New and emerging mobile computing applications are helping contractors, electricians, and maintenance workers cut the ties that bind them to their desks.
For most electricians, the most important jobsite tool of the future may not be a Wiggy, wire stripper, or handheld multimeter. Instead, it may be a cell phone, laptop, or PDA loaded with software that helps track and control a wide range of jobsite data.
Today's mobile computing devices and applications can do mobile job costing, materials receiving, electronic work orders, control and alarm maintenance, wireline or wireless communications with headquarters or other jobsites, and dozens, if not hundreds, of other tasks. Advanced, powerful, easy-to-use devices combined with increasingly fast and efficient voice/data/video transport networks will allow any worker at any site immediate access to a wide range of information that was formerly stored, managed, and retrieved at various remote locations. Many firms are even using mobile computing devices to tap into city or county building inspections databases, freeing workers and supervisors from trudging to city hall for approvals. Others are finding automation makes work orders more accurate and timely, ordering and billing less onerous and more efficient, and jobsite estimates more precise. All of this points to a more-than-adequate return on investment (ROI) for many mobile systems.
Don McClanahan, vice president of commercial and industrial services for Kansas City, Mo.-based Capital Electric, says there is little doubt mobile computing will be a big hit in the electrical contracting and construction industry. “The mobile platform is going to be the next big thing to hit this industry,” he says. “The specific benefit is you are going to be able to eliminate reporting errors. You will be able to structure data that is coming back and you won't have transposed job numbers or incorrect entries.”
Fast and efficient wireless networks, McClanahan adds, will only add to the appeal of mobile computing at jobsites. “You are often in a place where you have nothing to plug into,” he says. “You may be in a trailer in the middle of the field, and you are lucky if you have a phone line out there. It may be a few years, but wireless data will soon be prevalent in virtually all areas of construction.”
That kind of talk is music to the ears of Mark McMillan, vice president of marketing for wireless data vendor Sierra Wireless. “We think the construction/electrical field is going to have very strong uptake [on wireless communications],” McMillan says. He calls wireless data “an industry that is an overnight success after 20 yr,” but says only now are wireless network speeds catching or surpassing wireline data transfer speeds. “There will be a shift in people's thinking,” he predicts. “It used to be, ‘I am going back to the office because I have a lot of stuff to send.’ Soon it will be ‘I cannot afford to be back at the office; I need to stay out here because I have great connectivity and great speed here.’”
Dana Book, vice president of business development for job-tracking software vendor Pencel, says mobile computing is just now starting to gain a foothold in the electrical and construction fields, but that in time its presence will be considerable, particularly as wireless services are added to the mix. “Construction is a great area because it is all about getting information back and forth between different sites and different systems,” Book says. “We see some groups that are very project-focused, that want to get production information, and others that are service-oriented, that want to get invoices and billing done.”
Brad Mathews, marketing manager for construction management software developer Dexter + Chaney, says one of the best uses of mobile computing will be job costing and estimating, not only at the start of a project, but throughout its duration. Mobile computing, he contends, offers better, more accurate, and timelier onsite data. “If the project on the building we are talking about has a $100,000 budget for electrical and I pull a job cost and I've spent $50,000 to date, is that good or bad?” he asks. “It's hard to say. It depends on how much of the job has been done, and that requires getting information from people on the jobsite. By the time we are 90% done, it is too late. It is critical to get to people on the job when they are doing the job.”
Materials tracking may be another hot area for mobile computing. With mobile computers on the jobsite, all shipments can be checked immediately against corresponding purchase orders, and any discrepancies in quantity or price can be addressed before the materials are used. Since materials are increasingly being delivered on an as-needed or just-in-time basis, real-time materials tracking becomes even more important. “You should be able to see how your commitments are stacking up against your budgets,” Mathews says. “You don't want a situation where you have already put the materials in the building and now you are haggling over the price.”
A third area of use for mobile computing is the entry of accounting or payroll data, including time sheets, labor hours worked, productivity data (such as how much conduit has been installed), and even equipment hours and leasing costs. A major advantage to entering this type of data via jobsite mobile computers is that workers and supervisors are spared the trouble of filling out repetitive forms. Electronically entered data also tends to be more accurate than its handwritten counterpart, and with a mobile system, data is entered at more regular intervals. In manual systems, it's common for employees and supervisors to fill out and submit time sheets at the end of each week rather than on a daily or hourly basis. That often means the submission deadline is crunch time for data entry, increasing the likelihood of data entry error. Automatic login and logout via a mobile handheld computer takes away much of the guesswork and more accurately records hours on the job.
On the post-construction side of the equation, mobile computing offers a different but equally compelling value proposition for maintenance. Maintenance firms are finding that outfitting field technicians and maintenance staff with handheld computers improves the speed and accuracy with which maintenance and repair work is done. The biggest difference between construction and maintenance applications is that the latter are more likely to require or benefit from a continuous connection to a network in order to monitor equipment or buildings. That, in turn, is usually more easily accomplished in a maintenance environment, because almost all buildings already have some form of electrical or communications network installed.
