Technology in Construction: Grabbing and Keeping Control of Your Projects

June 6, 2012

The most frequently asked question is not “How much does it cost?” but “Does it work?”

In an era when new technologies fly at us like gnats on a beautiful June day, we have learned to question the merits of hundreds of products and services for business and home. Software for project management is one group of solutions about which contractors may be more than usually skeptical. In that case, look at these results.

WT DuBois is a Tennessee-based commercial general contractor that has been growing steadily in recent years, “too fast to stop and work on processes,” according to its leaders. The company had simplistic systems in place to manage subcontractor billing, and that resulted in an inability to locate documents quickly, in potential overbilling and double payments, expensive inefficiencies in accounting, and inconsistent practices. So WT DuBois implemented Paskr’s Project Management Suite to manage all aspects of projects from bidding to closeout. Let’s ask the question again. Does it work? This general contractor managed a 150% increase in annual sales with no increase at all in staff. Automating all document creation has saved an estimated two clerical employees (and that’s considered a 200% return on investment). The time spent on month-end closing processes for work in process has been reduced from four days to half a day. The time spent on owner billing has been reduced by 50% thanks to the elimination of duplicate data entry, digital execution and notary, and automated lien waivers.

The investment in Paskr software seems to be working for this contractor. One of the greatest successes has been the elimination of subcontractor overbilling, without increasing the responsibility of project managers. Add to that a reduction of risk by prohibiting billing without executed contracts and change orders. The objectives of WT DuBois when the company undertook to use Paskr’s software included control of subcontractor billing, the creation of standard processes for owner billing, subcontract management, change orders and forecasting, and the provision of a comprehensive project management software that would provide real- time input to accounting.

Credit: Maxwell Systems
All personnel authorized to do so can see what’s happening with the whole project, not just one segment.

At Flow Construction the objectives were similar: consistency in all levels of documents, consistent processes to be used by all project managers to reduce errors, rework, repetitive data entry, and seamless personnel change. This contractor achieved an annual clerical labor savings of $40,000 by automating all document preparation, execution, distribution, tracking, and filing. The company reduced human errors in owner billings by pushing information forward from bill to bill and incorporating all changes automatically. Conseco Construction Co. has 15 to 20 projects a year, ranging in contract value from $50,000 to $4 million. Among this company’s objectives for engaging Paskr Project Management Suite were a desire to reduce legal exposure by putting controls in place to enforce company policies and a system that creates accountability for all project team members. They had to reduce errors in documents and billing, for both subcontractor and owner. After working with Paskr, administrative workloads could be dramatically reduced, “with all pieces of the puzzle put together.” Paskr is Internet-based software that automates project management workflow and allows general contractors to improve profitability, save time, and increase productivity. Aspects of a contracting business that can benefit from Paskr include owner and subcontractor contracts, owner bills, daily logs and time cards, submittals and transmittals, project minutes, purchase orders, subcontractor billing, estimates and budgets, and RFI/RFP/change orders.

Working Together
With so many technologies available to contractors it becomes important to know that one technology (or software program) will work well with another. A salesman’s temptation would be to tell a potential client that his program does everything for everybody, but that happy situation is most unlikely. The capabilities of computers have grown amazingly since the beginning. Many of you may not remember when a new computer that had 64K available for you was a miracle. Don’t laugh. It was! And it was the start of even more astounding capabilities. It’s still unlikely, however, that one program will do everything you need for your project, in the office (offices?), at the job site, wherever.

A significant step in this direction has been made by Meridian Systems. Meridian is a Trimble company. With that role, a new potential shines most promisingly. Parent Trimble uses GPS, lasers, optical

Credit: Maxwell Systems
One of the greatest advances with project management technologies is that we don’t have to rely exclusively on clumsy paper and human accuracy.

and inertial technologies, wireless communications, and application-specific software to provide successful solutions that make field and office workers more productive. The Trimble-named solutions tend to focus on applications that need location or positioning, and they have been successful in construction for several years, as well as in fleet and asset management, mapping, and safety. Meridian has enjoyed success especially with Prolog and Proliance. What is different now is that Meridian is responding to the needs of different entities, all different but all involved in the same market of construction. There are organizations and companies that own and/or manage assets, and those that build those assets. To address the needs of these cooperative but distinct entities, Meridian has developed two business units. The heads of the units are Jon Fingland and Rick Gehringer (both former Meridian customers). Fingland heads the AEC business unit; that includes general contractors, specialty subcontractors, architecture and engineering, and construction managers at risk. These people have responsibility for the construction and constructability of programs and from planning to hand-over. They are responsible for risk of scope, schedule and budget. Gehringer heads up Meridian’s “Owner” unit. Owners could be public, private, owners’ representatives, and “contract managers for fee,” and they manage large capital programs and project portfolios. They take part in the plan-build-operate cycle from development activities through to facilities management. There is surely some overlapping in features and requirements for owners and AEC, but their perspectives are often different. The objectives of the owners for estimating will emphasize capital planning and feasibility while the AEC’s focus is on being competitive and profitable.

