As mobile technology floods jobsites across the world, contractors are swamped with choices among proprietary applications for their fleets of smartphones and tablets.
From tracking project kickoff meetings to building handoff and everything in between, enterprise apps for projects are often deployed in one of three ways: a firm buys them off-the-shelf, develops specific apps internally or hires an outside developer to build it. Each has its own rewards,and headaches.
Tailored apps can provide greater customization based on type of work done, specialty services offered or function as tools to enhance already-established workflows.
Apps also are broken down further into two categories, according to self-titled “construction app guru” Rob McKinney.
“In the app world, you have this debate: Is it a stand-alone or is it integrated?” McKinney said, referring to the integration of back-end systems such as ProEst, JD Edwards or Microsoft Project.
If offered, this back-end integration saves time in the downloading and uploading of files from one system to another and also in the optimization of data from one platform to another.
Electrical contractor Rosendin Electric, based in San Jose, Calif., recently built two apps for internal use that radically change the way materials, equipment and tools are requisitioned and brought on-site. Their first app was developed using internal IT services.
Colloquially called the “QR Code App,” the mobile software generates QR codes for vendor’s packaging products to ship to Rosendin Electric’s jobsites, making shipping and material data available all the way through the supply chain.
The app also integrates into Autodesk BIM 360 Field, which Rosendin Electric uses to link more detailed information about parts.
After the success of the QR Code app, Sam Lamonica, CIO of Rosendin Electric, was approached by a colleague concerning ways other apps could be used.
This meeting led to the idea for a second custom app, called the Materials and Tools Management App, which lets foremen use an iPad to fill out preconstruction planning forms in the field. The complexity of the application put development just out of the electrical contractor’s reach, so Rosendin Electric hired Mobile Programming LLC to develop it.
Preconstruction planning forms allow foremen to send orders for supplies, tools and equipment, which then are sent to the materials handler. If the materials aren’t in stock, the handler can forward that request directly to a purchasing agent.
The IT department at Rosendin Electric supports both apps and provisions different versions to different devices, depending on the jobs. Donning hardhats and steel-toed boots, programmers even make it into the field to test the apps and do further research.
McKinney says these options are most viable for larger companies that can afford the IT upkeep and continue to develop the apps.
To support its web-based tool suite, mTOOLS, MWH Global developed AutoForm, which lets users to collect data, including photos and GPS coordinates, and automatically upload it from the field via mobile devices. Then, users can employ their data within the mTOOLS software as packaged data in PDF reports or spreadsheets via Microsoft Sharepoint integration.
AutoForm is available to MWH subcontractors from the iOS App Store. It makes data transfer “wicked fast and easy,” said Gene Connolly, MWH operations director.
Another internally built app, Gilbane’s iBuild. is a proprietary system of mobile and web-based software that manages projects, from bidding through project completion. The app manages workflow on-site, handling submittals, RFIs and meeting minutes. For quality management, iBuild integrates with Autodesk BIM 360 Field, and plans are hosted and updated in Bluebeam.
Gibane also integrates mobile apps into end-of-project materials, giving clients catalogued digital files that can be integrated into mobile 3D modeling tools, instead of boxes of paper forms.
Other software companies also offer pre-made apps, immediately ready for deployment to the firm’s mobile devices.
According to McKinney, this is the most popular option for most firms that are looking for mobile apps.
These apps mainly fall into two camps: stand-alone tools such as SmartReality, and apps that integrate with and support a certain workflow system.
SmartReality, a stand-alone app by SmartBidNet developer JB Knowledge, renders an interactive, 3D model over physical drawings. The user points the phone or tablet camera at plans or drawings, and the preprogrammed 3D model is shown floating atop the drawing on the tablet or phone screen.
The app finished beta-testing in mid-July and is available with sample data as a free download from the Apple App Store and Android Google Play Store. Customers can now submit their plans for project estimation to JB Knowledge.
JB Knowledge President James Benham says both drawings and models must be processed by SmartReality; the service costs between $500 and $1500 per project, based on the complexity of the project.
Each project can contain multiple drawings, each with differing levels of interactivity. For users who require more than one type of view, plans with the dimension of time can be controlled by a slider on the bottom of screen. Layers of material also can be expanded with touch features, to show how components fit together.
The app renders models instantly, creating an immersive experience by allowing users to interact with models based on their distance and angle of viewing.
On-screen controls are minimal, offering zoom functions and the ability to take photos or video of the on-screen rendering, but motion-based functionality lets viewers navigate the model by simply moving the mobile device around for a different view. The app’s strength lies in giving those who may not be good at visualizing plans or manipulating 3D software a way to easily interact with the models.
With the ease of capturing photos of BIM renderings, it’s easy to imagine SmartReality integrated into a workflow that rests on image marking and sharing mon team members.
Plan versioning and real-time notation is a hotly contested arena in the app market, with contenders from companies such as Bluebeam, PlanGrid, Fieldwire and Procore.
Bluebeam, the most well-known PDF notation and collaboration software in construction, focuses on offering the most robust set of PDF editing tools available. It’s published a suite of apps—Revu, Q and bFX—to handle PDF-related tasks, such as markups, publishing, and remote access, respectively.