Understand how mobile apps are changing in the construction industry in order to use them effectively.

In the early days of business software, applications were geared toward accomplishing individual tasks. As software evolved, these applications grew in scope. Today, so-called “enterprise” software is used by businesses of all sizes.

Enterprise software is characterized by the combination of features and capabilities into a single system used by people across an organization from accounting to field operations. A benefit of this approach is that information can flow faster and easier between the multiple groups or individuals who need it.

To cover the spectrum of a construction company’s needs, however, enterprise software can, at times, make tasks harder than they need to be. Enter the app. Not just an abbreviation for “application,” the app is a piece of software that is designed to do one thing, do it well and do it easily.

There are a growing number of apps available for contractors. As they become more important for the industry, it is worth spending time to understand the apps that are available, including how they are delivered and used and how they work alongside and within enterprise software systems.

Apps for Construction
One characteristic of many apps is that they lend themselves to mobility. Until recently, users of business software were limited to working in an office environment. Project managers or staff working at the jobsite would often be left to fend for themselves when it came to field productivity software.

With the advent of advanced smartphone and tablet technology came an explosion in the number of apps available for every conceivable use, including the business of construction. Apple and Google’s online stores are approaching one million apps each. The question is this: How many of these apps are useful for contractors?

The answer is “Quite a few,” which makes sense, since a recent study by Eric Mower + Associates showed that about half of all contractors are using smartphones and more than 20 percent use tablets. The first apps designed for the construction jobsite provided basic data entry for information such as labor hours and equipment usage. Today, the range of the construction app is increasing. Here are some of the tasks that mobile apps are helping field operations staff perform:

  • Calculations – Apps abound that can calculate material needs, perform math using standard units of measurement, such as feet and inches, and simplify complicated volume calculations.
  • Reference – When specific construction data is needed, many apps serve it up fast. Examples include those that provide information on construction materials or that help electrical contractors select the right connectors for the job.
  • Drawings – Being able to view large, complex construction drawings in digital format is not new, but being able to do so using lightweight mobile devices is. Well-designed interfaces and advanced streaming technologies have allowed the development of document viewers that can deliver terabyte-sized information to tablets and smartphones.
  • CAD and BIM – Apps are available that allow BIM document viewing and the creation of basic design drawings. While they are no replacement for full CAD/BIM applications, these can be useful on the jobsite and are more convenient than using a pencil and scratchpad.
  • Contracts – Contract-building apps are available that allow field staff to generate management-approved agreements, letting work proceed without the delay of office processing and approvals.
  • Estimating – Apps will not generate complex job estimates but can quickly calculate costs for simple jobs or change requests.
  • Daily logs – Apps are available that allow project managers to build a log of events as they occur instead of waiting for the end of the day.

This is only a partial list since the number and scope of mobile apps is growing every day. Finding the apps that perform the tasks listed above is as simple as going to an app store and entering a search term.

Using Apps in Your Business
As the number and quality of mobile apps continue to grow, it makes sense to create a plan for implementing them. Identifying specific apps that everyone should use is an exercise in frustration, given the rapidly growing pool of options. Daily logs, document review and contract management are examples of apps that should be common throughout an organization, since they affect the management of projects upstream and downstream from the app user.

Once a decision is made to have a set of apps become part of an organization’s standard operating procedure, it is important to understand how they work, how they are delivered and how information can be shared among users.

Most apps are native, meaning they operate on mobile devices on which they are installed. Non-native apps work across platforms of all types by using the Internet as their method of delivery, requiring only a connection and a web browser.

The advantage of Web-based apps is that they work anywhere, from any connected device. There is no need to worry about hardware, operating systems or installation onto the device. They also make data sharing much easier, since they are designed to use cloud-based resources that can be selectively opened up to multiple people. The disadvantage is that one needs to be connected to the Internet for the app to work. A hybrid model is emerging in which native apps make use of the cloud resources of the Internet, and web-based apps have an option to download code that allows them some offline functionality.

The Evolution of the App
As powerful and popular as apps can be, they do not replace the need for enterprise software that provides a complete view of finances and operations. So, as one would expect, the app is finding its way into the domain of enterprise software, providing complementary, integrated tools.

Look for apps to move outside the boundaries of the device-specific online store and into the fabric of larger cloud-based business and operations software, providing the integration, mobility and ease of use needed by construction operations. Despite the multitude of apps on the market and the frequency of downloads to date, this is just the beginning of the age of the app.