The idea of cutting the communication cord is appealing. Vendors are gathering like bees to nectar to offer tools to enhance wireless exchanges between field crews and project data.

RUGGED LOANER Tablet PC packs technology that synchronizes data constantly with server.

One construction need in particular, the collection of daily reports and two-way transmission of forms, change orders and requests for information, is being addressed by a number of vendors offering either modules to existing project management and accounting systems, or stand-alone services. But as much as those tools seem to be proliferating, what’s important are the results users achieve. Progress is not universal. Some firms that have been earnestly trying to integrate wireless communications for regular field-data flow are struggling to make it succeed.

"It’s really a good idea, if you can get it to work," says Terry Wooding, executive vice president of Petra Construction Corp., a commercial and industrial building contractor in North Haven, Conn. The firm has been experimenting with pulling electronic field reports via wireless connections into its accounting system for about a year. "Whoever does it first will probably make a million dollars—many millions of dollars," he says.


Petra has 125 employees on large and small jobs all over the state. Filing daily reports and time cards wirelessly to the back office system from laptops in the field would be a real convenience, Wooding says. But it is not mission-critical, so the initiative keeps getting bumped by higher priorities. Still, he says, "We are extremely interested in it [but we are] not as successful as we would like to be. We’ve worked through a number of possibilities and are not happy with any of them so far."

Petra first tried to give its supervisors wireless access to the company network through a portal on a server for a satellite office. "We thought it would be easy," says Wooding. "The whole system was already set up, so we’d just add another user. It would give a window into our network and allow us to put all our applications there instead of setting up every application on a laptop for each supervisor or foreman." But although the server worked great with a wired connection, "the wireless link turned out to be very sensitive to any kind of interruption. We’d have somebody connected and if there was minor hiccup you would lose him," he says. A foreman might lose 20 minutes of data input each time it happened.

The company gave that up and has one supervisor experimenting alone looking for another solution. "We’re not going to roll this out until it is bulletproof," says Wooding, citing the reluctance of foremen and supervisors to invest time in unproven systems.

Vendors, of course, are eyeing firms like Petra and are offering solutions to receive and process data and integrate it with office accounting and workflow systems. In some cases they add analysis and cost-control feedback. They are flexible in their ways to connect for transmission, including wireless links to the Internet. Cell phones, with their broad network coverage, are also widely employed. The technology has been used with many mobile data collection applications for other industries, such as freight tracking and package delivery, and some of those providers are eyeing the construction market as well.

Petra, for instance, is considering the mobile data collection services of Boise-based Extended Systems, whose client list includes FedEx. The company offers to customize software to integrate Petra’s field reports with its accounting package. Wooding says Petra might use the collection service, but write its own interface. "I don’t want to pay them to create software so I can see if it works," he explains.

Other vendors are squarely targeting construction. ThinkShare, a Seattle-based mobile data collection and information management company, offers a two-way system that tracks not only time, materials and equipment data, but also analyzes job progress and cost-control status. Richard Eastern, vice president of sales and marketing, says connectivity is rarely an issue. Neither is reluctance on the part of supervisors to adopt the technology, he says. Most users dump data a couple of times a day to ThinkShare servers by cabling PDAs and handheld computers to cell phones and dialing in.

As ThinkShare intakes data it generates feedback based on all the reports coming in from the field. It compares performance and cost experience with the original estimate and schedule. The reports can be viewed by managers in the office on a browser, but the analysis is also distributed on a running basis to supervisors in the field. "It’s not just fancy data collection, but reporting back to the field. It tells you how you have done; your costs-to-date versus what was bid," Eastern says

Another customer, Dave Kolb Grading Co., St. Charles, Mo., is using ThinkShare to improve accounting and load tracking on earthmoving for a new runway at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. "The wireless part is for our field supervisors to submit man-hours, equipment hours, materials received, all daily reports, what the weather was like and any instructions from the owner on a daily basis," says Melanie Thompson, an information technology specialists whose company, Foresight Consulting, St. Louis, is assisting the firm.

Thompson says the company expects better accuracy from field reports that don’t have to be processed by office clerks. She thinks the system also will let a smaller-sized office staff handle a larger volume of work, avoiding clerical employment spikes when times are flush. Operations can also be reviewed at any time "without having to go through reams of paper," she adds.

Another new wireless service that helps make sense of field-collected data is GPS TimeTrack, a purely cell-phone-enabled job data exchange service from Xora Inc., Mountain View, Calif. It uses Global Positioning System-enabled cell phones to track and record performance of individual workers. It can distribute instructions and broadcast text messages to the work force as well. Magnum Drywall, Freemont, Calif, is implementing it now. "The theory behind it is awesome," says Shannon Kennemore, company controller.

With the company’s current system, one supervisor files time and performance reports for 10 to 20 workers. He clocks them, notes production and faxes paper reports to the office weekly. With the cell-phone based system employees will clock in by phone using a code to define the type of work they are doing and at the end of the shift, the production they have achieved. At any time their locations can be tracked from a browser.

"Through the Internet we can see where they are," Kennemore says. "It gives their time and productivity and we can import the information daily into our accounting software."

TIMELY DATA Costly errors can be avoided.

Kennemore expects the new process to save time and reduce errors. Productivity data will also feed back to company estimators to help them adjust calculations. The company can also use optional features of the service to send out text messages and track drivers to "make sure they are doing their job and not clocking in from home," Kennemore adds.

One of the most ambitious new wireless data services for construction has to be the Computer Aided Field System, from ShareChive LLC, San Francisco. The company is targeting supervisors with highway contractors and public transportation departments by leasing clients ruggedized tablet PCs loaded with huge amounts of project data, including images of CAD files that can be redlined, interactive reporting forms and documents. President Tarik Ayyad claims the entire project archive can be accessed on the system. He says the database also will integrate with most major back office and project management systems.

The tablets are made by WalkAbout Computers Inc., Singer Island, Fla., and customized by Northrop Grumman, Los Angeles. They use Cellular Digital Packet Data transmission technology that employs unused cellular channels to transmit data in packets at rates of up to 19.2 Kbps with good error correction.

ShareChive synchronizes in the background with its database opportunistically—meaning it can make a connection anytime. It updates anything that has changed on the tablet, in the database, as well as on any other tablet on the project. Chances are, if a computer falls off a bridge, all of its data has been replicated in several locations already anyway.

Various aspects of ShareChive’s offerings have been tested by DOTs and contractors in several states. Maryland’s DOT now is planning a full-scale test with 168 units on four projects beginning this summer.

(Photos courtesy of ShareChive LLC)

ike the rest of society, the design and construction industry is seeing a growing array of products and services capitalizing on wireless communications. From laptops equipped with wireless modems, to cell phones, to computer tablets linked to dedicated data management services, untethered communications are becoming part of the business of building.