Construction goes wireless
by Kenneth A. Hooker
managing construction projects requires a constant flow of information among the various players to communicate design changes, track the work, coordinate material deliveries and job schedules, and monitor and control costs.
However, effective communication in construction has traditionally been difficult. Many of those who must report and receive information spend relatively little time in their offices. On small construction projects, communication can be harder still, because many small contractors have no full-time office staff to take and relay messages, and most company owner/managers are actively engaged on their jobsites. Further, during early stages of construction or in remote locations, jobsites may lack standard phone lines.
For these reasons, the development of mobile wireless communication devices has positively affected the worldwide construction industry. Traditionally slow to embrace new technologies, construction firms were among the first to adopt early wireless systems such as two-way radios, pagers and cellular phones, because they so clearly addressed needs. Since the mid-1990s, the emergence of all-digital wireless networks has rapidly increased the range and flexibility of services.
Manufacturers have introduced a sometimes confusing array of devices, some designed for quite specific applications. The current trend is to combine a variety of services—voice and text communication, e-mail and wireless Web access—in a single portable device. These devices currently facilitate communication on construction projects, but advancements over the next several years could really make an impact.
Next Generation Pagers
Alphanumeric pagers are a quick, inexpensive way to communicate with staff on a jobsite. One-way pagers receive, store and display text messages conveyed by phone, other pagers, and e-mail and fax. Two-way pagers such as the Motorola PageWriter incorporate a small QWERTY keyboard that allows users to send and receive text messages.
Less expensive to use than cell phones, pagers also allow users to better manage their time. “For one thing, with text messaging, you can often convey the necessary information without having a conversation,” says masonry contractor Al Wendt, president of Albert Wendt Construction Co., Glen Ellyn, Ill., USA. “I have my field superintendents give out pager numbers rather than their direct cell phone numbers. That way, they can screen a call, determine how urgent it is and decide when to call back.”
Ubiquitous on construction sites, today's digital cell phones have become less expensive, more reliable and far more flexible than earlier models. Aside from features such as voice mail and call waiting, “ruggedized” units like the Motorola i700Plus are built to withstand the higher impacts and harder use they're likely to get on a construction site. The most advanced models offer email and fax capability, as well as minibrowsers that allow limited access to the World Wide Web (see “Once and Future Technology,” page 46).
“I have my field superintendents give out pager numbers rather than their direct cell phone numbers. That way, they can screen a call, determine how urgent it is and decide when to call back.”
Mike Poppoff, president of Yakima, Wash., USA-based concrete contractor Poppoff Inc., says his company switched from pagers to cell phones about eight years ago. “Our work mainly involves placing concrete slabs, and we typically move among several different jobsites during a day, so it's important for us to be able to maintain contact. We place calls from the office to the field to set schedules and crew sizes.
“Field staff call the office to get questions answered and troubleshoot problems. Our foremen stay in phone contact with suppliers to coordinate material deliveries, because ready-mixed concrete is a time-sensitive product.”
Personal Digital Assistants
Handheld personal digital assistants (PDAs) such as Palm Pilots and PocketPCs are used to store large amounts of information such as contacts and schedules, as well as to retrieve and send e-mail.
Poppoff maintains his own appointment calendar, contact list and other information in a PDA, but says he never uses it to communicate with others because he's used to traditional phone and e-mail-based technologies.
Two-way radio was the earliest technology to gain widespread use and has been common in the construction industry for decades. Conventional mobile radios provide wireless voice communication, but range is limited to a few miles and they don't allow for private communications. David Nichols, a manager for Birmingham, Ala., USA-based Hoar Construction LLC, says his company began issuing Nextel's iDEN (see “Once and Future Technology,” right) wireless devices to all its field superintendents and most project managers in May 2000.
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Currently, 140 employees in four states are using them, and Nichols says it's been a good experience. “These phones replaced our old two-way radios, which provided service over only about a five-mile radius, and allow us better control of phone expenses.
“We used to allow superintendents to arrange their own cell phone service and reimburse them every month. Now we pay for 600 minutes of cell-phone service and unlimited two-way use. Our bills are predictable, and phone costs can be charged out more easily as a job cost.”
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It is estimated that 50 percent of companies in the U.S. construction industry now have Internet access, Donald Hyde, chairman and CEO of BuilderSupplynet.com, reported to attendees of the EConstruction Conference in January.
However, in a recent survey of 152 general contractors, subcontractors and suppliers conducted by Buildpoint.com and reported in Streaming Media World (www.streamingmediaworld.com), 80 percent of survey participants had Internet access. A significant majority of companies in either estimate would likely be using only hard-wired connections.
Kenneth A. Hooker is a freelance writer based in Oak Park, Ill., USA. Formerly editor of Masonry Construction magazine and Canadian Building News and editorial director of WorldofConcrete. com, he has been writing about construction for 20 years.
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Once and Future Technology
Small display screens, slow transmission rates, limited graphic capabilities, and the often laborious methods used to enter and transmit information are limitations that wireless technology will likely address in the future.
