Technology: Help or Hindrance?

﷯With a little training and reassurance, tradesmen could boost their business.

We are located about 70 miles south of Atlanta in the center of the state. My customer who works for a general contractor in South Georgia attended a meeting at the Associated General Contractors in Atlanta. The topic was on technology and how companies needed to embrace it. He commented to the attendees: "You're not reaching anyone south of Atlanta." The point was that the technology was great, but small- to medium-sized shops outside of major metropolitan areas don’t see the benefits of it.

Just like in every other industry, technology is making a big splash in the mechanical contracting field, whether it be total station GPS layout, BIM drawings, tablets for field supervisors, etc. For larger companies, especially large construction managers, they can devote resources immediately to the latest cutting edge technology and quickly integrate it. But this technology is not necessarily being embraced by specialty trade contractors, especially MEP trades. Why not?

If your company is anything like mine, the “why not" is time and money. Everyone in our company wears many hats, both in the field and in the office, and no one has the extra time to learn something new, apply it to our company and convince everyone else to get on board. The other concern is money. Some of these new technologies involve a substantial amount of initial capital investment. With it taking 45 days on the average to get paid on a job after you bill, where does all the cash come from to do all of this?

A Trimble total station GPS system costs between $30,000 and $40,000. Used regularly, it could probably pay for itself in a couple of years in the time you would pick up on your layout. In addition, many contractors are doing less and less layout, in some cases driving a stake in the middle of a slab and leaving the layout of walls, column lines, etc. up to the subcontractors. Gone are the days of the contractor putting up batter boards to mark these points. But the building does have to be laid out for the footings and walls, so, collaborate with the contractor doing this and get him/her to assist you with your points, even if you have to pay a little bit. (Can you say 12 pack?)

The GPS layout is designed to work with BIM layout where all coordinates are plotted via GPS. It costs about $10,000 to get up and running with BIM not including a computer robust enough to run it. Then you need a draftsman to do the BIM layout and coordinate clash detection with the other trades. 

There are many freelance companies that are doing BIM as independent contractors. I was recently introduced to a firm in Asia that has an office in California; you can coordinate the issues with them during the workday, and while you are off, they are drawing. In some cases the work is in your email box when you come to work the next morning. 

It is important that an experienced project manager or field manager work hand-in-hand with those drawing to help them with prioritizing what trade it makes the most sense to offset up or down, solving conflicts between trades.

A relatively easy and inexpensive thing to implement in our company has been putting tablets in the hands of our field managers. Our accounting software has the ability to take a daily field report and automatically integrate it into the weekly payroll. This accomplishes two things:

1. It gives the project manager the daily report one day after the work is done, allowing him/her to review everything that is going on with the project and deal with issues relatively soon after they come up.

2. Payroll is imported directly into the accounting system streamlining the process.

These devices can be used for other things as well such as:

• Storing all documents for the job, such as submittals, specifications, drawings, etc. where project managers can view them.

• Weekly safety toolbox talks. Federated Insurance has a safety application that works on mobile devices where you can pick a safety topic, make a list of everyone that is there, then take a photo of your crew in place of a signature. This can be sent to the general contractor as evidence that you are doing the reports.

So why would we resist using tablets in the field? Trade craftsmen are extremely good at building stuff with their hands but tend to cringe at the thought of having to use electronics to do their job. 

I had a conversation with a superintendent one time about a quality installation that he had done with piping up a chiller room. I told him, “Now all we have to do is make it run.” My superintendent replied, “I reckon you need to call the Trane man then, cause I don’t know nothing about that electricity stuff!”  

With a little training and by letting them know that making a mistake on the tablet is not the end of the world, tradesmen can succeed with this technology. By helping them work through it and getting them use to using it, it becomes routine.

 Are we just supposed to ignore all the innovations available to us and maintain the status quo? I guess you could; however, with this mindset the ability to grow your business is probably not going to work too well. Also, our clients are not ignoring this technology; buildings are being laid out using Trimble type devices; more and more contractors are embracing BIM as a way to head off problems with coordination before they become problems. Plus, once you start using these items on a regular basis, your productivity could increase. 

Chip Greene is president of Greene & Associates Inc., mechanical contracting firm based in Macon, Georgia. Greene is a graduate of Mercer University with a BBA degree in management and has more than 30 years of experience working on commercial HVAC and plumbing projects in the educational, medical and institutional markets. He also serves as the 2016 national president of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association. Contact him at cgreene@greeneandassociatesinc.com.

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