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Rise of the Apps

As it’s doing to everything else in our lives, technology is quickly – and vastly – changing the way the construction industry operates

Nov 3, 2014

by Sydnee Bryant

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Safety Meeting allows users to schedule meetings and keep track of agendas, in addition to documenting incidents

While a variety of technological advances have revolutionized the way builders and contractors work, there are four main advances that have had a huge impact. Some of these changes have affected the way companies communicate internally and externally; others have improved efficiency and accuracy by decreasing human error and drastically reducing time delays. While some companies in the construction industry have been slower to embrace change, others have welcomed the use of apps, YouTube videos, building information modelling and engineering software as both inevitable and useful.

The App-ocalypse
One of the most significant changes in how the construction sector operates is the development of hundreds of applications or “apps” aimed at the industry. Some developers of these apps have even requested that Apple create a specific construction tab in their app store, says Rob McKinney, a construction technologist and prolific Twitterer under the handle @ConAppGuru.

To avoid getting bogged down in the huge number of construction apps, McKinney organizes his by five main workflows: safety, managing construction plans, daily reports, progress photos and accounting.

The use of apps started in the construction industry in 2011, McKinney says. While the majority of construction companies have been a little slow to adopt the use of apps, there have been some early adopters that have seen benefits.

One benefit of using apps is the amount of paper it saves because it eliminates the need for multiple copies of paper-based plans, spec books and workflow outlines. Another is the ability to collaborate efficiently. “Instead of sending an email out, and then having to download and print it, there is real-time collaboration where we can open things up, look at plan details and talk about changes in real time,” McKinney says.

There are also apps that work to remind construction workers of important tasks they need to do at specific times, such as the Safety Meeting App. “It’s a way to document safety meetings or tool box talks,” McKinney says. “You can document what you talked about and who was there.” The app allows you to document attendance in several ways, including taking a photo of those who are there or getting everyone to sign in electronically.

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SmartReality combines 2D plans with 3D models to create an interactive look at building plans
JBKnowledge’s latest research development project is a virtual reality mobile app for construction project visualization. JBKnowledge’s president, James Benham, says the app is developed for use with the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, a Leap Motion sensor and an xBox 360 controller. Users can visualize, walk through, and manipulate life-sized 3d models of construction projects as if they are standing inside them. This allows for an interactive, immersive view of construction projects.

Building information modelling
Building information modelling (BIM) helps designers take building plans and create them virtually in a 3D model. Doing this helps work out any issues before the actual building process begins. Then the building is completed using the model. “It sounds simple but there is a ton of information that goes into these models,” says Paul ­Verhesen, president and CEO of Clark Builders and chair of ­Canadian ­Construction Innovations. “You’re working out problems in advance and it can give you a time lapse of the building being built.”

Verhesen says BIM is the most important advance the construction industry has seen in the past decade. “Most significant projects today have some sort of model,” he says. “It might be the whole building or part of the building.”

BIM has been implemented around the world but Canada has been slow to use it, says Verhesen, adding that some segments of the construction sector, such as the structural steel industry, have used BIM for a long time.

There are a variety of software programs/applications? that can be used for the BIM model. Part of the challenge of implementing BIM is training individuals to use it. “We as an industry need to do a better job of teaching BIM operators,” says Verhesen, adding that a number of organizations are trying to develop training courses. “Once you get through the training aspect of these applications – and for some folks, it is a pretty steep learning curve – the value they are creating is a positive outcome.”

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There’s an app for that: Bid, handle contracts and more from the palm of your hand

Engineering software
Advances in computerization and engineering software have changed the whole cabinet industry. Software, such as CabinetVision, ­allows you to design and program the ­machine codes that run the routers and saws, all from the initial drawing.

“We now teach our interior designers the software because they are doing the drawings,” says Roberts. “From their drawings, it can be imported into the machine and put into production. It makes all the difference in the world in how things operate.”

Cabinetmakers can download an ­original drawing onto an iPad and bring it to an on-site inspection. They can then export on-site measurements onto the iPad. “There are fewer mistakes because there is one data point instead of multiple drawings,” says Roberts. ‘You know it is correct.” Designers and builders can also show clients a rendering right on the iPad before anything is built. “The customer gets a better idea of what they are getting,” says Roberts.

Some companies, such as Madsen’s ­Custom Cabinets in Edmonton, are going away from paper drawings altogether. Cabinetmaking is now considered a “fast-paced, highly technical trade,” says Roberts, adding that you still need skill and good eye-hand co-ordination. “What people have to get past is that the trade has changed. It’s not a bunch of old guys in aprons anymore.”

Embrace the ’Tube
Instructional videos are dominating the construction sector and workers want to find them online with ease.

“Everyone expects it at this point,” says James Benham, president of Texas-based JBKnowledge, an IT provider for the construction industry. “They want to see video demos of how your product works. They will look at a video about three times as much as at a screen page.”

JBKnowledge uses a YouTube channel to explain all of the apps it has developed, including SmartReality, SmartBidNet and SmartCompliance. The company got into the construction software business about seven years ago. “We saw room for a lot of improvement in the way people sent out bids for projects and managed subcontractors,” says Benham. “There were a lot of deficiencies in the market in 2007.”

YouTube videos are also an easy way to provide consumers with instant updates about products. Every time SmartReality adds new features, it can share the news with users via video on its YouTube channel.

Other sectors of the construction industry are also embracing the use of online videos. The cabinetmaking industry foreshadowed the use of robotics in the field through a YouTube video featuring a machine, Ernest the Cabinetmaker. In the video, Ernest is stacking machines and putting things into inventory. “It is machines running machines,” explains Paul Roberts, chair of the cabinetmaker program at NAIT. “It’s a little futuristic but it will come within a decade.” The video makes it easy to envision what the use of robotics in the field will look like in 10 years, allowing cabinetmakers to familiarize themselves with the concept before it happens.

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