Technology in Construction: Software Paves the Way

Isn’t it great when a tool makes doing a job easier? Isn’t that what tools are for? But it also has to be the right tool for the right purpose for it to be efficient and to really save you time and money. You wouldn’t think of using a hand trowel to pave a road, would you? Certainly not, but in this computer-driven age, many contractors are doing what amounts to that by using outdated methods of running their business and without using the full potential of tools that will not only keep them competitive but that will build them an edge now as well as in the future.

Unfortunately, the challenging economic times we live in today make the construction business increasingly competitive as well as collaborative, which necessitates better management tools, not only in the field, but in the office as well. After all, why let the advantages of better tools stop at the office door? And if your job is to manage a project, why lose touch with it when you leave the site, relying then only on what you are told to keep tabs on what is going on?

Project management software is the answer, and it is a tool that construction companies need to consider very carefully, both what types and combinations are best for their applications, as well as how to apply them.

Computer-savvy contractors as well as producers agree that project management software is the best way available not only to allow office staff and field staff to communicate, but also to give both real-time feedback on how a job is progressing and how to make it happen better.

From Bid to Wrap-Up
When Craig W. Robson, president of Oneco, FL-based Superior Asphalt Inc. asked for bids from subs to complete a job in Sarasota, he expected to hear from 8 to 10 contractors.

He ended up with bids from more than 500.

“I never would have expected the number of bids that I received,” Robson says. “That’s good for me, but the tough times we are all going through right now is the reason that more firms are bidding for more jobs. They have to keep working, but in fairness to my client, I have to look carefully at all of those bids to not only get the best one, but to judge them fairly and effectively.”

More than 90% of the roads in America are covered with asphalt. And chances are good that if you drive on a road in Florida’s Manatee and Sarasota County areas, it was paved by Superior Asphalt. Superior builds quality highways, roads, and streets. It supplies and sells asphalt to developers and builders, provides grading and milling services, builds sidewalks, curbs, and gutters, and provides expert repairs and renovations for developers, private industries and local, regional, and state public entities. The company is recognized by regional leaders as a preferred contractor, road builder, and asphalt provider.

“Superior Asphalt is a classic example of what the right tools in the right hands can do,” says Mike Gillum of Maxwell Systems in King of Prussia, PA, provider of several project management software products, including American Contractor, Management Suite, and Estimation Logistics, to name a few. “In a lot of ways, Superior is typical of many of the contractors today. They’re usually very computer-savvy, much more so than in years past. They’re not scared of computers the way many were in the past, and they know that this software can help them. Whether they have it or not is a different matter. Many have put off buying this type of product because business was fine without it. As things get tougher and more competitive in the market, people have resorted to layoffs and other strategies to avoid costs, but there comes a point of diminishing returns when you use that strategy. Using computer technology, specifically project management software, doesn’t cost-it pays.”

Unfortunately, as Gillum points out, it’s most often not a matter of whether project management software can help them, but which product is best for their particular application. “It’s a computer-driven world out there,” he says. “It’s gotten to the point that either contractors incorporate this type of technology, or they’re out of business.”

According to Mark Bittner, vice president and general manager of telematics for Topcon in Livermore, CA, “I have seen contractors who had the best of intents for their business at heart, but when it came to purchasing a software product, they ended up buying a product that wasn’t even designed for the construction industry. In some cases, they even paid more for it, but it was the wrong product for their uses.”

Topcon produces Tierra software, a Web-based service telematic service that has applications for surveying and machine control in mind. Whether a contractor operates one machine or a thousand, keeping that machinery in operational condition and working is critical to profitability. Tierra can make that difference, especially in machine control and maintenance history.

Bidding, estimating, and field-tracking applications are specialties for Bid2Win Software Inc., whose president, Paul J. McKeon, comments, “Isn’t bidding the process of telling a potential client why you should have a project? The trouble is, it’s a tedious and time-consuming task to deliver a good bid. Fortunately, with this software, contractors can deliver a good bid within days instead of weeks or more.”

Off the Shelf
In the construction industry, some off-the-shelf tools and equipment are necessary, but, frequently, off-the-shelf software products don’t provide contractors with the edge that gives them a competitive advantage. Generic software is not designed with the contractor in mind, and typically cannot be customized to the extent needed to fit the particular needs of the company.

So, how do you know when you have found a project management software package that’s worth your investment? Nearly all software providers will work with users before, during, as well as after their investment in a particular product to ensure the optimal application.

According to Matt Lange, vice president, business development for Sage Construction and Real Estate group, “People are a contractor’s greatest asset. We all know that, but it doesn’t make sense to have good people if you don’t give them the best tools to work with. It’s only when you have good people working with good tools, in this case their project management software, do they create the synergy needed for an optimal outcome.”

