Technology: Boon or Bane?

Ulf Wolf / August 2015

The IBM 360 Mainframe computer the author operated in the 1960s sported a (for its time) astonishing 256K of random access memory, and the cabinets housing this ferrite core (magnetic and mechanical) memory covered the better part of the ground floor of a large office building.

Today, you can buy an iPhone 6 with 512,000 times that memory size for 10,000th of the cost of the IBM 360.

Of course, this is Moore’s Law at work: The number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits has doubled every two years since their invention and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future. This prediction was made by Gordon Moore (co-founder of Intel) in 1965, and is still alive and kicking.

Others have tagged a second law onto Moore’s: Density will double while cost will halve, a law that also has continued to hold up well ever since.

In other words: The seemingly unstoppable digital technology marches on and has made incredible inroads in almost every field of human endeavor over the last 50 years: in communication, entertainment, research, travel, publication, you name it. Begging, naturally, the question: How has this technological advance affected construction? And how will it affect it going forward?

We turned to contractor members of the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry for their take on the matter.

Hardware
While office computers have been with us for a decade or two (accounting, estimating, etc.) more and more portable computer technology is now deployed on the job sites. When it comes to hardware, what are our preferences?

“We find smartphones and iPads to be indispensable,” says Stephen Eckstrom, vice president of California Drywall Co. “We currently have 80 iPads in the field with our foremen.”

Howard Bernstein, president of Penn Installations, Inc. in Pennsylvania, agrees: “We couldn’t live without smartphones and laptops. We also are seeing more large-format tablets rather than paper for blueprints.”

Mike Heering, president, and Justin Robbins, head of construction technology at F.L. Crane & Sons, Inc. in Mississippi, say that the iPad is definitely the front runner in application availability and ease of use and is what they are moving to for all their field employees. They use iPads because, they say, developers tend to release applications for iPad exclusively or before they are released for other devices.

Charles Antone, consultant with Building Enclosure Science in Rhode Island, observes that “smartphones are the most prevalent, and as they grow larger—almost becoming tablets that incidentally also make phone calls—I think tablets may eventually go by the wayside. However, while tablets and smartphones increase productivity and speed of communication, the heart of a job site still remains collaboration, and even if the plans are shared digitally via tablets, two questions still remain: Are the plans correct, and will they in fact be followed correctly by all the trades?”

Paul Godwin, BIM/central estimating manager, and Mike Holland, chief operating officer, at Marek in Texas, say that their company sees iPads and smartphones, but they also use other tablets, like Dell and Microsoft Surface, as well as Samsung phones.

Robert Aird, president, and Jim Bohn, project manager at Robert A. Aird, Inc. in Maryland, agree that iPads seem to be the most user-friendly and versatile, but tablets and clouds are making real inroads toward instantaneous field reporting for solving problems, time and production tracking.

Says Gabriel Castillo, estimator at Pillar Construction, Inc. in Virginia, “Smartphones and tablets are making sharing information easier while making our lives harder—the expectation of an immediate response 24/7.”

Lee R. Zaretzky, president of Ronsco, Inc. in New York, reports that his company uses “all kinds of smartphones, and half of our crews are now being equipped with iPads, which is working out very well.”

Many others shared their hardware choices with us, and the bottom line is this: Of all contractors surveyed, more than 90 percent deployed smartphones and tablets, mainly iPads, in the field.

Software
Without software (known as apps in our environment), the hardware is nothing but a dumb, expensive paperweight.

This leads to three questions:

  • What are today’s best jobsite applications?
  • What apps would you like to see but have yet to find?
  • What apps can you no longer live without?

Says Roger Olson, president of Sig Olson & Sons Plastering, Inc. in Minnesota, “The smartphone camera and picture-taking features are incredible. The phone cameras these days are very high quality and give sharp images. Should an issue arise, I can know about it and have it resolved, usually within hours if not minutes. This I can no longer live without.”

Then he adds, “I would love to see a good time-keeper app, so we can move away from paper.”

According to Giles Turgeon, president of Green Mountain Drywall Co., Inc. in Vermont, “Job safety apps are great; our crew leaders can look up safety issues in a minute.

“As for my wishes: an app that would do a jobsite take-off for ordering materials—and one that clones good workers!”

Stephen Baker, president of Baker Drywall, Ltd. in Texas, does not hesitate: “The best jobsite application is PlanGrid (plangrid.com).”

Observes Todd Lawrie, president of Delta Contracting Service, Inc. in Michigan, “Phones that relay text and pictures can save a world of time, but the thinking part still is up to the individual. The job does not come to a standstill without these phones.”

The one app Ken Fox, vice president at Delta United Specialties, Inc. in Tennessee, says he cannot live without is email. Then he adds, “What is out there does what we need but is not as user friendly as we would like, especially for our job-site personnel.”

Says Greg Smith, vice president of Mowery-Thomason, Inc. in California, “The introduction of BIM (Building Information Modeling) into the field is one of the greatest technological leaps to date. Being able to find discrepancies and clashes in the documents prior to building has really helped create a better set of drawings.

