Mobile technology and tools are becoming an increasingly ubiquitous part of society, extending beyond personal convenience to important business uses. Construction is no exception, with mobile tools serving as a critical link between jobsites and the main office.
The important research reviewed below demonstrates a prolific application of mobile tools today, with 93% of a representative sample of general contractors and subcontractors using some sort of mobile device on their construction sites. The industry is already reporting productivity benefits from these tools, including enhanced communication and help with key job functions such as project management and document sharing. The findings show benefits as well as drivers and challenges to future mobile tool investment critical to tracking this important trend. It can help GCs and subcontractors understand each other's use of tools, find ways to increase productivity and help technology companies and tool providers understand industry needs.
Contractors Report Widespread Use of Mobile Devices
McGraw-Hill Construction's Industry Insights group conducted an exclusive study for ENR in August 2012, asking contractors how they use mobile devices on the job. The results validate the study's premise: that mobile devices are now widely utilized on construction sites. However, the rate is surprisingly high. Respondents, who are mostly in leadership or management positions, report that 97% of GCs employ some kind of mobile device on site compared to 87% of subcontractors. However, subs are still adopting: 91% expect to have mobile technologies on site by 2015, while the GC adoption rate is the same.
Adoption of mobile devices is not only widespread but also intensive: nearly two thirds (65%) of firms report using them on more than 75% of their jobsites, with 75% of GCs at this level compared to 50% of subs.
Again, while the intensity of GC use grows slightly over the next three years, subcontractors expect to see significantly higher penetration. Those who expect to use mobile devices on only a quarter of their projects or less drops by two thirds, from 18% to 6%, while those who expect to use these devices on more than half of their projects or more grow from 60% to 75%.
The different level of adoption can affect the full value of these devices for improving productivity on site. Interactions between GCs and subcontractors on site cannot be facilitated if fewer subcontractors have access to mobile equipment. In fact, in response to an open question about key improvements needed to allow mobile devices to improve productivity on site, several contractors—instead of voicing a wish for specific technological or software advances—stated that more use by subcontractors is essential. This disparity becomes even more apparent when examining the specific technologies used by GCs and subcontractors.
A large percentage of firms—86%—allow employees to bring their own personal devices to the jobsite, with the same percentages reported by GCs and subcontractors. Reasons for this split into two categories:
• 60% report the devices are being used for work purposes. Benefits cited include increased productivity at no cost to the firm and greater familiarity by workers with their own devices.
• 40% say the devices are being used purely for personal communication purposes.
Firms that do not allow personal devices on site are concerned that employees would be distracted from their jobs. Other factors include concerns about data security, control of the devices, maintenance issues not compatible with company policy, and safety considerations.
Mobile Technologies Used on Construction Sites: Tablets vs. Other Handheld Devices
Tablets and Smart Phones
At this point, smart phones/iPhones are the most widely used technologies—50% of all contractors report using an iPhone and 59% report using other kinds of smart phones on projects. However, the future trend is toward tablet use, with the percentage of those using tablets expected to nearly double in three years. Right now, the iPad is expected to be a far more dominant technology among tablets than the iPhone is among phones. In fact, the percentage that expect to be using an iPad within three years is the same as those expecting to use an iPhone and only slightly less than those expecting to use other smart phones.
This trend is especially marked among larger GCs (those with 2011 project values exceeding $10 million)—62% expect to use iPads by 2015 and 32% expect to use other brands of tablets, significantly higher than the average. It is clear that the trend definitely favors tablet use, with iPad as the tablet of choice.
The trend toward favoring Apple products is particularly notable with subcontractors. For example, their use of iPhones is nearly identical to GCs'. And although their tablet use is generally lower than the GCs', 23% of them use iPads while only 6% use other tablets, a far greater differential than among the GCs.
The iPhone's share of smart-phone use on construction sites is much higher than its overall share of the U.S. smart phone market, which comScore, a Reston, Va.-headquartered digital marketing and sales firm, listed at 31% in the first quarter of 2012. However, this runs counter to subcontractors citing affordability as the largest challenge to adoption of mobile tools.
The fact that subcontractors are willing to cover the premium cost of many Apple products may suggest that their functionality suits the industry, that more construction-related apps are available on these devices or that subs are trying to align devices with GCs.
Nearly a quarter of all respondents report using GPS and handheld devices, and these are nearly evenly split between GCs and subcontractors. By 2015, however, subcontractors expect a significantly higher use of GPS. Concerns about affordability and the lower investments of subcontractors than GCs in other technologies that may include GPS functionality may account for this finding.