How to Choose the Right Technology for Your Field Personnel

Cloud-based applications offer massive benefits in the construction world. Project management, BIM (building information modeling), estimating, and every specialty have a host of solutions that improve quality and save time. However, there is often one overlooked aspect; getting the technology in the hands of field personnel.

Projects are inherently paperwork-intensive, and it seems like documentation requirements increase with every job. A common acronym in IT is “NED2” standing for ‘never enter data twice’. On recent projects, I’ve observed pen and paper data capture that is all-too-often shuffled between multiple parties before being sent to the main office for entry and processing.

With significant technology improvements in tablets, just in the past couple of years, there really is no excuse for paper-based workflows in construction. However, the right tablet makes the difference between digital nirvana and money wasted with field personnel falling back to working with ink and dead trees.

With three major operating systems available: Microsoft’s Windows 10, Google’s Android Operating System, and Apple’s iOS choosing an “ecosystem” is probably the most important first step.

Windows is familiar for anyone accustomed to using a PC (personal computer). As a field tablet and laptop replacement, a Windows tablet is almost a no-brainer. When equipped with a keyboard/cover and docked with a larger monitor at the office, there is no need for multiple pieces of hardware. Just make sure that accessing apps via the Web is a satisfactory experience for field use.

Google’s Android OS has become ubiquitous on phones and tablets. Most software developers offer apps for Android, and the Google Apps are mature and reliable for spreadsheets and word processing. Working in a Windows-dominated world means that it is extra effort (with lots of file conversion) to use an Android tablet as a computer replacement. For field-based software with an available app, Android-compatible hardware offers a minimal learning curve and a lot of bang for the buck.

Apple’s iPad launched widespread tablet use across a variety of industries. The hardware is fantastic and every major software has an iOS application. The operating system is incredibly intuitive even for field staff with minimal computer experience. The downside is that iPads don’t replace laptops.

After choosing an OS, figuring out how a tablet will get data to and from the cloud is the make-or-break proposition. Even tablets equipped with a cellular modem struggle to get signal on some jobsites. Most apps offer the ability to download projects, enter field data, and sync back to the cloud via Wi-Fi or cellular data. Ensuring compatibility and establishing a jobsite docking location or process for syncing is critical getting daily data. Only then, will tablets help solve the paperwork shuffle and allow teams to realize the efficiency of their cloud-based systems.

Steve Abercrombie is a principal with Connected Buildings and a faculty member at South Seattle College’s Sustainable Building Science Technology program.

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