Management

Happy apps

8 March 2011

BIM on site at Skanska

There’s millions of software products and solutions out there. But how many really work in construction? CM reporters tracked down 10 IT innovations and their users to find out.

iPads at costain

What it is

Costain is investing in iPads for its senior managers and directors, and has switched to “paperless board meetings” where all minutes, notes and comments are shared via iPads. It has also just launched a corporate iPad app, to update clients and stakeholders about the company’s activities. The contractor is also experimenting with issuing iPads to site-based and mobile staff, allowing them to call up project drawings in any location using iPad plug-ins from CAD vendors.

What they say about it

Bill Price, systems and technology director, Costain

“We wanted to take advantage of different ways of communicating, and the iPad is one of the newest and most innovative ways of doing that. In board meetings, it’s a non-intrusive form of IT — a laptop with the screen up forms a barrier, but an iPad is the same shape as a normal piece of paper, so it’s been adopted very successfully.

“We think the app is quite an engaging way to talk about what we offer, more than receiving a brochure in the post. It’s quite hands-on; you soon start moving things around the screen and whizzing around. And it enables rich media content, we’ve already got a high-quality video on there.

“The industry hasn’t yet reached critical mass on iPad take-up, but here are some stats. By the end of 2011, analysts estimate there will be 50 million iPads globally. ‘Tactile tablets’ have taken 10% of the laptop market in their first year. So I definitely see a change in the type of devices people will use.” Elaine Knutt

What you need to know

The Costain app was built by College Hill, a financial PR company that has already produced the company’s online annual report.

Online Productivity Portal

What it is

An online tool, developed by a commercial arm of the University of Dundee and the Scottish Construction Centre, that allows contractors to input data on site productivity, comparing performance between one project and another, and against other contractors. The software plots productivity in real time in each activity and also measures the duration and cause of delays. Over time, it creates a map of trends, plus reliable data for use in estimating and planning, or for settling claims. It’s being trialled by three medium-sized Scottish contractors.

What they say about it

Malcolm Horner, emeritus professor of engineering management

“We’ve developed a simple way of measuring and controlling productivity, to try to move the industry forward. Everyone’s focus is on time and cost, but labour productivity defines the cost of the project and its production. Labour costs are also typically 30% of overall costs. We’ve identified scope to increase productivity by 30% — so that’s a 10% improvement on the bottom line, and one that the contractor has control over.

“The conventional difficulty is that inputs (ie hours) and outputs (work) have to be measured for every task. But our research has allowed us to identify the small number of significant tasks that consume the majority of resources, so focusing on these alone cuts the burden of data collection by 80%. If adding data monthly, the contractors will have data from valuations and time sheets, but if weekly it might involve some extra data collection.

“It’s worth remembering that the average productivity of bricklayers in the UK is 60 bricks an hour, while the world record is 900 — that’s a huge gap in performance.” EK

What you need to know

Whole Life Consultants, the company spun out of Dundee University’s engineering management research team, is offering a free one-year licence to any organisation interested in trialling the software.

Email doug.forbes@wlcuk.com for more information.

Site clean-up smartphone app

4D simulation

What it is

Currently being adopted company-wide by Mace and also used by smaller firms such as construction manager John O’Neill & Partners (Jonap), Synchro is a US software product that creates a computer-generated simulation of what your building will look like at each stage of the programme. Users supply design and scheduling data and the software creates a picture of stages under different proposed programmes. Essentially it is a preconstruction tool rather than offering full BIM functionality. But it can be constantly updated to give the project team a single real-time view of the scheme.

What they say about it

David Strickson, preconstruction manager, Jonap

“We don’t use Synchro for every job, as it’s quite involved. It takes one or two days for us to create the model — our in-house architects do this using Google SketchUp. But Synchro is excellent for jobs over £5m or 30 weeks, and smaller jobs if they’re particularly complex.

“It’s a great quick reference tool in a client meeting that shows how the building will look at different stages, but we use it internally too.

“We bought Synchro 18 months ago for a specific tender. We didn’t win that one, but I’m sure it’s helped us win others. It’s difficult to find tangible evidence but if you’re neck and neck with someone on price and you can show visually how carefully you’ve programmed the job, and how ready for it you are, it gives you an edge.”

