Info Tech Train Wreck

Vince Bailey / June 2017

There’s too much confusion; I can’t get no relief…—from “All Along the Watchtower” by Bob Dylan

Only those of us who matured before the tech revolution can really appreciate the dizzying speed with which the phenomenon permeated and then appropriated our entire social fabric. The breakneck pace of tech’s absolute conquest can be matched only by its breathtaking development. We recall the birth of the movement with its lightning-fast Commodore 64 PCs, electrifying games of Pong and noisy dot-matrix printers—only to witness the advent of three-dimensional modeling, virtual reality, artificial intelligence and the rise of robotics. The head-spinning evolution of the digital age over a few decades has been nothing short of spectacular.
Equally as spectacular, or even more so, is the way information technology has revolutionized the construction industry, and it’s pretty easy to see why. The amount of information involved on a typical commercial construction project is staggering. Drywall subs are inundated with preconstruction documents—i.e., instructions to bidders, plans, specs, addenda, material quotes and proposals; through project management instruments—i.e., contracts, budgets, submittals, schedules, purchase orders, safety issues, RFIs, ASIs, plan/spec revisions, time cards, work orders, production tracking, daily reports, email correspondence, photographs, meeting minutes, and billings; to close-out management—i.e., punch lists, warranties, O&M manuals, as-built drawings, final billing, lien releases and close-out letters.
Wow, that’s a mouthful! And most of us estimator/project managers aren’t even aware of the volume of info that we absorb and disseminate on a daily basis. We’re too busy doing it.
Clearly, these numerous tasks cry out for a powerful document management program to fill the void. Couple this need with the industry’s ability to pay top dollar for such management tools. Consequently, savvy tech designers were quick to customize programs to meet construction procurement and management’s unique requirements—and then some.
The variety of time-saving tasks that these programs provide ranges from impressive to miraculous. The most sophisticated of them apply a concept known as optical character recognition (OCR). In a nutshell, OCR is a technology that enables conversion of image-based text, documents and images (read-only) into editable and searchable data. In addition to mere document management and storage, the systems that utilize OCR perform tasks heretofore unheard of. A short list of management exercises that some systems provide would include the following:
PDF overwrite. Once upon a time, a PDF was really a read-only snapshot of a document that could be transmitted and stored, but not edited. Those days are no more. With the advent of OCR, PDF data can be deleted, amended or changed just like any Word document.
Spec-book search. Similarly, PDFs can be word-searched with an OCR program. Now it’s become easy to breeze through a 987-page spec book that’s rarely paginated and glean those few Division 9 sections that pertain to framer/drywallers by simply typing in the CSI numbers in the search box.
Rename plan pages. Plan pages are generally downloaded with a simple number sequence assigned by the sender. Estimators all know what a pain it is to rename the pages with their architectural/structural nomenclature—a necessary evil. OCR can read a title block from the plan page and rename all the pages accordingly.
Overlay function. This allows an estimator/PM to merge the images of the original and revised version of the same page to determine what, if any, changes have been made. Quite indispensable when deltas are not clouded.
Hyperlinks. This enables a bidmeister jump from a plan page to a designated detail with the click of a mouse. Very handy with a split screen or multi-screen setup.
Annotation of plans. Notation of addenda, RFIs, ASIs, CCDs—literally all changes can be annotated electronically for easy dissemination of as-builts.
As stated, this is just a short list of the positive power of construction management programs. But as the foreshadowing in my column title hints, there is a serious downside to all of this—that is, too much of a good thing. Clearly this technology is a boon to general contractors who coordinate a project’s info flow and who generally play host by inviting (compelling) subcontractors to get on board with their program of choice.
Here’s the hitch: There is currently a plethora of construction management systems on the market, and every major general seems to have selected a different program from the others. If it were only, say, two top systems to choose from, then a poor sub might be able to cope. But there are dozens of programs out there for the generals to choose from with at least a half-dozen favorites that major GCs seem to have latched on to. Trouble is, they each seem to have recognized the benefit of another, saddling many subs who deal with several favorite GCs with the burden of subscribing to (cost) and training on (time and effort) multiple programs simultaneously, sometimes as many as four or five.
The eventual remedy for this will be a product of the free market—i.e., one or two programs will, by sheer merit, emerge as the system(s) of preference for most or all GCs. In the meantime, subs will have no relief in struggling with too much confusion.

Vince Bailey is an estimator/project manager working in the Phoenix area.