OK, maybe not the whole jobsite, but tedious tasks that used to require time-consuming note-taking and paperwork have been digitized and uploaded to personal digital assistants — the next-generation notepad.


If you don't already own a pair of pants with lots of pockets, now might be the time to invest in one. Thanks to the influx of digital gadgetry over the last decade, jobsites are looking more and more like the inside of a Sharper Image outlet, and finding a place to put all of those toys is becoming as challenging as figuring out how to use them. Cell phones have replaced land mobile radios, and laptop computers replete with document imaging programs have made traditional work plans, paper-based requests for information, and material lists nearly obsolete. And now with personal digital assistants (PDAs) finding their way into the contractor's arsenal of information-gathering tools, that pen and notepad you've been using look so 1999. Capable of storing phone numbers, timecard information, and work schedules, PDAs are offering easier and more efficient data collection methods to the contractor-on-the-go.

Unlike the rest of its mobile, pint-sized technological counterparts, the PDA's strength comes from its stripped-down functionality. The fewer bells and whistles, the better. Laptop computers have already cornered the market on mobile application-based software that converts data to a usable form, and cell phones and cellular technology have claimed the information transfer market. The only remaining task is information gathering — and that's exactly what PDAs excel at.

Accepting its place in the information dissemination food chain was the key to finding the right uses for PDAs, according to John Garay of project management software developer Primavera Systems, Bala Cynwyd, Pa. As a product manager, he and his team explored several combinations before settling on the PDA-as-digital-notepad model. “We realized that people are not looking to duplicate the functionality of a PC program on a handheld,” he says. “That's where we've made that adjustment to instead think of it as an extension of the PC. Instead of creating a system that does all of that core graphics and reporting functionality, it's much more of a statusing tool that people are looking for.”

It's a dirty job…

Jettisoning complex functionality in favor of more stripped-down programming eliminates application-heavy capabilities like estimating, accounting, and design programs, and instead leaves the annoying clerical work that no one likes to do but has to devote time to nonetheless. Chief among those tasks is filling out timecards. When you're managing 10 to 15 electricians or more on a jobsite — all of whom know down to the minute how long they worked last week — keeping track of their hours in your head and waiting until the end of the week to fill out a timesheet is not only difficult but it's the quickest way to make enemies in your accounting department. But that's just what several contractors do.

“It's been a big hassle forever for people to fill in payroll timecards,” says Brad Mathews, vice president of sales and marketing for Dexter + Chaney, Seattle. “That's information you've got to gather in the field that you really should do every single day. But the reality is a lot of people don't gather that information until the end of the period. Well, if they do that, it's not going to be accurate.”

Even after the timecards have been filled out, though, the possibility still exists for those who enter the data into the payroll system to introduce errors. When you're scribbling down numbers that you can barely remember it's all too easy for your 5s to end up looking like 6s, and those little errors can add up to costly overages that the typical worker isn't going to report. But if your 6s look like 5s, you can be assured they'll bring it to your attention.

Using a pen-like stylus and a series of drop-down menus in a PDA-based program like Dexter + Chaney's Forefront system, a job foreman can click on the job, phase, and employee without ever having to write a thing, cutting down on the possibility of illegible entries. “Now the guy could hit the wrong number — that kind of error is always possible,” Mathews says. “But at least you don't have the error where the person gets the timecard in the office and says, ‘Is that a 5 or a 6?’”

Completing timecards on a PDA not only reduces the chance for those errors, but it also cuts down on the time spent entering data. Once the foreman has input his employees' hours for the day, he can take the unit back to his office, sync it to his desktop PC via a docking station, and the information is automatically entered to his firm's payroll accounting software. No runs, no drips, no errors.

While payroll shortages and inconsistencies will always be brought to your attention by your employees, project budget overages are more insidious and may not show up until it's too late to correct them. With materials, you know what you're getting into when you place the order, so from that standpoint your costs are relatively fixed. With labor, on the other hand, costs can fluctuate based on how experienced, and thus expensive, your employees are — do you have a journeyman pulling cable when you should be using an apprentice? — and how long it's taking them to complete their tasks. If a project manager or job foreman is entering his daily payroll information into a PDA-based program that can spit back out up-to-date job costs, he can catch some of those overages and make adjustments.

“Labor is the most important-to-manage variable that there is,” Mathews says. “Labor is different [from materials] because the labor is happening in this constant flow every single day. If you don't stay on top of it, things can go in the wrong direction, and by the time you discover them, it's too late. The money's been spent. So the more current the information, the more likely it is that you can identify when something is slipping and move to correct it.”

Sure, but can it do your taxes?

When Palm first introduced the Palm Pilot to the mass market nearly a decade ago, it was touted as a digital dayplanner and address book capable of putting your schedule and contact lists at your fingertips. And while those features are inherently applicable to electrical contracting, it was some time before software designers took advantage of the PDA's handheld scheduling and project management capabilities and applied them to the construction environment. But as more project managers have struck out on their own and discovered how the technology can ease their day-to-day tasks, the programs have followed.

“There's a lot going on all at once on a construction site, and the key ability is to be able to both accurately and more quickly convey information to the project manager if I'm a worker in the field,” says Primavera's Garay. “That's what the technology brings.”

