Kathy Wells is the editor of Construction Business Owner magazine.
Smart software solutions & how they can pave the way for improved processes
Heavy construction requires heavy equipment, and how a contractor maintains and manages his or her fleet has a big impact on the ability to meet project deadlines and budget targets. Mark Hooks, a sales engineer at B2W Software, says technology presents the opportunity to take a more holistic approach that can cut maintenance costs, increase uptime and drive collaboration across maintenance, scheduling/dispatching and field management workflows. B2W Software provides estimating, bidding and operations solutions to civil construction companies focusing on transportation, utility, energy and specialty contracting projects. Hooks provides customized demonstrations of the B2W ONE Platform for estimating and operations to contractors throughout North America. Construction Business Owner (CBO) recently sat down with Hooks to get his perspective on the most effective methods of fleet management. Read the following for his insights.
CBO: With so many workflows impacting profitability, why should a heavy civil contractor focus on equipment management as a priority for process improvement?
MH: Equipment is essential for heavy construction. Contractors who track the costs of ownership and maintenance know they account for a large share of the budget and, conversely, any savings or increases in uptime go right to the bottom line.
The fleet and individual assets are also part of a greater operations ecosystem. How they are managed has a major impact on crews, materials, planning, dispatching, project schedules, safety and, ultimately, the ability to deliver projects on time and on budget.
Finally, I would emphasize that technology developments like software applications, mobile capabilities, telematics and GPS have converged to present exciting new opportunities to manage assets more effectively.
CBO: In your experience with contractors throughout North America, what are the prevailing tools or systems being used to manage equipment maintenance, scheduling and dispatching and field operations?
MH: I’m biased, coming from the software side, but I’m surprised by how many companies still rely on what I call manual or offline solutions. These include spreadsheets, whiteboards, paper forms or a combination of these.
This is changing gradually with the proliferation of better software options and the competitive pressures to deploy them. Still, even for companies that have adopted software, we see the functions that you mentioned—maintenance, scheduling and field operations—being managed independently, with their own disconnected tools. An emerging challenge is figuring out how to connect the workflows and all of the data.
CBO: What about independent software for specific workflows? What advantages do highly specialized applications have?
MH: Specialized applications can provide significant advantages over manual offline solutions. The problem is that equipment-related workflows intersect and overlap. They’re not isolated. When the software is isolated, it’s hard to ensure accuracy, share data, work collaboratively and maximize efficiency.
One frustration we hear over and over from contractors is that they’ve deployed several software applications over the years to solve specific problems, and now they are struggling to get them to talk with each other. The time and effort they spend on integration and on syncing multiple data sources offsets many of the gains they achieve with the individual applications.
I would add that we also still see a lot of phone calls, emails and text messages being used to cover the gaps among the field, the office and the shop. They’re fast and direct, but the lack of structure and visibility creates problems, and it is nearly impossible to build reports and dashboards based on this fragmented data.
CBO: What are the key advantages of connected applications or a more unified approach?
MH: The quick answer is real-time collaboration and access to information that can help teams across the organization make better, data-driven decisions.
CBO: Can you provide some examples of how maintenance teams and managers in the field can benefit from a cohesive system?
MH: Sure. Maintenance software is designed to drive more of a preventive approach and to bring efficiencies to the work order processes. Cohesion with the scheduling application gives the shop the benefit of seeing exactly where equipment is and where it is going, including any changes as they occur in real time.
Equipment repair requests from the field are also everyday occurrences. When these can be completed in the field tracking application with photos, videos and other supporting data and then seen instantly in the maintenance application, the shop has better information and can react quickly and more effectively.
Let’s look at foremen or supervisors in the field. To build and complete projects, they also have to build and complete field logs. By importing data directly from the scheduling software, they avoid mistakes and cut down on manual, repetitive data entry.
CBO: Scheduling and dispatching also have a major impact on equipment costs and utilization. What examples can you share?
MH: Knowing the current and future maintenance status of equipment assets is obviously critical to the scheduler or dispatcher. When the two applications are in sync, he or she has up-to-the minute insight into when equipment can be deployed. The maintenance and scheduling personnel can also collaborate to strike the optimal balance between preventive maintenance schedules and production schedules in the field.
Likewise, transparency between both the field tracking and scheduling applications gives dispatchers instant and accurate awareness of equipment resource requests made in the field. They can react quickly and in the most effective way possible to remedy a problem in a timely and efficient manner.
CBO: Is it difficult to implement a sophisticated software platform in the construction environment—especially one covering multiple workflows—without resistance from employees?
MH: Advanced and sophisticated are not synonymous. Construction software solutions today—the good ones, at least—are extremely intuitive and easy to use. Employees are also less resistant. They’re more and more used to technology in their everyday lives. Increasingly, they want and expect to use the latest technologies on the job.
This being said, success is not as simple as just buying the software and plugging it in. The ROI potential is huge, but to achieve it, contractors should have a strategy for deploying technology that matches their business objectives. Follow through from senior management, training and a focus on improving processes to optimize the software are the other common ingredients to success we historically see across our client base.