by Beverly McRae
November 2, 2011

Do you remember when "the wireless" referred to a transistor radio?

Or maybe you are a member of the generation that associates "wireless" with a cellular phone? Well, thanks to the constantly evolving nature of technology, this word has taken on an entirely new and different meaning. Now, when you read articles or watch television commercials talking about wireless technology, what is almost always being referred to is wireless data.

Wireless data works very much like a cell phone and often rides on the same type of public network as the handset in your pocket, but instead of transmitting the sound of your voice from point A to point B, it transmits visual data-like words, coordinates, pictures and even video. Wireless data is important to you, because it is important to your business. Construction, because of the nature of the industry, stands to benefit from communicating to and from remote areas where traditional phone and computer networks cannot yet reach.

What Is WWAN?

Wireless Wide Area Networks (WWAN) are built and maintained by the big telecommunication companies such as Sprint, Verizon Wireless, and Cingular. Wireless LAN (also known as WIFI or 802.11X. WIFI) does not cover large regions and therefore does not have the same benefits to the construction business owner.

With WWAN, just like your cell phone service plan, you are billed monthly by the phone company for the amount of data utilized. Also, just like a cell phone, your connection to the wireless network relies on coverage. Competition between the big telecommunication companies over the last two years has made wireless data coverage in the United States better than it has ever been before.

Increased Accountability

Ever notice how people are more accountable in writing? Details that are lost or forgotten when communicating on the phone or face-to-face are more readily recalled when concretely written down. That is why job quotes are almost always delivered in written form. That is also what makes e-mail such a valuable tool in business. The proverbial paper trail lets you capture exactly what was agreed upon or what was needed or what was done, without a "he said, she said" battle. A

In an industry like construction, which requires so much cooperation and communication between different parties based at remote jobsites, the efficiencies to be gained by delivering instructions and feedback in writing cannot be overlooked. Wireless data allows written instructions and work orders to be delivered to a jobsite over-the-air and feedback including diagrams and pictures to be sent back.

Wireless data enhances communication and increases accountability. It allows the construction business owner to have unprecedented visibility and control of his people and assets that are working remotely. As the business climate becomes more competitive for new construction projects, those firms who can run the tightest ship will be the most successful.

Putting Wireless Date to Work for You

How are other construction business owners putting wireless data to work for their companies?

Mobile/Jobsite Communication

The easiest way for your company to start reaping the benefits of wireless data communications is to institute a policy of e-mail communication with your key mobile workers at remote jobsites. Two very common scenarios for doing this are presented in the examples listed below.

Example One: Construction supervisors bring greater efficiency to a project with wireless data communication.

Goal: To create a more efficient workflow for signing off change orders.

Tools Needed: A laptop computer with integrated wireless data modem, signature  capture capabilities and a digital camera.

Solution: Instead of having to drive back and forth to a corporate office, a supervisor can create a change order, have the appropriate party at the jobsite sign it and send it to all interested parties via e-mail complete with a corresponding picture file.

Result: Change orders are filed much more quickly with a gain in accuracy, since they can be originated onsite.

Example Two: Wireless data enables e-mail in a jobsite trailer

Goal: To enable two employees in a construction trailer at a temporary location to quickly send bills of lading to headquarters via e-mail without running any DSL, cable or telephone cables to the temporary trailer.

Tools Needed: Two laptop computers, a portable scanner and a WWAN router.

Solution: E-mail is often needed at a jobsite as a primary form of communication. Unfortunately, by the time the wire-line provider (i.e., your local DSL provider) can schedule to run a wire-line connection, it is often too late.  With this solution, the trailer can be off the grid, and important e-mails can still be sent with scanned documents attached.

Result: The administrative side of the construction business can be executed much more quickly with fewer mistakes when the administrative employees at the jobsite have access to wireless data technology.

Better Asset Management

Construction business owners that possess their own fleet of trucks, earth movers or other valuable machinery need to pay special attention to managing all of their assets to the best possible productivity levels. Some days you might feel like you need a crystal ball to see what your work teams are doing out in the field. That magically clear visibility can be a reality when you implement automatic vehicle location to track all your vehicle assets.

