Saving time and money through collaboration and mobility are new imperatives for today’s construction industry. However, these essentials reside in a changing world. The desktop computer is taking a backseat to the ubiquitous tablet and smartphone for business. Bringing this new landscape together is “the cloud,” a network of servers, each with a different function, such as storing data or providing an online service.
Understanding the cloud is now much easier as its advantages have become clear. Having an off-site digital repository to leave, grab and share large files of information in multiple ways provides cost-saving economies of scale when managing business operations and construction projects. Cloud services can be free or paid. Telecommunications companies; manufacturers; service firms, such as Box.com and Dropbox; and web conferencing firms, including Adobe Connect, WebEx and others, offer these solutions.
Often, the cloud is presented as a tool for customer relationship management (CRM). In the construction arena, its biggest impact may be as a project management tool. In its “2012 Construction Industry Hiring and Business Outlook,” the Associated General Contractors of America reported that one in four construction firms planned to switch financial job cost or operational software to the cloud. Since that report, the prevalence and adoption of software has only increased. In a webinar, “Changing the Game with the Cloud in AEC,” Vince Sarubbi, chief technology officer and vice president, Webcor Builders, San Francisco, said, “We are saving $50,000 a year using the cloud by simply reducing our proper documentation storage and making employees more productive on or away from the job site.”
Sarubbi sees the cloud as one tool for adding productivity and lowering some cost, with immediate advantages, but its advantages are immediate. His firm uses Box.com and offers features for the construction industry.
Webcor is one of many firms where construction team members—from architects to subcontractors—conduct business more easily at the office and the job site, using app-to-cloud platforms. The electrical contractor (EC) is in the mix; and a number of firms are targeting the EC with cloud-based software.
The mobile phone transformed
Companies that serve the EC have taken note of how common mobile devices can serve as a work computer. Firms are developing contractor-tailored software apps for the smartphone and tablet that feed into the cloud. For the EC, new products and services using this platform can help in real-time testing and measurement, team collaboration and business processing.
Fluke Corp., Everett, Wash., has entered the cloud arena with its Fluke Connect app, which can capture, store and share contractor data between parties and project team members. The data is housed on the Fluke Cloud. Using an iPhone or Android smartphone and connecting wirelessly through Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, a service technician can measure three-point phase draw, thermally inspect wire insulation and connections, check loading and balance across phases, and test electronically controlled equipment using modules at the point of electrical connection (load, supply). This software enables the user to video record an installation or process and live consult, capture and log equipment images for later comparison, and it enables the user to graphically interpret operational data to identify trends and make informed decisions in the field. The user can read some 20 Fluke tools from the app.
“Fluke Connect was several years in the making,” said Melissa Hammerle, marketing manager. “In that time, we watched the changes in how our customers were working—the impact of mobile phones and now the tablet. That informed us we should be delivering a tool that accommodates the communication devices our customers use daily. Mobility was not only important but was opening new doors to sharing information on-site.”
Fluke Connect is Fluke’s first foray in cloud-based services and interconnected products, and Hammerle sees it as the future of Fluke’s business, as such products will continually evolve.
“This is a new way to provide collaboration and communication within project teams,” she said. “It gives members the ability to maintain and share records, maintenance practices and more on a mobile device. Everything is saved to the cloud. The app allows for better record-keeping. For example, you can take equipment measurements and organize them in one place. You can communicate information graphically—through an image, video or email—be it testing, servicing or commissioning.”
Using a similar platform for low-voltage work, WOWClowd, from WOW Insites LLC, Omaha, Neb., is another new smartphone and tablet app tied to the cloud. Using Bluetooth technology, technicians can use their smartphone to communicate with the WOWTester Master and Remote to initiate and run low-voltage cable tests. Floor plans, project progress and real-time test results can be collected and shared.
“The idea for WOWClowd started with a whiteboard, as a friend and I came up with this idea of using your smartphone as a tester,” said Steve Kanne, WOWClowd CEO. “We saw this as a lower cost solution for cable testing, allowing for quicker deliverables and more security up in the cloud. With a small team of people, we had a proof-of-concept in six months—mobile, hardware and cloud.”
Simplicity is one reason why mobile-to-cloud platforms are proliferating at such a rapid rate.
“The smartphone is our personal interactive device,” Kanne said. “We’re familiar with how to use it, whether it’s taking pictures, videos, emailing one or more recipients, or starting a conversation thread. What’s an easier tool for business than a smartphone? It certainly reduces the training time with new business apps. Architects and engineers we spoke with were excited by having a solution that gives their clients a permanent project record. Even if you aren’t involved in low-voltage work, the EC should take note. I predict this platform will become a standard across the entire construction industry.”
Kanne’s firm is developing an app specifically for the EC, to be introduced at a later date.
Working to cut project development time
Schneider Electric directly involved ECs in its development of a new cloud-based app. It conducted a nationwide survey of more than 15,000 contractors to understand their needs and wants involving a faster digital quote process. Accurate pricing, easy access to project drawings and real-time product availability were voiced as important features. The result is QuoteFAST, which is tailored for small to medium projects.
Like the other apps mentioned, QuoteFAST’s interface accommodates the simplicity of a smartphone or tablet, though it’s also tailored for a desktop monitor. When a customer submits a quote request, the EC can create the bill of material (BOM) and access drawings and list prices to share with a distributor. In turn, the distributor reviews it, makes suggestions and provides negotiated pricing. The EC completes the quote and submits prices, installation information and drawings to the customer.
“We wanted to turn a two-week process into two hours,” said Iram Shah, senior vice president, Digital Customer Experience, Schneider Electric. “In our company, cloud discussions came slowly but increased once speed and storage became so important in construction and other industries.”
In a profession where project planning and management is still paper-driven, finding cheaper and more efficient ways to do things through digital devices isn’t lost on ECs. Those surveyed by Schneider weren’t resistive to the app-to-cloud idea behind QuoteFAST, but they just wanted to ensure it could do things that made their life easier.
“We discovered ECs from both small and medium firms are always on the road, so they used their iPhone and tablets more frequently than their desktops,” Shah said. “That was a surprise to us. There was no resistance to change involving mobility and digital.”
The company will soon make QuoteFAST part of a total mobile and PC suite package for ECs called “Square D ‘Proficient.’”
Keeping information secure
While the cloud is more secure than internal network configurations, all three companies had to address what they could do to make their cloud-based information platform as safe as possible for users.
Fluke uses the latest security protocols and added encrypted data storage, firewalls, electronic surveillance of its data centers and a monitoring service.
WOWClowd also uses the latest Internet security protocols and has developed additional levels of safety that are propriety to the company. Like most well-run data centers, WOWClowd information is backed up so that if servers go down, other online servers host the data.
Schneider Electric, too, has its highly protected and redundant infrastructures. In fact, the company sells cloud protection equipment to data centers and other customers. With these app-to-cloud-backed tools, security is also in the user’s control. Information within a project can be selectively shared (given permission) among specific co-workers or project members.
Using the cloud to collaborate, centralize content and make the information accessible using a mobile device is the future now. Adding agility at a fraction of the cost of lumbering paper-driven processes or desktop stranded internal IT networks might be a no-brainer. Before you jump in, learn more and consult with peers who are trying this new way of conducting business. Discover if it will work for you.