Roxanne McMeeken

What you need to know

Synchro Professional, the main product, costs £4,000 ($6,500) including a year’s support. For a limitless number of users to have access, you need a Synchro Server to host it, which costs £3,696 ($6,000) plus £739 ($1,200) a year for maintenance. Jonap also had to buy a more powerful PC to run the software. Although Synchro provides training, the firm found little was needed as the system is intuitive.

Woobius iphone app

What it is

Woobius, the company behind the low-cost online collaboration platform for smaller projects or larger schemes at their early stages, has developed an iPhone app for architect Make. The app  harnesses the immediacy and informality of social media in a marketing tool, and is now being marketed to other companies in the sector. 

What they say about it

Bob Leung, director, Woobius

“Make Architects publish an ‘annual’ every year, showcasing their work. But they wanted an iPhone and iPad app that would do the same thing, which we’ve built. So when staff are out and about [with their iPhones], it means every employee can be a salesman.

“It’s also linked to a GPS system. So, wherever you are, you can click on ‘Projects near me’, and it will bring up images and details of the nearest Make scheme. Right now [speaking from London’s Tottenham Court Road] it’s calling up the Noho Square project [designed by Make but unbuilt].

“Whenever Make has a new project, it can put new content online — it doesn’t have to update the app itself in the App store. It’s also going to have a news feed. At the moment, the website might be updated once a month. But with the immediacy of an app, Make is committing to more frequent updates. You can also have audio clips, for instance, we have [Make founder] Ken Shuttleworth’s Radio 4 interview on it.

“Susrprisingly, it’s never been done before, although a US practice called DES Architects has used an app that was originally developed for music artists. As far as we know, it’s the only app that’s bespoke to architecture.

“It took three to four months to develop, and I’d say the cost this came in at half the price of the printed annual. And the more companies who sign up, the cheaper it could become.” EK

What you need to know

The Make app can be downloaded free from Apple’s App Store. Woobius funded the development costs and now owns the
code, which means that other clients in architecture and construction can commission their own version of the app.

BIM on site at Skanska

What it is

Skanska is using 40 tablet PCs on its London PFI hospital sites so that construction managers have access to drawings and attached information in the BIM model. Skanska has also embedded additional information into drawings at the design stage so that site managers can now see what stage various items or elements are at, for example whether they have been checked or handed over.

The database, known as the Construction Site Toolbox, will soon be augmented so that drawings and data can be passed on for FM use.

What they say about it

Chris Harty, director of the Health and Care Infrastructure and Innovation Centre at the University of Reading

“When people start using new technology, we find that new ideas and new ways of using the hardware or software emerge. Skanska started using tablet PCs for drawing retrieval on site, which initially only had BIM from the design side behind it. Now they are using the drawings as a road map to a whole store of data behind them: performance specifications, handover and commissioning detail, servicing schedules.”

David Throssell, UK BIM technical manager, Skanska

“Until recently BIM was confined to the design phase. It didn’t make sense to us that all the valuable data and information created by our design team was lost the moment we asked them to plot a drawing. The merging of the BIM models, project IT systems and tablet PC hardware has enabled us to deliver the right information, to the right people, at the right time’.” Kristina Smith

What you need to know

The main software tool was Artra, which enabled the BIM model to become the hub of the Construction Site Toolbox. Artra provides the “missing link” between databases, documents, drawings and data sources to the 3D design models. The touchscreen tablet PCs are from Motion Computing, which can withstand site life and be used instead of desktop PCs or laptops.

Onsite carbon management

What it is

BAM Construct is gathering environmental data from sites and collating it through BAM SMaRT (Sustainability Measurement and Reporting Tool) online. The BRE developed the software, which records data on issues including energy and water use, timber sourcing, waste management, carbon emissions and Energy Performance Certificate scores. BRE based the product on its SMARTwaste programme, a free site waste management tool, and can develop similar systems for other companies.

What they say about it

Charlie Law, environmental manager, BAM Construct

“Before we started using this we relied on people on site filling in Excel spreadsheets which were sent back to head office and painstakingly transferred to another spreadsheet. This was 

time-consuming and unreliable as the people inputting the data didn’t always know exactly, say, whether some waste had gone to landfill or for reprocessing.