Automatic Vehicle Location

Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) gets a bad rap as being like "Big Brother." AVL far exceeds what your big brother could ever do-it is more like having Santa Claus on your site. Whoever is naughty and whoever is nice is revealed-so it is a great tool to make sure your employees stay on the straight-and-narrow. To a busy business owner or manager, the benefits are great. AVL technology helps construction companies overcome some significant challenges.

Scenario One: Heavy Moonlighting with Heavy Equipment

Goal: A business owner has reasons to suspect that his loader is being used on the weekends without his permission. Many dollars worth of fuel and additional wear-and-tear to his machinery are being incurred. He wants to  know how frequently his assets are being used for unauthorized work and where this work is taking place.

Tools Needed: A desktop computer with color monitor in headquarters, an activated wireless data network device with integrated GPS installed in each asset, a monthly subscription service to an AVL service provider and a pager.

Solution:  Using an AVL application, a fence (or to use the lingo, "a geofence") is drawn on a map around the authorized location of the loader. Over the  weekend, if the loader is removed from that location, a page will automatically be sent alerting the manager that the loader has been  removed illicitly. The manager can then go to his desktop computer and see the exact location of his loader on the map.

Result: All illicit moonlighting stops completely.

Scenario Two: Tardiness Issues at the Jobsite

Goal: A business owner has tardiness problems with his employees. He wants to fix his corporate culture and show that punctuality is mandated.  Unfortunately, he runs multiple jobsites and cannot be everywhere at once to enforce the schedule. His goal is to have an accurate and simple way to  time-stamp employee arrivals and departures at his jobsites.

Tools Needed: A desktop computer with color monitor in headquarters, an activated wireless data network device with integrated GPS installed in each vehicle asset and monthly subscription service to an AVL provider that includes reporting capabilities.

Solution: The manager installs a wireless data network device with integrated GPS   capabilities in each of his fleet vehicles. He geofences each of his work sites and runs a report once a week that lists the timestamp of when each   of his employee's vehicles enters or leaves a jobsite.

Result: Once accurate time-stamping is initiated, employee timeliness increases. If employees are paid on an hourly basis, payroll savings are made because employees are only be paid for time on the jobsite.

Workflow Management and Scheduling

For construction firms that are technologically-savvy, the power of wireless real-time communication can be leveraged to seamlessly integrate the workflow between people in the field and people in company headquarters. There are a variety of software packages in the marketplace that are designed specifically to improve workflow management-and the value of this type of software only increases when it can be used wirelessly in a mobile environment. Two packages that are representative of the innovation that is taking place in the industry are a commercial offering by BuilderMT and a software application commissioned by the City of Raleigh for the city's Inspections Department.

BuilderMT offers a software suite that is designed to provide a framework for streamlining home building processes. It includes modules for improving the supply chain, quoting building costs and scheduling jobs. The wireless scheduling application allows a builder to update a scheduled activity, approve purchase orders, manage variances, maintain quality control walk-throughs, initiate vendor notifications and send text and e-mail messages to suppliers.

In an innovative public-private partnership, the City of Raleigh has partnered with software developer Sages Networks to produce a purpose-built scheduling system for the city Inspections Department to utilize their employees in the field more productively. City inspectors receive work order scheduling via the application, and if they can make the inspection appointment, they take the work order, and if they cannot, they have an option to send it to a colleague whose schedule is more open. Early tests show an increase in productivity in the department by 15 percent. City management plans on making this software commercially available to other firms nationwide to better manage the new construction inspection process.

The adoption of wireless data technology in the construction industry is in its early stages-partly due to the fact that the construction segment has been so busy in the last five years that the time that a business owner has had to spend researching technology is minimal. However, the return on investment from better managing a remote work-force that currently operates without much oversight is a no-brainer. Many companies already possess some of the technology equipment needed to get started, like laptops. All that is needed is the initiative to make the leap to invest in a wireless data service plan and a scanner to start improving the construction work-flow and the bottom line.

 
Construction Business Owner, December 2006