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EP_19.jpg May/June 2005
Cover Story
Going Mobile
Leonhard Weiss
Speedy Hire

Sarah Bowden looks at implementing mobile technologies in the construction industry.


01.jpg In recent years global economic competition has compelled many organisations to explore all possible options for improving the delivery of their products or services. Within the construction industry today, clients expect better service and projects that meet their requirements more closely. This is challenging the industry to become more efficient, integrated and more attractive, both in the eyes of society and its potential workforce.

In response, government, industry or research-led construction change initiatives have emerged in most developed countries. In the UK the Egan report, Rethinking Construction, set targets for improvement in the following areas; reductions in capital cost, construction time, defects and accidents resulting in increases in predictability, productivity and profitability.

In parallel with and to serve these initiatives there has been a concerted effort, within the research and academic sector, to explore and implement existing and emerging information technologies - their aim being to facilitate the improvements required to modernise the construction industry.

Progress has been driven by a combination of technology ‘push’ and demand ‘pull’. It is often argued that construction typically lags behind other industries in its use of IT and hence the primary driver is technology push. However, more recently many would argue that the reason the construction industry has been slow to adopt new technologies is that they have not yet been developed to suit the needs of the industry. There is a strong demand pull which is yet to be satisfied. For example, it is relatively easy to implement new technologies in a manufacturing production line where it is a clean, stable environment and the work travels to the worker. However, on a construction site the worker has to travel to the work and take the technology with him/her and is subject to the natural elements.

The continuing development of affordable mobile technologies, such as handheld computers, SmartPhones and Tablet PCs, alongside the latest generation communications infrastructure (3G, WLAN and GPRS) could provide the ‘last mile’ connection to the point of activity.

Definite Interests
Research in this area has shown that there is definite interest and enthusiasm across the construction industry and mobile technology providers. Mobile computing technologies for construction are now a regular topic in the construction press and there have been several major conferences that address the issue.

Construction professionals are becoming aware of the benefits that mobile technologies could bring to their work activities; however many are unsure of how to implement them on their projects. They are often unwilling to take the risks associated with being an early adopter, such as implementing unfamiliar technologies and uncertainty of the ROI.

Technology providers are very aware that the construction industry provides ample opportunities for their tools. They are certainly committed to entering the market, with many firms now including construction as a target vertical market in their business strategy. However, they are all too often experiencing difficulties in persuading construction professionals to try something new. This may arise from their inexperience of supplying the construction industry and therefore a general lack of understanding of the market.

COMIT (Construction Opportunities for Mobile IT) was initiated in September 2003 to explore the potential for mobile technologies to help address the issues outlined above and the ongoing drive for process improvement and re-valuing construction.

Led by Arup, COMIT has brought the construction and technology specialists closer together, enabling them to better understand each other’s needs and values and hence provide the most effective solutions both technically and commercially. Its aim is to reduce the risks associated with the first implementation of new mobile technologies in the UK construction industry, which in turn will increase future confidence, provide a body of knowledge and prove the business benefits that are made possible through the adoption of mobile solutions.

Since Autumn 2003 the project has gone from strength to strength with its membership increasing from 20 to nearly 50 companies in less than 18 months.

Case Studies
A series of case studies were undertaken as part of the project, reporting on mobile solutions using a wide range of technologies including RFID, PDAs and GPS and mobile phones for applications such as health and safety inspections and plant maintenance. All of the applications reported on had achieved process improvement by eliminating non-value adding activities, capturing information once only at the source, and/or automating certain activities. These benefits included:
• Improvements in the quality of work by having the relevant information available.
• More efficient task allocation by knowing the location and status of personnel.
• Reduced task turn-around time by providing information to others immediately.
• Better customer service through providing the client with a live-view of their project.
• Reports produced quickly and easily from the data collected at source.
• Identification of trends; for example, re-occurrence of hazards or sub-contractor non-performance.
• Task instructions available at the point of activity, avoiding the need to travel back to the office.

The costs of implementing the mobile IT solutions ranged from £7400 to £135,000, with an average cost of £45,000. These costs included upfront investigation costs, the mobile computing devices, the software application (licence fees and development time), the communications infrastructure (i.e. how the data is transferred to the back-office system), the data storage system, consultancy, site installation, training, staff time and ongoing support.

The time taken to achieve return on investment ranged from four months to 12 months. In one case study, implemented by Stent Foundations, the estimated mobile solution for piling works reduced remedial work by 75 per cent, which equates to a potential saving of £385,000 per annum if the system were to be used throughout the company. All the successful case study participants agreed that the costs incurred were small in comparison to the potential benefits, especially if harder to quantify benefits, such as improved customer service, were also taken into account.

In order to achieve a successful implementation and hence a rapid return on investment the following lessons can be learnt from these case studies:
• Have ongoing involvement of a senior executive to champion the technology.
• Have early involvement of the users to fully understand their needs and develop a sense of ownership of the solution.
• Undertake upfront process analysis to understand the data collection requirements.
• Choose the most suitable user-interface, and hence device, for the users’ data collection and retrieval activities.
• Develop a solution with a short learning curve and provide sufficient training.

COMIT has also acted as the ‘matchmaker’ between construction, software, and hardware companies, and systems integrators wishing to pilot mobile technologies. Working together the community has identified four key processes they want to see mobilised - monitoring health and safety onsite, site design problem resolution, maintenance inspections and monitoring construction progress.

Mobile solutions for these processes are now being developed and implemented on a series of demonstration projects. You can view the progress of these projects on the COMIT website.

The work undertaken by COMIT has shown that many of the improvements wished for by Egan and the like can and are, in isolated cases, already being facilitated by enabling point-of-activity workers to participate in the electronic flow of information using mobile technologies.

Although this is not the only solution to the problems to be addressed, it does offer the potential of significant improvements in reducing construction time and cost, defects, accidents, waste and operation and maintenance costs, whilst improving predictability and productivity through for example: access to accurate up to date information at the point of activity reducing the cost of remedial work through doing it right first time, auto-ID of materials enabling faster location and accurate identification, reducing wasted materials through loss, damage or oversupply, real-time accident and near miss reporting enabling a proactive approach to health and safety on site, reduction in down-time due to unforeseen problems through enabling instant and meaningful communication with off-site personnel, proactive maintenance scheduling and remote delivery of work orders and provision of accurate real-time progress and cost information which can inform later project stages and/or future projects.  CT-E

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