 days earlier). Then the field payroll clerk would translate it all to a legible format and send it to the main office, where the payroll clerk would organize the mess and rekey it into the accounting system—all before checks could be cut.

A week later, company and project performance could be reviewed. It was typically too late to do anything about errors, oversight or loss, though. In short, this process involved significant guesswork, memory and time.

In the not-so-distant past, construction software companies started using advancements in smartphone and tablet technology to give contractors the ability to collect time electronically in the field. This evolution delivered a better ROI by 
improving the accuracy of details collected, which allowed better insight of true job costs and profitability on a daily basis. Businesses could review project progress daily and take corrective actions early to avoid cost overruns.

Momentum picked up as software was enhanced to allow the foreman to enter production units and collect field units on a daily basis, which meant the PM could make adjustments before costs got out of control, saving both time and money.

Around 2010, further enhancements to mobile technology spurred improved solutions that allowed field users to see productivity rates compared to budgets on a tablet, enabling foremen and superintendents to see immediately when work is over budget and possible ways to correct it. Forward-thinking contractors that delivered productivity metrics to field personnel saw a further reduction in cost overruns.

A Technology Turning Point

The industry is currently experiencing a pivotal point in construction technology history, which can be summed up in one word: mobility. It is worth clarifying a key concept here, though. The historical concept of “mobile” involved buying a mobile app and bolting it on to existing construction software, which adds to the series of workflows a company must manage. In contrast, the concept of “mobility” means being able to work anywhere.

Mobility is put into practice by giving workers—no matter their role, where they are or what they need to do—the right tool, for the right job, in the right place and incorporate it seamlessly. True mobility allows users to continue working and collaborate from anywhere on any device.

The Great Device Debate

As you work on your mobility strategy, you must determine what device you are going to use, and if that’s a tablet, a smartphone or both. Consider whether the device(s) will be used online only or offline, too. If the software you license is Web-based and only works online, you will need a data plan and consistent internet access, or your field personnel will become frustrated and won’t use the device at all.

The newest generation of tools now includes hybrid devices, such as the Windows Surface Pro, which equips PMs with one device that can be both a PC and a tablet. It is extremely convenient, but it’s a very large tablet. So while it seems good for a project manager, the big size typically doesn’t appeal to foremen who default to just using smartphones as they grow in size.

Again, it comes down to using the right tool for the task at hand—understanding who needs what, where they need it and how the tool’s functionality will impact workflow. If using two devices, then there are usually two data plans, two products for IT to manage and so on. Whatever you decide to do, make sure it is well protected. Some contractors purchase safety vests with inside pockets large enough to hold a mini tablet in a ruggedized case.

The Impact of Mobility

At the end of the day, construction business owners are keenly interested in the broad business impacts of having an effective mobility strategy. Some are more immediate and tangible, and others deliver maximum value long term.

  • Better tracking —Data collection at the point of observation allows better tracking. Notifications and approvals can be done in the field, and approving RFIs and other necessary documents in a timely fashion allows contractors to be paid faster.
  • Clear communication —Project managers can use smartphones and tablets for punch lists and to capture photos of items. Photos can be annotated to help clearly explain or understand an issue or action needed. Signatures can be collected immediately and stored with all other forms in an electronic repository. Mobility allows clarity between owners and the crew, giving the office a view into field activities.
  • Manage risk —When in the field, contractors must have visibility and insight into project information, including drawings, specs, schedules, contracts, daily logs, safety, quality and defect management. Furthermore, you can get accurate and actionable information sooner when recording it at the point of observation.
  • Single source of truth —With the entire ecosystem all working together to feed into a single source of truth, everyone on a project and across the company is always working with the most current and accurate piece of information. It’s one convenient and secure source for drawings, RFIs, submittals and photos. So the contractor, subcontractors and the owner are all working with the latest version of documents, whether on a PC in the office or on a tablet or smartphone in the field.
  • Vendor of choice —Become the vendor of choice by providing accurate and timely information to owners and make it easy to do business with you.

Start your quest for comprehensive mobility by mapping out the workflows of each role involved. Then, address