Tech tools

Software ingenuity is reshaping construction, but can the industry embrace change?

Anyone who has ever overseen a construction project has surely experienced it. It's that nagging question that drives you to distraction, keeps you up at night, makes you forget your wedding anniversary (or at least that's your excuse): "How do I know the work is going well on the site?"

But for the engineers and developers dedicated to bringing software innovation to the construction industry, it's just another problem waiting to be solved.

"You can't really reach people over the phone all the time, and you can't be continuously doing that anyway," says Kamal Ranaweera, a research engineer working with the University of Calgary's Schulich School of Engineering. "Sooner or later it becomes like a kind of noise."

Stopping the noise and improving communication is key to the smooth operation of any construction site, but linking the office with the job site has always been a logistical challenge for the industry. Thanks to computer technology and software innovation, those communication barriers are beginning to fall, improving productivity in the process.

For Ranaweera, the solution was simple enough: install a camera so project leaders could monitor progress on a City of Edmonton drainage tunnel construction project wherever they are. Why travel to the job site when it can travel with you?

The camera captures everything that goes into the tunnel shaft and sends this data back to a central server in Calgary, where everything is run through an image recognition program and time stamped.

The system distinguishes concrete tunnel liners from other objects entering the shaft-say, buckets to scoop up dirt, for example. At one metre in length, the liners offer a convenient means of charting the tunnel's growth. Out of this data, graphs are created to show daily or cumulative progress, and can even be plotted against simulation models showing where the project should be at any given stage.

"It can help the project management make sure they allocate the resources and do the optimum work to meet the plan," Ranaweera says.

EASY ACCESS

Anyone involved in the project can log into an online site containing all of the data gathered by the camera-including, most notably, videos of everything lowered into the tunnel, whether it be a liner or not.

"We show you what we found through the system," the engineer says. "If you want to verify, if you think there's something wrong, you can still go and have a look at it. And with a mouse click you can rectify it."

Improved communications and productivity also forms the core of another Schulich project, the i-Booth information kiosk. The system features a 32-inch touch screen that allows workers on-site access to everything from project plans and drawings to weather forecasts and safety information.

"It brings information from the head office of the contractor and the owner's offices into the job site in real-time," explains Janaka Ruwanpura, a civil engineering professor and Canada Research Chair in project management systems at the Schulich School. He has overseen the project through testing and development, and hopes to commercialize it by the end of the year.

Ruwanpura says the i-Booth was inspired by the concerns of workers who felt there was a lack of communication on the construction site.

"If they know the construction details a little bit better, they can work with the foreman, plan ahead and do a good job," he says.

He stresses the importance of holding an informative, engaging toolbox meeting with workers on the site-and the more interactive, the better. "If something is not interactive, you will not pay attention."

"For instance, if the foreman wants to show a safety lesson related to the project, he could show that during the toolbox meeting," Ruwanpura says. "That gets the attention of the workforce."

In other words, visuals matter. And that's why the project is evolving to include additional features like 3-D models, according to Lahiru Silva, a PhD student at Schulich helping test the i-Booth at a PCL site in Calgary.

He is working on linking the i-Booth to building information modelling technologies, allowing workers on-site access to more detailed project information. "They have the opportunity to see what's going on and issue their concerns," Silva says.

VIEW FROM THE FIELD

Any software technology used in the construction industry has to take into consideration the view from the field.

That's what Scott Cuthbert, chief executive officer of Digital Time Capture, found in his experiences implementing financial software in the construction industry. He says he would come across programs that were, "corporate systems that belong in the ivory tower, not the job site."

"Typically, in 90 per cent of the cases, people in the field were forced to use Excel spreadsheets to collect the information and then re-key that information into their financial systems," he adds.

Cuthbert's solution was to design timesheet management software that could serve the purposes of the industry, doing everything from same-day cost reports to budget comparisons and invoicing.

"We help the contractors collect the labour, equipment and materials information in accordance with the contract they have with the owner, so that they can capture their timesheet data and report their daily costs and progress to the owner and get their work approved," he explains. "And then, at the same time, bring hours and costs into their internal system so they can do payroll and process costs."

The software may be ready for the industry, but is the industry ready for it? Cuthbert admits the Canadian construction industry can be slow to embrace new technologies.

He notes that his Edmonton-based company has had more success in the United States, where about 65 per cent of its client base resides. The remainder is in Canada.

"It's frustrating because we definitely built it with the oilsands challenges specifically in mind," he says.

The reasons for the slow uptake in Canada are hard to pin down. Cuthbert admits there is some skepticism in the industry towards the value of new technologies, but at the same time, "the construction industry is extremely focused on leveraging technology to improve environmental impacts and productivity."

The difference may simply be cultural, he suspects.

"In our experience, we'll have conversations on and off with companies in Canada for over a year before they start to understand the value [the software] can bring…versus folks in the United States who are a little more entrepreneurial in that they'll give something a try even if they're not 100 per cent sure it's going to work for them.

"They're afraid of not improving productivity, whereas Canadians seem to be afraid of doing something that will negatively impact productivity."

But not all anxiety is limited to the head office. Workers on site can also struggle with the presence of new technologies.

When Ranaweera began work on his camera-monitoring project, he found some workers on the job site were worried about being recorded constantly.

"It's kind of like Big Brother is watching over your shoulder," he says, although he also stresses that this is not the purpose of the technology, or even within its capabilities.

"If you see the video clips, you can see some people but you can't see who they are-they're just like moving sticks because we're not focusing on them."

Any new technology is bound to provoke some concerns on the part of workers, but with a younger generation raised on digital media entering the workforce, the acceptance of change is growing.

Even older workers are learning to adapt to new technologies like the i-Booth-albeit with a little help from Silva, who has to show them the ropes first.

It just takes a little training, he says, but they eventually overcome their initial reluctance to use the technology. "With the touch-screen function, it's a lot easier [to use] than mouse and keyboard."

As systems like the i-Booth and devices like tablet computers and smart phones begin to spread throughout construction sites, digital project information will quite literally be at your fingertips. And with that, the old days of digging through piles of plans and drawings every time you need to confirm a project detail may be coming to a close.

For people like Silva, those days can't pass soon enough.

"I think it's high time for the construction industry to move from paper to the soft copies," he says.


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