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Tablets Take Off in Construction

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Today's tablets are lean, connected and a snap to use. Though companies such as Motion Computing have been successful selling high-end tablet PCs to construction users, not everyone needs “a tablet on steroids,” as business tablets are often called. Media tablets such as the iPad have a place in this industry, too.

Tech analyst Gartner Inc. estimates that, this year, media tablet shipments will reach 69 million; other firms project sales well over 100 million by 2014. Although the stats are still a fraction of the smart phones in use, the research consensus is that tablets are here to stay.

In construction and elsewhere, all across the business spectrum, new uses are emerging. Workers are starting to incorporate them at home as they and their family members go mobile. In the office, executives and IT firms remain the most prominent tablet users.

“I haven't seen a CEO in a year that didn't have an iPad on his desk,” remarks Rodger Smith, president of enterprise management solutions at engineering firm Black & Veatch, which is currently evaluating tablets for its business. Likewise, last year, Caterpillar Inc. purchased 300 iPads for its global management team. The idea, says CEO Doug Oberhelman, is to help bring together the many layers of institutional knowledge within the company to drive new business. “Many people have come up to me with new Cat apps since last fall,” he says.

Though many businesses leaders are still honing their mobile strategy, Crescent's Clayton says he saw the iPad's potential right away. “We wanted them before they came out,” he says. “We needed extra screen real estate that the iPhone couldn't give us.”

The quality-assurance consultancy's field workers used to schlep around jobsites with rolls of paper plans, taking photos, marking up checklists and then going back to the office to transcribe notes before sending owners a clean copy. Smart phones helped speed up the process—and still do—but a tablet does more.

“If you send a truck out on Monday [for punch-listing], it doesn't get back until Friday,” Clayton explains. “It's too late, especially on a tight-schedule construction site.”

Crescent purchased an iPad when it was released last year. Within three days, Clayton decided to outfit the entire company. Each employee—there's about 20—in the Salisbury, N.C.-based firm now uses iPads regularly.

“I couldn't tell you how many hours we have cut out of our day,” Clayton says of the tablet's impact. “I would be willing to bet that I killed a full work day per week.” Getting the order wasn't easy, though, as Apple wasn't geared for volume purchases. “That took an act of God, because you were only allowed to buy two apiece,” says Clayton, speaking of Apple's sales restrictions. “It had to go to corporate for me to buy these things. Then, all the BS stopped.” Apple has since opened up a corporate purchasing department due to the success of the iPad and iTunes store.

Clayton's journey didn't end there. He decided to take full advantage of the iPad's capability and developed a series of custom apps for internal use; the company has produced about 20 so far. Last fall, Clayton rolled out a public app called PunchList, which features the ability to annotate PDF or JPG images, regardless of the file's status. PunchList treats all files as images, so it doesn't care what portions are marked up. He says about 5,000 of the $6.99 iPhone- and iPad-ready apps have been purchased.

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