Al Berry, a project manager for Cache Valley Electric, Salt Lake City, has been using a PDA on-site for almost two years now, and he says that although he considered it a convenience tool at first, he now relies on it so heavily that it would be difficult to do his job without it. “I use it to carry around spreadsheets that have my building materials that we're using for the job, and the obvious: task lists and telephone scheduling,” he says. “Of course, if you're not disciplined with it, it's just like having a Franklin planner — if you don't use it, it's worthless. But if you use it properly, it's worth its weight in gold.”

Capitalizing on that growing demand for on-site task management, software companies specializing in Palm OS programs have begun to introduce software that allows team members to track the project's progress and expected completion dates on a handheld. Just as with payroll data, such information can be tedious to input at the end of the day and can become worthless if it's not updated on a regular basis.

“In the past [project managers who oversee several sites] had all of the information about status and updates and new tasks on a notepad,” Garay says. “And then they'd have to spend half of a day or more entering that data from those four or five days on the road into the system so that they could do their what-if analysis and make changes to project status. By gathering all of that information on a handheld, they just have to press Hot Sync, and that information is transferred into the system.”

Software like Primavera's Mobile Manager allows project managers to receive project updates from multiple people in the field, review them, and accept or reject individual entries on a line-by-line basis before transferring them to the main project management system, which catalogs the information for later review. The handheld format of a PDA also gives users the ability to cast a smaller net for information about only the projects they're currently working on. With a paper-based system, contractors may find themselves digging through an extensive file with updates from several jobs they're not involved in, but PDA-based systems can help them narrow their search to only the projects under their supervision. “You can, for example, sort only by activities that are your responsibility or only bring down projects that you're visiting tomorrow or ones that are active in the next two weeks,” Garay says. “So you can definitely limit what you bring to that handheld.”

Get in or get left out

So you say you're fine with the way you've been doing things. Gathering information in the field with a notepad and pen works just fine for you, thank you very much. If that's the case, you may want to start planning that fishing trip you've always wanted to go on, because you won't have trouble taking time off from work after the more tech-savvy firms put you out of business.

Garay says acceptance of PDA technology in the construction industry is well into the early adopter stage, and it won't be long before it becomes a mainstream must-have product. “We're pretty close to the chasm and making that leap from the early adopters and innovators to the early mass market,” he predicts. Garay is confident that the rest of the industry will make that leap, and to push them along, Primavera is sending out free licenses of Mobile Manager to 20,000 users of its P3e software suite. (Don't feel slighted if you didn't receive one in the mail — only contractors who purchased the software before October were eligible.)

The next logical step in the evolution of PDA technology is the wireless transfer of information gathered on the jobsite. Both Forefront and Mobile Manager offer the capability to synchronize wirelessly, and while Mathews says wireless hook-ups give contractors the ability to synch information when they can't get back to the office for extended periods of time, Garay doesn't think scheduling data is time-sensitive enough to necessitate such a step. “Wireless is sexy,” Garay says. “Some people look for that from a cool technology standpoint, but in reality, it's usually fine to synchronize it either at the end of the day or a few days after that data has been gathered.”

There are those, like Dr. Jesus de la Garza, professor of civil engineering at Virginia Tech, though, who envision more of a future for wireless connectivity and the jobsite efficiencies it can offer. De la Garza co-authored a study in 1998 for the Construction Industry Institute on wireless communications and computing on construction jobsites, and although his research found that setting up a WLAN can be expensive, digital Darwinism could weed out those contractors who refuse to keep up with technology. However, even making the investment in standard PDAs without wireless connections is beneficial, regardless of an outfit's size.

“Contractors will need to have access to information on demand to be able to survive,” he says. “This technology is not a convenience form of technology — there is added value that it brings to a jobsite. If a smaller contractor can afford a pickup truck, then these types of contractors will be able to afford the entry-level devices to be able to interface this type of information.”

For some, according to de la Garza, it's not the cost that deters them as much as it is the risk involved in working with unproven technology. And when taking on projects with small profit margins, the stakes are even higher. “Contractors are very risk-averse, and they take a long time to adopt technologies,” he says. “But the technology is coming. It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when.”

Despite predictions like that, there are no signs that PDAs are on the verge of becoming as ubiquitous as cell phones. And they may not need to be. The tasks carried out on handhelds are those usually reserved for job foremen and project managers, so you probably won't see an electrician pulling one out the next time he's wiring junction boxes. But with the introduction of PDAs to the jobsite, the advancing hordes of next-generation electronic devices are playing an increasingly important role in construction work. Now, if only they could program those novelty robot dogs to guard the jobsite at night.




Sidebar: Is That a PDA in Your Pocket, Or…

For all of the information gathering benefits of PDAs, there are drawbacks. If you think it's hard to keep your employees from playing solitaire on their computers at work, imagine what it'll be like when they've got it on a mobile unit. And as pornography's hold on the Internet continues to strenghthen, a wireless Web connection can turn that PDA into a digital Playboy.

Dave Eiber, project manager for Meade Electric, McCook, Ill., says although PDA misuse wouldn't keep him from making the investment, it's something that should be considered. “You want it to be used as a tool, not a toy,” he says. “You're trying to keep efficiency up in the field, and if a guy finds out he can get on the Internet and he says to someone else, ‘Hey, look what I can do here,’ you've got a problem.”

Restricting who gets a mobile unit is the best policy, he says. “Generally, it would only be the foreman who would get something like that,” he predicts. “The chances of it happening are lower because of the person you're giving it to.”