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Cool Tools: Mobile Communications

By Jeff Griffin | Oct 15, 2016
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Once business people recognized cellphones as a viable communications tool, it wasn’t long before they reached construction job sites. Even though transmission distances were limited and signals could be unreliable, mobile phones enabled construction companies to contact personnel wherever they were—on job sites, driving trucks, etc.


Who could imagine how quickly the technology would advance? Today’s smartphones not only make calls, but send and receive emails, take digital photos, access the internet, receive and transmit data, have GPS capability, and much more.


Almost every type of business can benefit from wireless communication technology, and the huge selection of applications enables users to adapt it to their specific needs. The extent to which electrical contractors have embraced fast-changing mobile communications tools varies. 


One EC, Rosendin Electric of San Jose, Calif., takes full advantage of wireless communications’ potential.


“We use mobile technology for building control installation tracking and QA/QC,” said Diya Peter, Rosendin’s operations applications lead, who is responsible for deploying and managing the company’s mobile technology. “Specifically, we are using Microsoft Surfaces linked to a Sharepoint Access database to track the status of every device and every wire that is part of the BMS/security/low-voltage system installation. Our system is designed to allow for synchronization before entering a site—where we generally don’t have any form of connectivity—and verifying installation and commissioning offline, then resyncing when internet connectivity is available.”


Rosendin Electric can track progress and generate digital reports for customers. Field crews can verify completion of each aspect of the work, and the management team can accurately report completion.


“Maintaining real-time communications between field crews and suppliers is essential,” Peter said. “We need to have valid and accurate information from end to end, starting with purchasing to final delivery of the equipment on-site. Our suppliers are responsible for shipping components and equipment in a timely fashion, which are then stored in a warehouse or prefab shop, so communication is critical for managing inventory and project schedules.


“We are starting to pilot test a new mobile app that will track inventory from when it leaves the warehouse to final installation on the job site using QR codes scanned using handheld devices at each step. This will give us a more accurate tally of what is in the warehouse, what is in prefab, and what we have back-ordered, so we have visibility into the entire procurement process,” Peter said.


The most-used mobile devices are wireless telephones, push-to-talk devices and tablets.


“We use whatever technology is best suited for the job,” Peter said. “Since Rosendin Electric has offices across the country with a wide range of customers, we cater to a wide range of devices. The prevalent tools are iPads and iPhones, but there are some locations that need Android devices, as well.”


Rosendin Electric does not have a bring-your-own-device policy. The company provides the equipment needed for a specific job site and apps and software upgrades are synced to the server automatically. The company has different mobile applications that meet different needs and use off-the-shelf products because they are the most cost-effective.


“However, we do extensive customization of apps and integration,” Peter said. “We also use a lean methodology so the data flows through to different applications once it is entered. For example, we have a mobile time-tracking system that is integrated with our financial system for expedited payroll audits and reporting. Time tracking probably delivers the greatest benefits. Timesheet data is entered at the job site and then can be reviewed for accuracy.


“One of our key differentiators is the customization we do to tailor apps around Rosendin processes. We use apps that allow us to view the latest set of drawings and plans and mark up drawings as necessary. In the [building information modeling] arena, we have apps that allow us to view 3-D models on the devices while on the field,” she said.


Rosendin Electric has a safety report application that enables safety managers to perform audits, generate reports and email information to the right people as the inspection is being performed. Providing real-time safety reporting helps increase safety awareness and aids in accident prevention as well as reporting.


Employees can access the National Electrical Code using a tablet or handheld device rather than carrying a large book around.


Peter said that the value of data accessible from mobile devices is only as good as the source data.


“Part of my job is to ensure the integrity of data,” she said. “We have to make sure the apps on the server are up to date, as well as uploading drawings and other information for access in the field.”


Technology continues to advance, and that in itself is a challenge.


“With new technology emerging and changing every day, there is a fine line between what mobile technology is available and what we deploy in the field,” Peter said. “Sometimes, the technology tools can get in the way of productivity. This is an ongoing discussion for us because we realize that it’s not practical to mobilize everything. We work to stay on the leading edge of technology, but we have to constantly ask ourselves about the volume of apps we need to deploy and their value and functionality in the field.”


Wireless deployment depends on a wireless network that also is continuously changing. Over the last five years, the wireless industry has built out 4G networks across the country, investing more than $100 billion to give consumers the speed and performance they want.


“In the next five years, we’ll see the evolution to the next generation of wireless, 5G and the Internet of Things,” said Jim Schuler, assistant vice president, external and state affairs at CTIA—The Wireless Association. “What that means is that nearly every industry sector—from agriculture to banking and transportation to construction—will benefit from seamless wireless connectivity, driving efficiencies and generating new economic opportunities.”


Ultimately, wireless connectivity is dependent on available spectrum, the finite resource that powers the wireless industry.


“As more data travels across our networks, we’re going to need more spectrum,” Schuler said. “The wireless industry is always looking for more spectrum, and we’re always looking for opportunities to streamline the process of building out the wireless infrastructure, like towers and small cells—think network equipment the size of a smoke alarm—that serve as the foundation for mobile connectivity.”


While some ECs have the knowledge and resources to create their own apps, many tool companies factor smartphones and tablets into their research and development. For example, Fluke Tools’ FlukeConnect allows technicians to take instrument readings on a smartphone. Milwaukee Tool’s One-Key enables users to set and change tool settings using a smartphone. 


Finally, users of ToolWatch’s cloud-based asset-­management program can access location of tools and equipment over the internet with a smartphone or tablet.

About The Author

GRIFFIN, a construction journalist from Oklahoma City, can be reached at [email protected].

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