Going 'Real Time'

Developing closer connections between construction company offices and field offices has become increasingly important. Putting computers in construction trailers and connecting them to the web started the trend, enabling reports, requests for information (RFIs), payroll and material use to be easily transmitted.

More recently, tablets and smartphones are replacing some computer functions. By using a variety of software applications, employees can transmit payroll information into company accounting software, upload photos of job progress for company-wide access and receive messages in the field in real time.

The new trend is to get up-to-the-minute, detailed information about productivity in the field in the form of cost account reports. Project managers and office management use the information to better plan and increase productivity on the job. This productivity information is also shared with company estimators so they can bid projects based on yesterday’s numbers. Depending on a company’s need, the increased productivity resulting from this process can be used either to bid more competitively or increase company profits.

Striving to Build Smarter

Los Angeles-based Klorman Construction specializes in structural concrete high-rise building construction, and is a good example of cutting-edge work in the technology age. Bill Klorman, president, founded the company in 1980 with the goal of constantly staying technologically ahead in order to complete jobs better and faster than the competition.

Klorman describes himself as the company’s “champion” for electronic and technical development. “It’s good when the owner takes this role because when champions are lower in corporate ranks, management has to be convinced, slowing down the process,” he says.

Klorman believes the way to survive in today’s challenging economic climate is to produce the same amount of building in smarter ways, with better planning and more efficient use of labor. His goal is to know what’s happening in the current moment and make decisions about how best to proceed. “The horse is out of the barn if you wait until after a construction task is completed,” he says.

The search for new ways to collect relevant data and summarize it in report formats for making decisions is Klorman’s passion. His company is on the leading edge in this technology area, and it considers Trimble Navigation to be one of their primary partners in this quest.

Cost Accounting in Real Time

Klorman Construction has always been interested in real-time cost accounting. The company originally used spreadsheets to generate cost account reports. It then began to experiment with software programs, adapting them to its needs. Next, it added computer programmers to its staff to develop its own software solutions.

More recently the focus has shifted to mining field data from several sources and bringing the data all together in report form to help managers understand how to make jobs more productive. These sources include: Tekla Building Information Modeling (BIM) software; SketchUp for 3-D modeling; Meridian Systems Prolog Manager, Prolog Converge and Prolog Mobile; robotic total stations; 3-D laser scanners; Vico virtual construction software; Thing Magic RFID; and Trimble AllTrack asset management software. (For a brief rundown of these tools, see “From the Field to Office and Beyond”.)

Klorman Construction starts its real-time quest with BIM models of the construction; it builds its own BIM from scratch to ensure anatomical accuracy for fabrication and erection. This might happen during the estimating phase of a project if the company particularly wants the job. Tekla is the BIM software used primarily for concrete construction. The models are used to plan construction strategies and take-off quantities and make presentations to owners. In the field, project managers use the models for planning and construction.

Robotic total stations are used for laying out points, guiding excavating equipment and verifying work after it is installed — information the instrument can share directly with the office. Project managers log material usage into Meridian Prolog software each day and jobsite superintendents add payroll. Klorman says they set up 800 to 1,000 cost codes for a typical construction project, so data is keyed to each code.

Klorman is using RFID technology, as well, to initially track formwork. Active RFID tags are attached to form panels to track their locations. For example, when workers set form panels for a wall placement, the location is noted. As additional panels are placed, the percentage of completion for the task is adjusted. After concrete placement, workers move the panels to a new location and the sensors track that movement, initiating a new cost account. The company is also experimenting with RFID chips placed in worker safety vests to track work by trade in each cost control area.

The company is tracking tool and equipment use with RFID tags and bar codes for each cost code area. Klorman says an added benefit is they always know where their tools are so loss isn’t estimated anymore.

Bringing data from several places together in one report form is critical. Klorman uses Prolog and Vico Virtual Construction software for this. The goal is to increase the amount and flow of data between the office and the company’s construction sites to learn better ways to streamline the construction process. One of the benefits of real-time estimating is the estimating department can use data from the day before to create more accurate estimates.

Where to Begin

Real-time cost accounting provides you with up-to-date information, giving you the opportunity to make decisions that increase productivity and save money. It’s a process that requires time and you can’t just start doing what Klorman is doing.

Jon Fingland, business area manager for Trimble’s general contractor/construction management division, says your company’s greatest asset is your past job cost history; no matter how informal, it’s your starting point to real-time cost accounting. Mining that data for the next similar construction project is a way to begin the process.

Another good first step is to start learning how to use BIM. Hiring employees with the skill is a way to do that. BIM models are rich in data and help to pre-plan jobs, increase efficiency and make fewer mistakes. Purchasing and learning how to use a robotic total station is another way to start.

Trimble sponsors the bi-annual Dimensions Conference in Las Vegas, with training both in a conference facility and at a quarry for hands-on demonstrations. It’s a good venue to learn about real-time costing and estimating, whether you are a beginner or experienced.

The World is Changing

Klorman believes the world changes through the process of getting better information. “Ten years from now, real-time sharing with jobsites and real-time estimating will be the norm,” he says. “None of this is going away and the process is becoming more affordable. In order to survive now, the ability to produce the same amount of building for less labor is what separates contractors.”

In the past, production control was only available for billion-dollar projects. Now it’s available for jobs of all sizes at the same level of complexity. Working in a real-time climate lets you manage change; the data tells you where you are going, identifies cost implications and allows you to forecast. To survive in the construction world tomorrow, you need to start learning today. ET


Joe Nasvik is a writer and editor serving the concrete industry. He also has 18 years of experience as a concrete contractor. You can contact him at jnasvik@sbcglobal.net.