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Paper: Seriously?

This summer, on the 30th floor of the Rincon Tower Phase II in San Francisco, Adam Barbee, general foreman at Daley’s Drywall & Taping, accompanies a GC inspector who questions how a wall was built. Barbee taps his fingers on an iPad. Using an application called PlanGrid, he summons a digital report complete with a high-resolution photo of the wall, notes explaining the change and its approval documentation. The inspector is satisfied.

The same week in Plano, Texas, Koby Newkirk, project supervisor for the commercial division at Marek Brothers Systems, eyes crew members arriving at Legacy Tower. Each worker checks in with an iPad laying on a table. By waving their hard hats before the iPad, an app called TimeStation reads their individual barcodes and clocks them into work. It’s 7 a.m. Newkirk himself has worked for an hour and quarter on his iPad. (Not the barcode reader iPad, but a second one.) He’s checked the weather, tallied and uploaded prior-day time sheets for 30 men, read his email and, using Bluebeam, downloaded the latest construction documents from the GC’s servers. He’ll carry the plans all day in an iPad slung on his shoulder.

Two men. Three tablets. Huge projects. No paper.

Well, there’s some NCR paper on the job sites, but these crew leaders don’t make much use of it. Digital documentation is more accurate. The crews like to see 3-D renderings of what they’re building. For the GCs running these jobs, electronic communication is required. And, it’s just plain exciting.

“We’re having fun getting our foremen paperless,” says Craig Daley, president of Daley’s Drywall & Taping.

GCs Set the Stage

Tablets have claimed a place in the tool cribs of large drywall firms. Not every firm uses them as thoroughly as do Daley’s Drywall and Marek Brothers. “I know a lot of our competitors use iPads in the field,” says Brent Allen, vice president of Compass Construction in Dublin, Ohio. “We don’t have a big need for them because of the type of projects we do.”

But among large drywall firms, electronic documentation, paperless time reporting and digital project management have begun to proliferate. Tablets and their apps are affordable. An Apple iPad Air with 32 GB storage, for example, costs $599. Dropbox for Business costs $15 per user per month for unlimited storage (five user minimum). Compared to a couple of 18-volt cordless drywall screwdrivers at $250 each, tablets with decent storage seem to fall within many companies’ capital expense budgets.

And why not? The tablets pay for themselves, drywall executives say, by saving time. What won’t pay, they note, is to ignore the drive to go all-digital.

“I’m responsible for making things happen, for safety and for keeping a good relationship with the GC,” Newkirk says. “That means we use what the GC wants us to use.”

Building owners, architects and general contractors want to save on printing costs, expedite distribution of plan revisions to the trades and, ultimately, build better structures. Thus, more GCs are setting up Wi-Fi hotspots on their job sites and loading construction documents onto their servers with login access. This means subcontractors can grab BIM renderings, blueprints, revisions, change-order approvals and the like on the spot. Many believe digital communication is changing the drywall business for good.

“Seventy-five percent of my crew leaders are doing everything on a tablet or a laptop,” says John Hinson, division president at Marek Brothers Systems. “I rarely see non-electronic drawings anymore.”

Marek Brothers, in fact, has a department dedicated solely to scanning and converting paper construction documents to digital files. Hinson says a set of documents consumes a lot of electronic “trunk space” on an FTP server. The documents required to build the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium (a Marek Brothers project) would have taken a foreman “days to download,” he says. So, Marek Brothers employs multiple servers—and extra staff—to improve download speeds and enable crew leaders to get what they need quickly. The documents are already partially distributed, so to speak, by being sorted and stored on servers dedicated to each Marek office, including Dallas, Fort Worth, Oklahoma City, Atlanta, Houston, San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley.

Apps Save Money

Creating, accessing and forwarding documents is all about having the right field apps. Popular today in drywall construction: Bluebeam, Canvas, Dropbox, GoodReader, PlanGrid, TimeStation.

“I can take a picture and write ‘Room 1202 column wrap not big enough to wrap pipe—see pic. Add 3 inches?’” says Newkirk about the Bluebeam app. “I’ll get the OK, and that’s when the architect updates the drawings.”

The list of what’s popular and what works is bound to change. What can be said, though, is that apps have become easy to use and multifunctional. Many apps can synchronize data across multiple hardware and software platforms (Windows, Mac OS X, Google Android, Apple iOS). There’s some learning curve. But, there’s also self-generated enthusiasm that helps companies stay abreast of change.

“Our guys bring technology to the team. They say, ‘Look, this is the latest thing out there,’” Hinson says. “We’ll have a class for all the technology we’ve been exposed to. But on the front end, when we’re trying to sell a job, when the client says, ‘Do you know how to use “Blue Box” [a made-up name]?’ We say, ‘Yes, of course we do.’”

Hinson says Marek Brothers is winning more contracts because it’s digitally up-to-date. Besides giving GCs confidence about a drywall firm’s professional capabilities, digital connectivity puts power at the foremen’s fingertips, allowing them to open construction plans, find particular assemblies on particular floors of projects, annotate the plans and send them out for approval—all from their tablets. No cutting and pasting. No need to snap photos with a separate camera. No more USB cables. No more illegible handwriting.

“An extra work order used to take four or five days. The foreman would fill it out in triplicate NCR paper. We’d get a copy when he brought it in on Monday,” Daley says. “Nowadays, we get it electronically the day he writes it. We can process the order and get it to the client right away.”

Marek’s Newkirk cites a 2005 project, the One Arts Plaza in Dallas, as an example of how tablets can save drywall contractors money.

“We had to have a full-time administrator on the job site. All the guy did was time sheets for 100 people, take pictures and document RFIs,” Newkirk says. “Well, the iPad eliminated that position. I can do his eight-hour day in an hour.”

According to Newkirk, the added responsibility is far from being a burden. He intersperses the field administrator’s tasks throughout the day, while staying focused on production.

“We don’t make money clicking on the iPad. We make money shooting track down on the floor and standing studs,” he says. “I still have to get down and dirty as a crew leader.”

What’s Next?

Integrating tablets in the field with office software represents an advance in project management automation. The ability to track RFIs, change orders and conflicts on a 9.7-inch diagonal screen is winning drywall contractors projects and saving them money. More efficiencies seem to be in the pipeline.

“Lately, everyone has been moving to the Revit system for BIM,” Hinson says. “That’s been a saving grace, because in the last two years they’ve been inviting the drywall company to the table.”

What’s next in big tech from drywall contractors? Five years ago, paper was the stock-and-trade blueprint reading material. Even as recent as three years ago, just a handful of iPads seem to exist on industry job sites. But three to five years from now? Will foremen wear the latest versions of Google Glass computers to document their work hands-free? Will we supplement crews with robots to help lay track, cut material and position board for fastening?

“We don’t foresee huge lifesaving or time-saving methods coming for our trade anytime soon,” Daley says. “Maybe someone will come out with lighter-weight gypsum board, but I don’t see any way to improve how to cut it or fasten it. This is still a by-the-hands industry.”

Mark L. Johnson is a marketing consulting and an industry writer. He tweets at @markjohnsoncomm and connects at

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