Developed by Motorola, iDEN is the most ubiquitous wireless technology used on construction sites—apart from basic coverage via standard modes (GSM, TDMA, CDMA, W-CDMA or cdma2000). As of March, Nextel, iDEN's largest service provider, based in Richmond, Va., USA, had 7.2 million handsets in use in the United States, most equipped with Direct Connect.
Direct Connect users within a range of several hundred miles can make private radio connections with one another, without dialing a cell phone number and without incurring per-minute cellular charges. Besides allowing project managers to program their own set of radio contacts, Nextel provides Direct Connect service within “fleets” of its customers engaged in similar businesses. Its construction fleet includes builders, contractors, suppliers and other related users within a service area.
WAP (Wireless Application Protocol)
In a famously quoted jibe, a wireless industry analyst said that “WAP is crap” last year—and all but drove the final nail in the technology's coffin. WAP technology, which seems considerably ahead of its time, allows users to access the Internet via their cellular devices. Problem is, there's not a lot of sites to be accessed yet.
WAP uses the Wireless Markup Language (WML)—the wireless counterpart to HTML—which doesn't require a keyboard or mouse to navigate the Web. Minibrowser software in Net-enabled wireless devices lets users access sites created in WML, but these sites represent only a small fraction of the information available on desktop browsers. Transmission rates are slow, ranging from about eight kbps to 16 kbps, as compared to the 56 kbps now standard for desktop dial-up connections.
Currently, there are just a few WAP sites with specific application to the construction industry, but demand could really take off as the technology continues to develop.
David Nichols, a manager for Birmingham, Ala., USA-based Hoar Construction LLC, says he accesses the Web from his cell phone for weather reports and driving directions, and Bradley Miller, a project manager for San Antonio builder KB Home, has found another useful application: “I use the Web feature on my phone to access the city's computers and check the status of permits and inspections on our jobs. It saves a lot of time.”
The next big thing, GPRS will give users their first real taste of the myriad possibilities of wireless data. GPRS location-based services can offer an array of personalized services based on location-specific information.
Following an interview-type situation, your service provider can develop a profile and push only the information you need and want.
With GPRS, data will travel much faster and link to the Internet nonstop with the user only paying for the services used. The much faster setup times and throughput mean that large documents can be shared with or even transferred in toto to far-flung colleagues.
Not limited to printable files, GPRS also speeds the transmission of moving images. Videoconferencing, although not in real-time, will be possible without going to a specific location, and audio files will move quickly.
Existing wireless technology is second generation (2G), in other words, digital. UMTS is the third generation (3G) everyone is aiming toward.
With UMTS, users will have a tremendous amount of choice for type of access device: data only, phonelike devices, or data and voice with more ubiquitous service and homogeneous delivery.
In 3G, subscribers will be able to choose a specific set of features. For instance, if an operator offers standard conferencing functionality and there's a new way to do conferencing that a user prefers, that choice can be modified.
Wireless carriers around the world have all but bankrupted themselves in buying 3G licenses from governments. They now face huge build-out costs to construct the networks, and there is no viable business case for the technology as yet. It's a multibillion-dollar gamble for the wireless industry, which will limp along burdened by debt until 2006, when significant take-up of UMTS is expected to occur.
Short-Messaging Services (SMS)
A relatively new wireless technology employing small, hand-held devices, short-messaging service (SMS) use is exploding worldwide. SMS can deliver messages almost instantaneously, and subscribers can even send and receive limited 300-byte messages on their phones.
Services such as ring-tones, picture messaging, group SMS and buddy chat were expected to become prevalent across Europe this year, according to IDC, a Framingham, Mass., USA-based provider of technology intelligence. Handsets that support an advanced messaging standard will feed this growth, the firm reports, adding that integration of phone-based SMS chat services and Web-based buddy chat services will allow users to communicate across mediums.
The IDC also expects SMS to enter the business market, as a way of communicating with employees.
“Some operators are already beginning to offer the ability to send short messages to predefined groups of mobile phone users within the organization—and when they get the access method and price point right, these services will see a degree of success within the corporate environment as a fast and cheap method of communicating with staff,” IDC reports.
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In addition to standard devices, there are a couple of new software products designed for use with wireless devices that have specific applications in the construction industry.
As the devices proliferate on construction sites, you can expect more such products to appear.
PocketCAD Pro 3.0 by Arc Second runs on handheld PDAs that use the Windows CE operating system. It allows the user to view, create and edit CAD drawings while away from a desktop CAD workstation. According to Mobile Computing Online (www.mobilecomputing.com), the program lets you create a basic floor plan or similarly complex drawing, complete with dimensions and notes.
Airput Inc., a small Norristown, Pa., USA-based software firm, is marketing AirHours, a service that allows field superintendents to input employee labor hours into a Web-enabled phone and transmit them directly to an employer's database.
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PM Network August 2001