Even some off-the-shelf software solutions pride themselves for their specificity to construction applications. An example is Foundation Software, whose chief executive officer and chairman, Fred Ode, counts his product as tailored to the needs of accountants and construction managers.

A math teacher turned programmer, Ode worked for a Cleveland-based construction firm until he took it upon himself to write a program that would help accountants within the company track building changes. Foundation Software was born.

“A large number of our construction clients were previously using an off-the-shelf accounting software package, such as QuickBooks or Peachtree, which they have outgrown and stretched well beyond its capabilities,” Ode explains. “Others are coming off an antiquated accounting software product that is no longer supported or has not kept up with current technology.

Many Foundation contractors have said that the most important features in construction accounting software are good job costing and payroll modules. When they switched to Foundation Software, they wanted to reduce their reliance on spreadsheets and third-party software, and they wanted something easy to use that allows one-time entry with full integration to other necessary modules.

“We have construction clients, with as few as 10 employees, doing $1 million in revenue per year, and construction clients with as many as 1,000-plus employees and several hundred million dollars in revenue per year,” Ode says. “However, the majority of our construction clients, about 75%, have between 15 and 250 field employees doing between $2 and $40 million in revenue per year.”

Another maker with an accounting emphasis in project management software is Canada-based Explorer Software in West Vancouver, BC.

In the Details
Project risk is an integral part of any construction project. This could be especially true when a construction firm competes for jobs on an international scale. Not only are there the usual risk factors (billing and invoice management, contract management, and scheduling, etc.), but issues ingrained in foreign jobs, such as multicurrency management, also become important. Managing that risk, throughout the construction process is an important function of project management software. That’s the philosophy of Meridian Systems in Folsom, CA.

Jonas Construction and Service Management Software is used by more than 1,000 HVACR, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and general contractors across North America to drive revenue, increase efficiency, and to help make better business decisions. Jonas offers a complete package of fully integrated, flexible, and industry-specific solutions including accounting, payroll, job cost, service management, inventory and equipment management, document management, mobile technology, Web portal solutions, and project management.

More With Less
The Japanese have a method called kaizen, which translated means “improvement,” whether big or small, to achieve continuous improvement throughout all aspects of the workplace. According to experts, kaizen goes beyond simple daily improvement. It is a daily activity that transcends every level of an organization, from a CEO down, and teaches people to experiment with new methods of working to improve work environments and productivity.

According to Dann Kroeger, president of HeadsUp Technologies in Overland Park, KS, the more you know throughout the construction process, the better. That’s the key to choosing the right project management software for a construction firm.

“I think that most builders know that this kind of tool can help them,” Kroeger says. “Fortunately, almost everybody is to the point that they’re pretty savvy with the technology, but let’s face it, business has been good in the past, so they’re taken their time getting these products. Now, with the economy tightening, more firms are buying these management tools that have proven that they can make your business leaner and meaner than in the past.”

In fact, almost all project management software vendors report that their greatest amount of business being done in the last six months has been from medium-sized construction firms, with annual revenues between $1 to $5 million.

“Let’s face it, everyone knows this technology can help them, and until recently the business has been good, so people say, “˜Why do I need it? Business is good.'” Kroeger says. “But now, small to medium firms are finding it harder to get the jobs because it is so much more competitive out there, and they are looking for tools that can allow them to get a better handle on what is going on out in the field, and keep track of how things are going with a project to cut costs where there is a savings, and to pull off a job on time.”

It Takes Cooperation
Winning in the construction business, especially in the ultra-competitive times we live in, means everyone needs to work together for a common goal. But you wouldn’t connect people in the field with the office by means of tin cans and a string. It doesn’t make any more sense to connect the job site with the office using antiquated and incompatible communications systems.

More construction companies are using Web-based programs to share information, thus building cooperation and relying less on trust or by-guess-and-by-golly methods.

Project management software tools allow owners and managers to be away from project sites but still be able to ask the important questions based on information that’s up-to-date and accurate. Project management software gives responsible parties comprehensive pictures of a project as it progresses day-to-day, allowing them to review current schedules, weather conditions, completion dates, and costs, including selection upgrades or change orders, as well as other information to keep them in the know throughout the entire construction process.

Key to cooperation is the interrelatedness of the software, incorporating three areas of concern: accounting, construction, and the office.

Accounting-Whether the construction firm is big or small, and regardless of the size of the job, a good project management software system will include an accounting function with construction-specific features and analysis tools.

Construction-At the center of a comprehensive project management software system is a multifaceted construction feature, which incorporates management needs. This function includes a wide variety of accountability features, including estimating and bidding, production, accounting and analysis.