“Now, we’re capturing more detailed data on a single live system, which allows us to monitor and compare all our sites — we tend to have around 100 at any one time. And the data is inputted at our HQ by people specialising in this.

“We haven’t got savings to show for it yet, partly because we’re now picking up more energy usage than we were before. But it has allowed us to identify a number of sites with high energy use and then improve things. On one site, we found they were using electric heaters to dry out the building so we switched these to gas-powered generators, which emit less CO2.” RMcM

What you need to know

BAM wouldn’t reveal the exact cost of developing BAM SMaRT except to say it fell within its £30,000 budget. No extra investment in IT systems was needed.

The Internet of things

What it is

Imagine a world where building components, or even the building itself, can describe themselves to any passing construction professional with an iPhone or smartphone. The technology utilises QR codes — a type of 2D bar code — that’s increasingly being used in product marketing.

To get a taste of how the system works, visit www.talesofthings.com — a website developed by five higher education institutions led by University College London.

What they say about it

Andrew Hudson-Smith, senior research fellow at UCL

“Smartphones, like the iPhone, can already scan QR codes, which direct users to a website giving details about that product. But the system can now be expanded to apply to any object in the world, allowing buildings, or individual parts of buildings, to be ‘read’ to access information on their history, make up, or almost anything.

“Tales of Things allows users to create a bespoke tag for any individual object or place. You print out a website-generated 2D barcode to physically attach to the object. Other smart phone users can then scan the code to access the information — perhaps photos, video or text — that you have uploaded onto the site. For building contractors, the technology could function as a unique, low-cost content management system.

“In Norway, they’ve just used the website to make 4,200 bus stops ‘live’. The bus stops have a code that tells you the time of the next bus, allows you to leave a message behind, and allows the bus stop to Tweet to you.” Stephen Cousins

What you need to know

To give it a go, just download the Tales of Things app from the Apple App Store or the Android Market.

Printing models in 3d

What it is

Physical models can now be “printed” using Rapid Model Prototyping (RPM), a quicker alternative to traditional model making that cuts costs by half or more. A 3D printer takes data from a 3D CAD design model and “prints” it by depositing layers of chalk. The chalk is fixed in place with resin or wax, also distributed by the “printer”. The result is a pile of chalk, dusted off to reveal the model beneath. The process usually takes 12 to 24 hours.

What they say about it

Nathaniel Buckingham, principle engineer, Aecom

“We’ve been working with [Edinburgh-based architect] Gilbert Associates on RMP for about two years. The beauty of it is speed. You can be working on a design in CAD one day and have the model of it the next. It means models become a tool used as the design evolves rather than something for show towards the end of the project.

“We use it mainly for two things. First, it means clients can understand structures better as it’s much more accessible than CAD images and they get the chance to peer around the building at relatively early stages.

“Second, we use RMP at the planning and consulting stage. When speaking to planning authorities and local stakeholders, a model gives them the best impression of what the building will look like.” RMcM

What you need to know

A typical A4 size model costs £1,000, while a larger A3 version might cost £1,400. But costs vary with the design’s complexity and the level of detail in the 3D CAD model.

iPad app for maintenance workers

What it is

EasyBuild, which offers enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions for construction companies, can now link its central system directly to iPads for use by construction operatives on site. It says the technology is particularly suitable for planned or reactive maintenance, or facilities management, as jobs logged and scheduled in the office become instantly visible to operatives in the field.

What they say about it

Michelle Carolan, customer care manager, Durkan:

“Our work is maintenance operations, which involves going in to properties. Previously we’d used BlackBerrys to let staff know about their appointments, which people found fiddly to use, and a whole sheaf of papers that had to be filled in. One obvious advantage is that it allows us to get a tenant’s signature [confirming work has been done] very easily — previously, the paperwork had to be posted, and there was always the risk of it going astray.

“The main advantage is that the system updates the EasyBuild software on our central computer in real time, so there’s no need to download and synchronise information, it’s instant and automatic.

“Now that we’ve finished a trial, EasyBuild is going to do some troubleshooting, and we hope to roll the system out to operatives in London later this year. We’re also asking them to adapt the system to include our company branding — that’s quite important when you’re dealing with the public.” EK

What you need to know

EasyBuild says it is working on a similar system to bring health and safety standard forms to iPads.

 

Onsite carbon management

QR code

4D simulation

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