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Sharing Data in the Construction Industry

Why the construction industry lags other sectors when it comes to the use of a fully integrated information system – and how it can share data smarter

Technologically speaking, the construction industry lags other industries, such as retail, manufacturing, finance, logistics, and health care. However, people in the construction industry aren’t behind; we are just as likely as those in other industries to adopt, embrace, or resist individual technologies, such as mobile devices, tablets, GPS-enabled devices, and other gadgets.

As a whole, the construction industry lags other sectors when it comes to the use of a fully integrated information system, not so much within, but between organizations. We work in an environment where there are no commonly used open standards for sharing data between general contractors, subcontractors, and customers. The standards we do use are unwieldy and often tied to specific vendors or manufacturers. Many products tend to be all-encompassing in an attempt to appeal to all trades rather than offering what a specific trade requires. These products are oftentimes too expensive for smaller contractors and lock the contractor to a specific vendor. This is the situation most other industries were in during the mid-’90s.

Enter mobile devices and cloud services. Most readers are aware of and/or have experienced the benefits of mobile devices, and on perhaps a lesser scale, cloud-based services. What is less talked about (especially by salespeople) is that integration with other systems is required for these new technologies to realize their full potential. Many mobile applications and cloud services are themselves endpoints of yet another silo. In fact, some create silos where there were none before. For example, human resource-based cloud services are very popular. If not implemented correctly, data integration with back-end payroll/accounting systems, security, and privacy concerns create problems that did not exist prior to adoption.

The truth is, mobile applications and cloud services will require greater attention to the integration between the field and back office systems. In addition, mobile applications and cloud services do not address existing data sharing problems between organizations any more than current enterprise construction software.

One point where all trades as well as the owner come together is construction job documentation. As a subcontractor, for example, you may have a fully automated submittal, change-order, RFQ or RFI creation, tracking, and management system. However, if the general contractor (GC) is not as technologically advanced, the subcontractor often has to move backward on the technology scale to interact with the GC. Or, if the GC has its own system that is incompatible to the subcontractor’s system, then the subcontractor is often forced to do needless rework to submit construction 
documents. Multiply this with all the trades on a job, and one can see that there is room for improvement.

We in the construction industry use vendor independent standards every day. All of our electrically powered tools use common plugs. Every trade uses common fasteners to connect electrical, plumbing, and HVAC components. It is not outside the reach of current technology for our software tools to behave like the tools we use on a job site.

In order for this to occur, the construction industry needs to adopt flexible, vendor independent standards for all aspects of construction information processing. This includes estimating, accounting, pricing, payroll, safety, material handling, CAD, and construction documentation. Even CAD standardization has not gone far enough in the sense that it is tied heavily to the software vendor. BIM is part of the answer. However, it does not address all aspects of construction information processing.

An example from another industry is the DICOM standard in the health care sector. DICOM is a vendor independent standard for radiological images such as x-rays, CAT, and PET scans. The designers of DICOM did not address other aspects of health care, such as patient or billing data, nor did they intend to. We need smaller and simpler sets of standards for each aspect of construction information processing.

Products compliant with such standards would allow each organization involved in a construction project to choose the best-in-breed software/hardware for their trade and yet be able to share data. The GC would choose systems and devices that are best suited for them. The subcontractors would use systems and devices best suited to the subcontractors’ trade, yet still be able to share data with the GC and other trades. An added benefit would be that standards would even the playing field for smaller contractors who cannot afford large internal IT staffs or the hiring of consultants.

The fact that we lag other industries is also an opportunity, because we can learn from their mistakes. We can go straight to using the new mobile devices without the concerns of the investment made in a legacy, proprietary hand-held solutions that other industries have. The key is the adoption of vendor independent standards to share information. Standards are the unsung heroes that the flashier aspects of information technology rely on to reach full potential.

We can choose to standardize ourselves or let outside parties such as vendors choose for us. That is another lesson that can be drawn from the experience of other industries.

Chen is the director of information systems at Faith Technologies in Lenexa, Kan. He can be reached at [email protected].


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