No App for That? Build It.

No App for That? Build It.

fd0e1b2b0eabd2e4653b4059bf9c9763-feature.jpg

By Dave Gershgorn

As mobile technology has flooded jobsites across the world in recent years, contractors have been 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.

Bluebeam provides a separate free app, Vu, which can view and collaborate with projects already in the Bluebeam cloud, allowing everyone on-site to have access to plans and collaboration tools.

The PDF-based software currently is used by 74% of ENR’s top U.S. contractors, according to Bluebeam.

PlanGrid, as previously reported in ENR, focuses on plan versioning through automatic updates to plans stored in the cloud. It emphasizes speed of use, especially on large plans, and a unique system of tagging and identifying documents, according to co-founder Ryan Sutton-Gee.

The app is free for up to 50 plans, and users are able to write notes, call out certain areas for RFIs, and tag photos to places around the site, which can help especially with liability, Sutton-Gee said.

While PlanGrid offers a tiered service based on the number of plans uploaded to its cloud server, Fieldwire prices its project management app based on the number of people collaborating on the project.

Fieldwire, which looks to distinguish itself with its field-first approach to project management, emphasizes ease of use on-site and low training time. In-app communication functions like text messaging, according to co-founder Javed Singha.

Singha says some customers prefer Fieldwire because of the user-number pricing structure—up to five collaborators with unlimited documents for free—but chalks up overall preference to which system works better with a firm’s business model.

Procore is a package of mobile and web-based project management software. Through the mobile app, Procore joins PlanGrid and Fieldwire in functions such as sending media-rich RFIs, annotating shared drawings and sharing punch lists.

The project management application taps email as its primary communication method, which can provide benefits for those who might have access to email and not the app. Also, having all communication routed through email servers can create redundancy and provide ease of access to those not as tech-savvy.

The Procore system mainly facilitates communication while leaving some heavy lifting to other applications. It integrates with ProEst, Microsoft Office, Microsoft Project, Primavera P6 and P3, JD Edwards and Sage 300.

“We’re striving to be the hub of information on a project, so we sort of have a defined arena,” said Daniel Cohen, director of marketing at Procore.

The Procore app is free to download on iTunes and Android’s Google Play Store but requires a Procore subscription to access.

One of the most well-known and widely used pieces of mobile software is Autodesk’s BIM 360 Field and the newer BIM 360 Glue, which extends Autodesk’s BIM software to tablets and phones. This function allows BIM data to be brought onto the jobsite in a native format.

Autodesk says that, between its two offerings, BIM 360 Glue and Field, its BIM collaboration tool and app for field data management respectively, it “stands alone” as a complete solution, according to Jarrod Krug, Autodesk industry marketing manager.

“The power of BIM 360 is in the ability to connect disparate teams across all phases of construction,” Krug said, in an email message.

Some companies span multiple groupings, such as SAP, which offers custom app development as well as out-of-the-box solutions. Its suite of workforce applications, including SAP 3D Visual Enterprise Viewer and SAP Work Manager, integrates with SAP back-ends to offer greater software influence on the jobsite.

SAP’s most flexible mobile solution is HTML-5 based Fiori, an adaptive web application. Fiori extends SAP’s enterprise resource planning software to any mobile or desktop browser. While usable with little programming, according to Jim Jaquet, senior director of mobile solutions at SAP, the tool is also highly customizable and includes functions for electronic punch clocks, toolbox checks, inventory control and preventative maintenance.

SAP has invested in mobile functionality more than any other company, including IBM and Microsoft, according to Ian Finley, managing vice president of research at Gartner Group.

“They’re very, very focused on mobile because they think it is a big part of the future, and you can’t say that about most of the other vendors,” Finley said.