James Benham began writing code at the age of 11 and by 14 had developed his first software application. In 2001, he founded JB Knowledge Technologies Inc., an information technology services provider and maker of the SmartBidNet construction bid software. For more information, visit www.jbknowledge.com.
Imagine your project managers in their offices with a real-time dashboard of all jobsite progress and a 3-D graphic that updates every five minutes, rendering your structure as it advances floor by floor. They can click to see a live video feed through the eyes of an HVAC subcontractor with augmented reality safety goggles that have overlaid, before their eyes, the rendering of the 3-D model in their section of the jobsite. You can even send a link to your project owners with a note to “check out the view from your soon-to-be 22nd floor office, and meet the guys working on it right now” and the option for everyone to jump on a video conference call.
The capabilities of technology, once merely imaginative concepts in science fiction movies, are quickly developing for daily use in commercial and residential building. Advancements in cloud computing are redefining expectations in building information modeling (BIM) as well as data availability and mobility. The evolution of imaging and file sharing is redefining project collaboration, and advancements in integration are redefining how your processes and departments share project data.
Our company recently performed a survey about commercial construction technology solutions and found a pleasantly surprising statistic: almost 50 percent of the 450 construction professionals surveyed are actively using BIM software. Historically, the cost of BIM software has created the perception that only large design-build firms have the resources for BIM adoption. However, as graphic modeling and cloud technology improves, more and more cost-effective solutions are emerging, and there are even free ones, such as Trimble, Sketchup and Tekla BIMsight. These solutions allow builders to access libraries of thousands of models to measure, takeoff and share models in real-time or even drop them into mapping platforms like Google Earth for jobsite previews and displays.
Soon, all the models, materials and other components that make up BIM models will be cross-referenced with vendor-supplied, cloud-based cost databases and will connect users directly to suppliers, estimators, project managers and anyone else in need of project information without time to calculate quantities. Completed models will also be available to project participants on the jobsite.
Cloud-based File Sharing
Historically, estimators would spend 45 minutes to an hour downloading plan sets or sending files to a reprographer (paying $100 to get each set printed) for a job they may or may not bid. Thankfully, the cloud has changed that. Files can now be accessed remotely from a centralized database and viewed, downloaded and commented on from multiple offices. The cries of “Who has the latest version of … ?” will have faded. Locally stored backups of files in the cloud also mitigate against loss of Internet connectivity. The key is getting multiple construction software products, as well as mobile devices, to all use and synchronize with a cloud-based document and plan repository so that version control and document checkouts become seamless to the end user. Look for continued moves to major cloud platforms like Sage’s move in 2012 to Microsoft Azure for their cloud delivery.
What used to be the hope of mobility has become the standard: We expect our data to be synced across all devices and locations at all times. The demand for mobile technology has pushed mobile development to achievements we previously thought possible only in “Star Trek” and “Back to the Future: Part 2.” Eventually, much more than just your laptop, tablet and smartphone will be considered “mobile devices.” Your glasses, your camera, your credit cards—they will all connect wirelessly to consolidate your personal and professional data, communicating information that used to be transferred manually. Communications, clash detection, progress monitoring and time sheets will no longer be separate processes that your administrators connect. They will become seamless data, collected simultaneously and organized for your complete project management.
The initiative that will have the largest impact on the future of construction technology but that needs the most encouragement to fully reach its potential is integration. With our personal technology, reviews are available while searching for restaurants in Google Maps, GPS navigation is available from the appointment notification in your calendar, and your contacts are easily synchronized between your phone and tablet. However, this level of integration is not equally upheld in business. By demanding the same level of customization and integration in construction solutions, professionals will hopefully see a significant improvement in integration standards across the variety of software used for build projects.
Before integration can ignite more digital collaboration in the industry, a few key obstacles must be addressed. First, builders need to understand what “cloud” really means and how it facilitates integration. They also need to be educated on how data hosted remotely can and should be secured. Mistrust and misuse of web-based software has scared too many companies away from considering cloud services. The construction industry is long overdue to take advantage of these technologies.
Initiatives like the Construction Open Software Alliance work to align technology providers to provide the most seamless, integrated solutions for builders, automatically connecting processes, departments and individuals who were previously sharing data manually. Construction companies are looking for integration opportunities both within their company and among other companies. When software solutions can integrate and cooperate regardless of the provider, the possibilities will be endless.
Where to Start
There are incredible prospects ahead for the application of construction technology, but each one starts with demand and adoption. Everyone needs to stay informed about what’s out there and what’s coming because tech providers need constant testing and feedback from the end user in order to make the solutions user-friendly. Spend one hour a week testing out free trials of software, mobile apps or web-based platforms that could one day be relevant to build your market. I guarantee it will get you excited about what your jobsite and back office will look like in a few years.