Picture this site in San Antonio: The project manager and supervising engineers are finishing a 16-story, 285-unit Embassy Suites Hotel, and they are huddled around an assortment of Windows tablets, iPhones and iPads. They all go online and open folders on their screens linked to a cloud-based shared file. They open a plan of the hotel’s 14th floor. Each person zooms in on separate rooms and creates their own punch list. They flag issues by dragging icons—coded by issue and trade—to the plan, from pallets on screen. Sometimes they hand-write notes and attach them.

At any time the users can see the icons their colleagues are placing while working elsewhere because the shared file synchronizes as they work. At the bottom of their screens, a spreadsheet translates the icons into data, turns handwritten notes into type and builds an Excel report for generating notifications to the subs. They will get an e-mail with the spreadsheet and the plan identifying issue locations. By the time the inspectors break for lunch, they are done.

“It’s a patchwork of stuff, but it’s incredibly effective,” says Bill Roberts, a project executive with the contractor, Zachry Construction Corp., San Antonio. That set of innovations, stitched together by technologists at Zachry, links disparate software, wireless services and mobile devices into a system that pumps data from jobsite to the office and back again. But as exciting as it is, Zachry’s 123 Punch List project is just one of many examples of creative field data management tools emerging among construction firms today.

There is a tide of tools and services washing into the construction industry, and it is coming at many levels of sophistication, from cobbled together to comprehensive offerings, as firms and vendors experiment with a torrent of new hardware, software and cloud-computing possibilities. Moreover, the rapidly expanding universe of smart mobile devices—touch- and pen-sensitive tablets, iPhones, iPads, Androids and wireless broadband services—is pouring gasoline on the creative fires.

Many supervisors say field data management tools already have revolutionized operations. Others say, hold onto your hats: The revolution has just begun.

On Sept. 29, in Boston, 75 senior executives, field practitioners, information technologists and virtual design and construction experts, representing 40 companies, met for a two-day customer advisory conference with field data management vendor Vela Systems Inc., Burlington, Mass. Five-year-old Vela partners with hardware vendor Motion Computing Inc., Austin, Texas, to supply mobile data systems to its clients, offering a suite of field data collection, issue tracking, punch-list tools, document management and integration services for construction.

The users were there to share successes and frustrations and to challenge the vendor to help them do more. Many said they want to integrate field-collected data into databases attached to building information models so it can be analyzed to improve efficiency. Further, users want to send feedback to designers to improve collaboration and create added value by gathering as-built data for facility management at the end of construction.

The Vela team says it is ready. “Vela reports have been accumulating for five years now,” says Todd Huntington, CFO. He says three million issues have been managed through the system, creating a trove of data across years of projects that should be a gold mine for companies “to improve decision-making.”

The Vela executives suggest that firms use their data to analyze delays, RFIs, punch-list items and rework. This data, the execs say, could be used to quantify conformance—how well teams adhere to plans and expectations. They propose a “conformance index” for contractors and subs.

“Conformance equals the percentage done right the first time. It’s like a batting average,” says Huntington. Vela’s data, across a “conformance peer group,” suggests a system with 97 to 100% conformance for top performers, 90 to 96% for the next level, and 89% or less for those “who need help.”

Huntington says the growing ability to gather and manage performance data at the construction site gives the industry a tool to measure and improve. “This is real progress, when you can analyze your own performance and compare it to your peers’,” Huntington claims. “What gets watched, gets done. What you care about, gets done—and that leads to an amazing concept: Do it right the first time.”

Vela user Steve Braverman, a project executive, at Rosendin Electric Inc., San Jose, Calif., agrees, “We only get paid to put it in once.” Gary Armstrong, vice president of Southeast construction operations for Suffolk Construction Co., Boston, added, “You have to convince your team to take ownership of quality, and then they start being proactive problem solvers.” By gathering field data on all performance—not focusing on errors and exceptions as traditional quality assurances tends to do—managers also can see what’s working well and incentivize employees and subs to excel.

Emerging Tools

The tools to get on with mobilizing project data are developing exponentially, and firms aren’t waiting for their biggest jobs to try them, although many count on internal champions to guide the way. Todd Sutton, the business unit manager for project controls at Zachry who created the 123 Punch List system, says his company also uses packaged systems like Vela’s, just not on every job. He now is helping set up Vela for a $600-million, three-way joint-venture project, in which he expects more than 100 users.

Sutton also is a master innovator. In IT circles he is known for creative assemblies of systems out of grab bags of inexpensive technology. “We have a lot of pieces, but it takes somebody creative to put it all together and make it work,” acknowledges Zachry’s Roberts. Sutton’s 123 Punch List is a prime example. It is built with Dropbox, a free, online file-sharing service, as the hub, and a Windows-based PDF markup tool called Bluebeam PDF Revu ($119 each for 10 seats) as the data management tool. The team also carries one portable Clear Spot 4G router to provide Internet access for an assortment of hardware. But because Bluebeam’s product does not run on Apple devices like the iPhones and iPads used by some on the field team, Sutton also uses a “magical” remote access app called iTeleport ($24.99) to tunnel to PCs, which run Bluebeam, back in the office.

With iTeleport on the iPad, the user’s Bluebeam seat shows up as if it is running in native mode. With preferences set for aggressive synchronization, all users can see each other’s changes immediately.

“The amount of usage we are getting from Bluebeam plus Dropbox are an unexpected benefit,” says Zachry project manager Jorge L. Valle. “It is the last- mile linkage that makes it all work.”