 “As the world emerges from global recession, the construction project management industry faces new business realities,” comments Cindy Jutras, principal at Mint Jutras, an industry analyst firm among whose tasks was covering key technology strategies presented at last year’s Meridian User Conference. “Meridian is fast following clients into new parts of the world and recognizing the demand for integrated project delivery. Meridian also recognizes the unique needs of all stakeholders and has reorganized around the specific needs of businesses that own and manage capital programs and assets (the owners) as well as those that build them (architects, engineers, and contractors) to offer a complete solution philosophy.”

At Klorman Construction, one of the largest construction companies in California, including a structural concrete division, President and Chief Executive Officer Bill Klorman, in the business for 30 years, recalls how his first investment was a DOS-based computer. Today he runs the company with Meridian’s Prolog combined with Trimble’s BIM. “In 1996 I was impressed with Prolog as a platform that understood a contractor’s needs,” notes Klorman. “All the others at the time were written for the A and E, not C. Just terminology alone made Prolog different. Centralized workflow and an integrated database made it suited for self-performing contractors. Meridian’s competition ran on mainframes, partially integrated and unaffordable. Centralized project management solutions reduce costs and increase operational efficiency.” He adopted construction-specific software in those early days and can appreciate how newer programs can only improve the advantages gained. “Due to the efficiencies achieved with our Prolog system, we have been able to reduce the size of our project teams by an average of four people. On the low side, that’s a savings of 8,300 man-hours per project per year. Technology has been a great accelerator for my business because it’s given me the ability to do more with less effort and fewer people.”

Now the company uses BIM, too. “If a picture is worth a thousand words, then BIM is worth a million,” adds Bill Klorman. “We have been able to save $350,000 just by resolving issues and identifying things that simply could not be built. It’s a little world that you keep pouring information into. BIM is not only intelligent, it is also fundamental to what you do. If you can resolve issues in the plan/design stage it is much cheaper than resolving them in the field. With new cloud options, pretty soon every mom-and-pop contractor will be able to use it.” A key to Klorman’s history of efficiency has been the standardization provided by the Meridian, Trimble, and Tekla Structures technologies. “Standardization allows us to switch people from job to job,” asserts Bill Klorman. “This helps us achieve a lower price point because we can move our staff around as needed, without a full-time, one-to-one project commitment. A project manager who used to manage a single job can now oversee three jobs: one in startup, one in closeout, and one that’s halfway complete. Since all projects are managed the same way, the transition from job to job is seamless.”

How Can a Contractor Know the Program to Use?
There are many project management programs available, and the person who wants to sell you one will try to convince you it’s the best. How can you maneuver your route through all that’s available?

“Contractors have a tough decision to make when it comes to which vendor they should ultimately choose,” comments Mike Gillum, director of product management and estimating at Maxwell Systems. “It really comes down to which company is going to best meet their needs. Whether those needs are ease of use, training and support, or general functionality of the program, contractors today need to do their homework, and the Internet is a perfect tool to research in detail each and every vendor they are considering. With today’s economy, a lot of the software vendors have been really hurt, so they have let a lot of stuff go and have dropped their prices considerably. But, just like with subcontractors and material vendors, the lowest bid doesn’t always make itself the right choice.”

In the last few years, one of the negative comments about project management programs has been the lack of reliable, affordable training available. I asked Gillum if that situation had changed. Should a contractor train his staff? Does a software provider also provide training? “The Internet and technology in general have really brought training and implementation to the next level,” responds Gillum. “There are literally dozens of ways a contractor can get trained or train his staff. Most software providers will provide training, including online training, training-on-demand, group training, one-on-one training, training videos, and online portals.” Good training is still important, essential, but the good news seems to be that it is much more readily available than it used to be. It’s certainly something you should ask about before you buy a program.

Are all these project management programs just for the big boys? No. The general contractor may be a “big boy” but every contractor involved in a project is…involved in the project. Put another way, every contractor in a project is important to the running, scheduling, completion, and recording of that project. “No matter the size of the general contractor or subcontractor, they all have to manage their particular aspects of a project,” observes Gillum of Maxwell Systems. “Each particular trade’s task on a project affects all of the other trades and, of course, the overall schedule of the project. So project management software allows the contractors to manage the project electronically, as opposed to carrying around three-ring binders full of project data that may be already outdated when they leave the office.”

