Cool Tools: Mobile Communications
Published: July 2011
In today’s construction world, whether a project requires hundreds of electricians or only a few, it’s essential to have fast, dependable communication between the office and on-site project managers, among personnel working on jobs, and from project managers in the field to suppliers. Effective communication increases productivity and reduces the risk of mistakes and wasted time—all directly affecting a project’s profitability.
Few technologies have changed as rapidly as those driving communications. Landlines have given way to wireless communications, and cellular phones rapidly evolved into compact, multifunctional devices not only for talking, but sending and receiving email messages, accessing the Internet, and more. Add to the mix laptop and tablet computers, the once-ubiquitous two-way radios, and even the latest generation pagers, and owners and managers of communications companies may find selecting among the communications services and the multitude of devices can be a challenging task.
Advanced wireless technologies
Verizon Wireless Business Solutions (www.verizonwireless.com) Executive Director Michael C. Schaefer pointed out that there are many levels of communications and supporting devices that are prevalent at a work site, ranging from push-to-talk (PTT) devices to the laptop with built-in mobile broadband for email, document sharing, scheduling management, order/delivery status, video, presentations and other industry or proprietary applications.
“The key for communications success and peace of mind relies on having a reliable, robust 3G or 4G wireless network infrastructure,” Schaefer said. “Basic communication devices have expanded to texting, Internet access and handset applications but are still limited by the size of the screen.”
“The advent of the tablet provides a new, larger display to access these features and yet remain mobile. Tablets come in various sizes, and it makes sense for many contractors to deploy them for better viewing, combined with customized apps and functionality.”
Sprint (www.sprint.com) Director of Business Marketing John Tudhope said wireless mobility equals productivity for contractors, crew members and field workers to complete jobs on time and within budget.
“With push-to-talk devices,” Tudhope said, “contractors can connect with crews or other workers at sub-second speed. Over the course of a job, fast connections and short conversations equate to both cost and time savings. Users can pair push-to-talk service with GPS to get where they need to be and data applications to get the information they need quickly. Push-to-talk on our direct-connect network also can be essential for business continuity to ensure always-on and off-network communication with short-range radio-to-radio communications options in the event of an emergency or when the job site is remote and out of range of other networks.”
Who needs what?
With many service options and multiple devices, business owners must determine what options best suit their company’s needs and who needs what type of device.
The mindset is to save time and streamline the workflow, Verizon’s Schaefer said.
“To locate and instantaneously dispatch an individual or a team of workers is paramount,” he said. “We have advanced from walking from point A to point B and tapping someone on the shoulder. In a nutshell, everyone in the contractor work force should have some level of connectivity.
“Laborers or apprentices may only need simple communication (PTT or text) where journeymen or craftsmen may need some email or Internet access to see site layouts, work assignments and other data necessary for the project. Supervisors and managers at work sites will need to be in touch with more sophisticated means, such as tablets, netbooks or laptops for access to work management systems, drawings, order status and changes, etc.”
PTT instruments have evolved from clumsy to today’s sleek and rugged devices, many with QWERTY keyboards, Schaefer said.
“We now see push-to-talk blended with the capabilities of the smartphone,” he said. “It is possible to see who is available simply by looking at the contact list. Add to this location-based services on a mobile worker’s push-to-talk device, and you can also know where the mobile worker is and a history of where he has been. A site manager can now convene a group call with up to 50 participants with ease.”
Netbooks with built-in wireless broadband access, Schaefer said, make full Internet functionality available anywhere, connecting directly to home site management systems or running apps on the device that speak to back-end infrastructure to manage day-to-day on-site activities. For managers and supervisors in the field, this access is imperative to an efficiently run business where access to schedules and personnel affect profit.
Schaefer added that as video and digital imaging has evolved over the last few years, contracting professionals have incorporated these into the daily workflow. With advances in camera resolution, high-quality photographs are increasingly being used for damage verification, parts identification, work completion records, and a wealth of other record-keeping possibilities. To successfully share these digital records and archives, a reliable 3G/4G wireless network is necessary.
Sprint’s Tudhope said site managers and foremen use smartphones to access critical information from corporate offices and to stay in touch with their teams by voice, text and email.
“A growing number of applications used by field personnel now are available on mobile devices, including smart devices, phones, tablets, netbooks and notebooks,” Tudhope said. “Therefore, mobile connectivity and devices have become critical for virtually every worker in the field to easily manage customer information and workflow processes without being tied to a computer. As an example, rugged smartphone models can combine barcode scanning, GPS, signature capture and biometric scanning into one device that meets 810G MilSpec certification.”
Tudhope said push-to-talk is an excellent, easy tool for one-to-one and one-to-many verbal communications. In many situations, it is easier and quicker to use than texting or making a phone call to make decisions very quickly.
Another application especially suitable for crews and contractors, Tudhope said, is NextMail, which enables mobile users to instantaneously send a recorded voice message or voicemail using text to up to 50 email addresses or mobile devices and receive a “listen to” notification. The message is easily sent and quick and simple to record, document and share information from the field to office colleagues—no need for handwritten notes or thumb-typing on small keypads.
“Tablets are growing in popularity for many reasons,” Tudhope said. “Lightweight and compact with larger screens than phones, they allow field workers to access text from dense technical manuals and other documents that may not be viewed as easily on a phone screen. 4G service provides even faster uploads and downloads for large documents.”
As impressive and effective as advancing wireless technologies are, basic two-way radios remain in use on many job sites.
Two-way radios continue to play a vital role for on-site communication needs among construction personnel, said Andres Lacambra, Motorola Solutions Inc., senior product manager, commercial and operations critical radios. Two-way radio communication enables workers to coordinate work efficiently and to quickly respond to accidents and emergencies.
And as good as wireless telecom networks have become, there still are areas where they are not dependable or not available at all.
Lacambra said many construction companies have found that only a few employees actually need wide-area access to wireless telephone communication and instead use radios for on-site communications, which do not incur monthly fees and airtime charges.
Two-way radio technology also has advanced, Lacambra continued, with powerful models that provide wider coverage. Rugged, durable metal cases hold up under demanding conditions and meet military standards to shock, rain, humidity, salt, fog, vibration, sand, dust and temperature. Lithium-ion batteries provide longer talk times per charge than older battery types.
Finally, Lacambra said, two-way-radio user interface makes them easy to use with little or no training.
Though not widely used as they once were, paging devices also have changed significantly in the past several years.
For example, early in 2011, Zipit Wireless (corp.zipitwireless.com) introduced a device that operates on the Verizon Wireless 3G and Wi-Fi networks. Zipit says the two-way paging system overcomes the limitation of conventional pagers’ inability to confirm that messages have been sent and read by intended recipients.
The cloud-based device, looking more like a wireless telephone with keypad than a pager, can provide verifiable communications between multiple parties through different platforms.
Devices can be updated, grouped and maintained in near real time without the need to physically reprogram equipment, according to Zipit.
GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.