Office-What is going on in the field that a manager in the office needs to know? That’s the essence of the office function. This includes all aspects of irretrievability, which is accomplished mainly through a Web-based system.

“Regardless of where a person is working in the construction business, information is the name of the game,” said Sage’s Lange. “There’s nothing worse than old, out-of-date information, especially when you’re trying to rely on it to make informed decisions. With a good project management software package, you can access up-to-date information when and where you need it.”

This interconnectability is the philosophy of another vendor, Corecon Technologies Inc. in Huntington Beach, CA. In addition to other lower-end accounting programs, Corecon offers three primary products: a Web-based flagship product, Corecon 2007; an extension of Corecon 2007 in a handheld tool; and CoreconLink, which is another extension of Corecon 2007 but with seamless integration with Microsoft Office suite.

One of the largest vendors that delivers one of the broadest program management software values is Dexter + Chaney in Seattle, WA, which offers Spectrum project management software as well as construction management software and online functionality. There are 30 integrated modules that handle project management, construction accounting, service, equipment management, human resources, document imaging, remote connectivity, data sharing, and much more, according to Robin Connor, marketing manager of the company.

According to Conner, some Dexter + Chaney clients report productivity gains of up to 300% without increasing staff or hours.

Making it Happen, Just In Time
Like many vendors, Steve McGough, chief operating officer of HSCC Software, believes that the less that is taken for granted in construction, the better. Fortunately, project management software users can keep an accurate pulse on business, practically in real time.

“Let’s face it, when a construction project is going on, there’s a lot to keep track of, which requires a lot of time and a lot of people doing their jobs,” McGough says. “There’s also a lot going on behind the scenes, such as maintenance issues, that must be taken care of, but with our software, finding out about these types of things is as easy as logging on.”

One advantage that project management software users have is the ability to monitor equipment like never before. Where is the equipment? When was it last serviced? How much is it used?

Topcon’s Bittner added that these questions can be readily answered by using an effective software product.

“I can’t tell you how often I have heard contractors say that they have had foreman beg for a piece of equipment; then they find out that, after they have purchased it, they will go out to the field and find that there’s grass growing around it. As it turns out, it’s not being used, and they won’t know that until they actually see it.”

Bittner continued that with a GPS based on a company’s project management software program, issues such as maintenance, areas and hours of use and other matters are easy to identify.

“With the positioning capabilities, problems such as theft are non-issues, because once the identification is made, managers can readily see where a piece of equipment is, and even who is using it,” Bittner explained. “Another example is overtime use, which might be billed, but if a supervisor sees that the equipment isn’t being used during those hours, he knows that there are some questions that need to be asked. All of this type of information is made available with a project management software program.”

Seeing Is Believing
Mark West, vice president of marketing for ePlanIt in Frisco, TX, considers connectivity a major advantage of project management software on a construction job site. “Working smarter, not harder, should be the mission of any good software for construction,” West says. “With our product, all of the work is done in real time-share a document, a schedule, track your labor, and be able to use construction cameras-all in one product. And it’s all Web-based, which means it can be accessed anywhere it’s needed.”

West emphasizes that ePlanIt’s project management tool does not use software, so there’s nothing to download. The job page is accessed through a secure project site from any computer, located anywhere, to track bids, contacts, plans, reports, RFIs, schedules, and even streaming videos from the job site.

The ePlanIt package also offers video recording capabilities that allow users to record and play back video from up to 16 different cameras. This capability is available to multiple users simultaneously.

The same general approach is used by Glendale, AZ-based Ueven, owned by Stephanie Neveu, who offers another Internet-based system for accessing information and reports for such issues as the location of work crews, traceable work history, crew efficiency and speed, crew size, trackable drive or travel times, how fast a truck was traveling, and more.

Ueven’s SHARCC products offer enterprise-wide tools for use with three core modules: human resource, marketing, and estimating.

The Long and the Short of It
Experts agree that contractors who purchase a project management software program should consider three important elements in a comprehensive package.

Integration-Contractors should select a vendor whose product allows the seamless flow of information between departments. These elements might be as diverse as machine control and accounting, but this ability eliminates considerable wasted time due to repetition of efforts.

Flexibility and Service-Does the program you are considering allow the ability to fit your firm and the way it does business and in your particular application? No? Beware…regardless of the price. And will the product supplier stand behind their product with fast and efficient service to make sure their product works in your environment?

Innovation-Is the vendor working to provide products and updates that incorporate the changing environment of construction management? If not, keep shopping.

The bottom line for all project management software is to make your job easier and time more productive. Without that, your efforts are in vain. However, with the changing scene of construction management products and the environment, constant monitoring of the products available will result in a more profitable business now and in the future.