Keeping up with technologies and what customers perceive as useful technologies is something that manufacturers of project management software face all the time. Recently, Maxwell Systems introduced Mobile Connect, so that project managers can use an iPad to stay connected with the popular ProContractorMX software from wherever they happen to be, still in the office or out at the job site. The information you need (about projects, equipment, employees, contacts, binder contents) will be literally at your fingertips. Your iPad will tell you what you need to know about original plans from the bid, budgets, project documents, people, equipment, change order requests, subcontracts, purchase orders, payables and receivables that are still open, and attachments to documents. The mind boggles, doesn’t it? All that information is now immediately available thanks to Maxwell’s ProContractor MX and the Mobile Connect app.

ProContractorMX has been successful and popular for years; it helps you stay organized. Any document related to the project can be attached in ProContractorMX to a document record. You can see them at your desk or in the field (thanks to the Mobile Connect capability). You can view the RFIs, submittal packages, checklists, transmittals, daily field reports, and project plans. In your contact lists, you can place the names of project managers, architects, and subcontractors. You can see those important document-due dates; they will appear automatically for you at the right time.

Ease of Use
“It sets a new standard for usability and accessibility that truly connects the construction office with the field,” explains John Chaney, president and cofounder of Dexter + Chaney. He’s describing the company’s Venture Project Collaboration Software, a totally new line introduced earlier this year at the 2012 World of Concrete. Launched at the same time was a new version of Dexter + Chaney’s Spectrum Construction Software: Spectrum version 14, the predecessors of which have all been well-received and successful tools. A user can access the full features of Spectrum version 14 from anywhere, using virtually any Internet-connected device. All the information about a project or job is no more than a single click away.

Dexter + Chaney’s Spectrum is already used by more than 1,000 companies, from all segments, including general contractors, heavy highway and utility contractors, electrical, mechanical, and specialty contractors, and companies of all sizes, from your local contractor to some of the world’s biggest construction firms. And now Spectrum version 14 can be hosted by the client or used as a “software free” cloud-based product. While the software can be deployed on-premises, contractors who choose the completely hosted option never need to worry about software updates or hardware requirements. Running in a browser simplifies IT infrastructure (and reduces costs). The user saves time and money on setup, hardware, and internal support, with even low requirements for workstations, since all processing occurs on the server. This means that Spectrum eliminates the need for the third-party software and additional hardware that some other programs require to run on the Internet. “Contractors can now access the industry’s most powerful business and operations software without having to load a single disk or buy a single new piece of hardware,” confirms Chaney.

All these changes in technology for construction people have also prompted another new move from Dexter + Chaney. The company has formed an operations group, employing people with the right skills and experience in the industry domain to address the challenges of construction collaboration and integrated project delivery. The first product offerings from this group are being seen this year. What was the thinking behind the creation of this new group? “We had one objective in mind: Use technology to help make collaboration a reality, not just a buzzword,” notes Chaney. “We looked at the sheer number of different applications used by our customers from pre-bidding through to project completion, and we were shocked. We knew there had to be a better way to deliver technology to construction firms trying to work together. That’s when we began forming the Operations Group.”

There are still contractors who wonder why we should use new technologies such as project management programs. Perhaps the most compelling reason is that we all make mistakes. I heard of a contractor who was glowing with pleasure at the financial results of his recent project. The glow lasted almost a month and then a past due notice for more than $15,000 arrived from one of his material suppliers. He was furious. He always pays his bills on time; it’s one reason he has such a good reputation. The original invoice for materials was found among a pile of disorderly papers on the desk of his project manager. Missed. Mislaid. Forgotten. It was a legitimate invoice and the contractor paid it promptly after receiving that stomach-churning past-due notice. He has started research into a program to avoid such errors or omissions from happening again.

There are also many excellent programs involving software and computers that address specific sections of a construction project: estimating, bidding, replacing paper documents for more accurate, permanent records. If a contractor feels his business needs help only in particular aspects, then those programs are most helpful and valuable. Anything that saves manual work is probably timesaving; anything that saves paper is probably more rugged and accurate. As you can see from trends mentioned above, the momentum in our industry to have all those involved to be as involved as possible, breaking down the old established (and quite unnecessary) barriers between owners, architects, designers, engineers, and contractors. In the first stages of such progress, we should not be surprised that it’s the bigger contracting companies that commit themselves to technological solutions, but we would wrong to believe that only bigger companies can take part in this promising leap forward.