“This also gives our field crews a 3D-look at what they are building and how all the materials will interact and how the architectural adjacencies line up. It also allows for prefabrication of elements, where this may not have been viable in the past.”

As for his wish list: “An efficient application that tracks production and interfaces with both our estimating and accounting software. On Center (oncenter.com) Software has DPC (Digital Production Control) that does half of that task, but it doesn’t interface with our accounting software.”

Says Craig Daley, president of Daley’s Drywall & Taping in California, “Production tracking is our most critical job-site app: it tells us how we are doing in real-time and this lets us make changes before it’s too late.

“We use On Center’s DPC for tracking on a daily basis. For other job-site forms, we use Canvas (gocanvas.com) on the iPads. Working with Canvas, we’ve designed custom field reports, work orders, safety inspections, accident reporting, RFIs and a few others.

“Lastly, we use Plexxis (plexxis.com) mobile for time cards reporting and live job-site reports, all of which ties directly into our office database.

“As for my wish list: I’d love to see an app for dispatching and scheduling crews, and a tool-tracking app.”

Ryan Terry, estimator/project manager at DePalma Contracting Inc. in New Jersey, reports, “Adobe Viewer for drawings, and Excel-type spreadsheet for timesheets has worked well for us. Still, time sheets are always an issue with large crews, so that would be an area where applications could improve.

“As for what I can’t live without, email has become such a staple, with faxes going away, and most people wanting to cover their behinds with something in writing. A simple email usually can be sent with a tablet or smartphone in a matter of minutes.”

Shares Jeff Sample, IT director at The Gallegos Corporation in Colorado, says that “Bluebeam Revu (bluebeam.com) with its Studio cloud collaboration and projects has a distinct advantage in our industry; it ties diverse functions of the business into a single application that then extends to the field with cloud technology.”

Chad Hudepohl, LEED Green Associate at Valley Interior Systems, Inc. in Ohio, reports, “The one app we have initially found to be the most beneficial is PlanGrid. Essentially this is an electronic plan table where we are able to upload drawings along with specs, approved submittals, RFIs and any other valuable job information. Our foreman on site is then able to use his tablet to access all of this current information with the tips of his fingers.

“That said, we are still looking for the most efficient way to submit time sheets. With several-hundred field employees submitting time weekly, this can be quite the task. With each of our projects having detailed breakdowns per labor activity, we have yet to find an efficient app that delivers our desired outcome.

“As for what we cannot live without? PlanGrid, Excel and Bluebeam Revu are running on my computer/tablet nearly all day.”

Robert Sutton, estimator and project manager at Reitter Stucco and Supply in Ohio, says, “In my arsenal, you’ll find On Center Software’s takeoff and field center, Procore’s Mobile application, Viewpoint for Mobile, E-Builder Mobile and Oracle’s Primavera P6 Mobile.”

Reports Timothy Rogan, operations manager at Houston Lath & Plaster in Texas, “The cameras on the smartphone are a big asset to relay certain conditions immediately. Even with the job 70 miles away I can make a field decision from my desk.

“I would like to see an app that could break down the amount of work each man does. Many employees today do not have the drive to make a firm profitable. Eight hours is what most care about and when they see the end of the wall and don’t know what’s next, the production screeches to a halt.”

Says Jason Gordon, president of Heartland Acoustics & Interiors in Colorado, “Best apps these days are Smartsheet (Smartsheet.com) and Bluebeam. What I’m still looking for is a really good time-card app.”

Then adds, “The one app I can no longer live without is Genius Scan” (available on iTunes).

Antone recommends, “T-sheet (tsheets.com), a time-tracking software for smartphones, tablets and computers that removes having to balance the payroll. This is a huge resource for large construction firms. This company utilizes GPS tagging to enable construction crews to punch in and out on the smartphone.”

Eckstrom remembers the delays and issues paper prints caused back in the day: “Today, we like using PlanGrid, which helps our field and office stay up-to-date with the most current set of prints.

“However,” he adds, “while a lot of the current applications replace paper, they lack the intelligence to speak with our accounting and project management software. At this time we are beta testing a mobile application by PeerAssist (peerassistllc.com) that could be a game-changer for us.”

Heering and Robbins say the most important information that their employees need on the job site is up-to-date plans, and two applications allow them to distribute those most effectively: Bluebeam Revu (for iOS) and PlanGrid. Both apps allow them to distribute up-to-date drawings and job-specific documents to field employees through the cloud. “They also give our employees fully hyperlinked drawings that make navigating a set of plans a breeze,” says Heering. “It is worth noting that when using Bluebeam, you must also have a cloud storage service already in place (ShareFile, Box or Dropbox).”