Eric Jaeger, marketing manager for computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS) vendor Eagle Technologies, says the greatest opportunity mobile computing offers the maintenance worker is the enhanced ability to perform preventive maintenance.
“That is the real moneymaker,” Jaeger says. “By setting up planned scheduled maintenance you can save clients money, do things more cost-effectively, become more energy efficient, and keep machinery going longer.”
Today, most construction or contractor jobsite mobile computing is done via handheld devices that collect and temporarily store information, which can be downloaded to a central database via a cradle or some other docking device. Entering data for hours worked, materials received, or bills paid doesn't necessarily require a constant connection to the network — a “data dump” at the end of the day is adequate.
For example, one mobile solution allows service technicians or maintenance personnel to pick up a bar code-enabled handheld device preloaded with work orders and technical information about the equipment or machines the technicians will be servicing that day from a cradle at the beginning of a shift. They can read the work order, do the prescribed work, and choose from a menu of standard comment sheets, such as “work completed as scheduled,” to log their work. They can also enter pre-programmed notes or type in their own comments. At the end of the day, the device is returned to its cradle, and all work order information is downloaded to the main service database. Overnight (or between shifts), returned readers can be loaded with new work orders for the next shift of workers. There are even Palm-based systems that let technicians enter their time, track work, or retrieve information from a central database via either wired or wireless transmission.
In maintenance situations, however, a more continuous data feed may be desirable, as may also be the case for jobsite tasks such as communicating with building inspection agencies or between crews at the same or different jobsites.
The good news is that wireless data networks are growing more robust, easier to use, more prevalent, and cheaper to use every day. Intense competition in the telecom sector means local and national carriers are intent on rolling out so-called third generation (3G) or near-3G (2.5 G) wireless services with names like Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) or Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) (see Sidebar on page 17). Terms such as 802.11b (or Wi Fi), Bluetooth and Ultra-Wide Band (UWB) are also creeping into the wireless network lexicon, but contractors need not concern themselves too much with the distinction between these technologies. For the most part, client-side technical considerations should focus on finding handheld devices like PDAs, cell phones, and ruggedized laptops, appropriate for the contractors' most common jobs, as well as on evaluating software that is customizable, powerful, flexible, and affordable.
A crucial consideration in all of this is how the devices and systems will be used in the field and who will use them. Almost any device or service aggressively marketed today will have the capability to switch between different types of data networks or at least allow for the insertion of a different type of network card, but not all systems are created equal in terms of ease of use or the ability to replicate your standard paper forms electronically.
There are, in addition, things companies can do to be more wireless-data ready. Perhaps one of the most important is to be realistic about both the future promise and the current performance of wireless data and mobile computing systems. More than one large electrical contractor has field-tested mobile computing systems only to find they are not yet ready for prime time. One large national electrical contractor was eager to install bar code-based mobile units and transmission stations throughout a new condominium complex it was building, only to find that the systems could not withstand the dust and building materials present in the environment. Most contractors today appear to see large-scale mobile computing as something that will take place six to twelve months or more in the future.
The good news is that in the interim, mobile computing devices and software and wireless data networks only promise to get stronger and better.
Sidebar: Wireless Network Terminology
As with any new technology, wireless data is full of acronyms and terminology you may never have heard. For the most part, contractors, electricians, and maintenance workers need not brush up on all the latest terms. Wireless carriers should be able to help you determine the technology that's right for you — what you need to do is tell them how you expect to use mobile devices.
That said, there are a couple of terms you may hear bandied about. A few of the most important or interesting are:
CDPD — Cellular Digital Packet Data: This radio technology supports the transfer of packet data over analog networks. Limited to about 19.2 Kbps, it's likely to be replaced by today's faster technologies.
CDMA — Code Division Multiple Access: A newer, 3G, digital wireless technology, CDMA is in use today. Nationwide carriers have begun rollouts of 1×RTT CDMA networks this year, which they say will provide peak rates of over 2 Mbps, with an average throughput of over 700 kbps, comparable to wireline DSL services and fast enough to support demanding applications like streaming video and large file downloads.
Bluetooth: Bluetooth is essentially a “cable replacement” technology. Examples of uses include a Bluetooth-enabled headset that communicates wirelessly with a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone in the dashboard of a vehicle. Providing low-cost wireless transmission for personal area networks (PANs), Bluetooth works well at speeds as high as 1 Mbps and ranges of about 10 m.
802.11b: Only a group of engineers would name a technology after an IEEE working group, and that's exactly what happened with 802.11b, a wireless network technology that allows for data transfer at speeds much faster than Bluetooth — as high as 11 Mbps — and over greater distances — as much as 1,200 ft between access points. The network technology is also sometimes referred to as wireless Ethernet or wireless LAN. The Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, an industry group promoting 802.11b, has embarked on a campaign to popularize the term “Wi Fi” (Wireless Fidelity) for the technology.