As for what they cannot live without? They want to gather more information from the field for smoother projects, so they use a timekeeping application called AboutTime (abouttimetech.com) to clock employees in and out on job sites. Their project management software, eSUB (esub.com), helps gather daily reports. Employees can send marked-up plans back to project managers using PlanGrid, or Bluebeam to reflect questions or submit RFIs. They say that these applications are quickly becoming non-negotiables on their projects. Bottom line: Better communication means a smoother project.

Of the many others who reported on favorite apps, a large majority mentioned PlanGrid and Bluebeam Revu. And, for an even larger majority, what they wished for was a good time-sheet application.

Downside
With an impressive 50-year track record and with more going for it these days, it seems that technology doesn’t even consider the sky a limit. Is there indeed any downside at all to these digital inroads?

Godwin and Holland observe that the only downside is that technology continues to widen the divide between personal communication and electronic communication. They feel that personal communication skills are being lost due to the ability to communicate without actually having to talk with someone.

Warns Lawrie: “If technology is too heavily relied upon, the actual craft suffers, as does the craftsman. Technology cannot replace intuition or innovation.”

Bernstein says, “One downside is that mechanics pull out their smartphones each time they get a call or a text from their wife or mistress—save it for break time or for after work.”

Castillo observes, “Technology has helped us reach out to more clients, customers and subs. Unfortunately, these relationships are growing weaker and weaker. Now you see more and more immediate contacts rather than long-term professional relationships. People move on to other jobs, industries, companies. The relationship is with the individual, not with the position/company.

“If it weren’t for the subjective part of estimating, I would already have been replaced by software that will spit out perfect pricing per square foot every time. I land jobs because I give added value to a number (of course, I have to be in the low range to receive a call-back) but the personal interaction and the conversation is what makes this job interesting.

“The negotiation part is where you give me something, I give you something. You take the human part of my work away and it becomes Amazon—click, and you’ve ordered drywall online and will have it delivered (and installed) by a drone. We have to keep it human.”

This theme of less-and-less personal communication and faster-and-faster bits and bytes all expecting immediate turnaround and answers runs like a thread through virtually every response to this question. Castillo hit in on the head: “We must keep things human.”

Recruiting
These days, what part, if any, does the digital proliferation—Internet, corporate sites and social media sites—play in recruiting. Does anyone use classified ads in the local newspaper, or is old-fashioned word-of-mouth still meaningful when it comes to recruiting?

Sabra Phillips, director of talent development at Marek in Texas, gives a concise rundown of her company’s approach: “We include a complete Careers section on our website that outlines how to contact us and opportunities for skilled craft, office-based professionals and transitioning military.

“We also highlight our fast-track workforce development program for entry-level craft professionals, our project management internships, and our employee safety and wellness programs.

“We are in the process of further enhancing the Careers section to include more testimonials, including videos, from our employees.

“However, we do not currently use an online application; we still point candidates to a local recruiting coordinator for craft openings and to CareerBuilder for professional opportunities.

“We operate on the premise that candidates want to be able to visualize themselves at Marek and to get a feel for what it’s like to work here as well as have a clear view of the opportunities we offer as a career path.

“That said, we do still use print advertising as needed for craft recruiting (as does our staffing agency partner). Some offices also use online advertising with Craig’s List and the Greensheet.

“Still, word-of-mouth plays a huge role in recruiting. Our offices estimate that approximately 60 to 70 percent of our craft workforce is attracted through word-of-mouth.”

Castillo underscores word-of-mouth: “We find our best candidates, already prequalified and recommended, via word-of-mouth.”

As does Turgeon: “Word-of-mouth is our primary recruiting tool, friend of a friend who is looking for work, etc. However, the hardest part of this business right now is finding younger people that would like to have a construction career, and this affects not only drywall and carpentry, it affects the construction industry as a whole.”

Elisse Kelley, human resources director at The Gallegos Corporation in Colorado, offers this perspective: “We list all available positions on our site, which then refer the applicant to our recruitment system. We stress benefits, wages and company reputation. I also find social media useful to learn more about an applicant. As for newspapers, we still place ads since not all of our potential employees are technologically savvy and are still searching newspaper ads. That said, our biggest source of recruitment is through our employee referral program—word-of-mouth.”

In fact, of the many contractors surveyed, more than 90 percent said that word-of-mouth is their best source of new hires.

Also, the majority of those surveyed no longer use print media to advertise for jobs, but instead deploy resources like Craigslist, LinkedIn, Career Builder, Hardhat.com, Indeed, etc.

Of those surveyed listing job and career opportunities on their websites, the majority highlight their positive company culture as the best reason for joining their company.

Final Word
Technology is obviously here to stay.

In view of that, Sample provides a good final perspective: “Today, more than ever, technology is what you make of it. While the choices that we as a business have today will continue to change, it is the culture that we build around this technology that really matters.

“We need to put new tools in front of employees and dare to succeed or fail. This does not mean that we do so with reckless abandon but more with a thought-out approach to testing, development and deployment of new technologies. We will most likely not be the creators of the next great thing, but if we can become the facilitators of it, then we have succeeded and so has our company.”

California-based Ulf Wolf is the senior writer at Words & Images.