Finger on the Pulse: Managing Inventory From Mobile Phones

By Claire Swedberg | Nov 15, 2016




Second to electricians and project managers, the most important assets on any work site are equipment and tools. But until recently, tracking them—in the warehouse, in trucks and vans, and on the job site—was a paper-, pen- and phone-based operation. Inventory management software was still largely out of reach for those at the work site.

That has changed in the past few years. Apps are incorporating inventory management for users that rely on their smartphones and tablets to keep a project moving. Today, some contractors are gathering real-time information on tool and material movement. Contractors can then use that data for analytics and other automated systems, such as billing.

A few years back, software vendors focused their construction-based mobile tools on project management, billing and analytics. Inventory has been a more recent development. Now, however, a variety of solutions put inventory management literally at the fingertips of those on-site who need it. While bigger contractors are typically the ones using these solutions, vendors argue there is plenty of benefit for mid-size to small contractors to better manage the flow of materials through each job.

Every size contractor knows the frustration of job delays because the correct equipment or tools aren’t available when they’re needed. The bigger the job and the tighter the schedule, the more inventory management becomes a headache. Cloud-based software and apps now bring visibility into the inventory on the job site and in the warehouse.

“Mobility is obviously a huge trend,” said Wayne Newitts, marketing director at Seattle-based software company Dexter + Chaney. “More apps are available to connect remote workers with their home base.”

It goes beyond that. To manage the flow of supplies and tools onto the site, and locate them when needed, a company needs a combination of intelligent systems and solid processes to use that software.

The level of sophistication varies according to company size and the complexity of the electricians’ work sites. Simply knowing 
where stuff is in real-time is the first challenge. Software solutions can identify when goods are expected to be needed as well as enable companies to track when material is received, when it’s loaded on trucks and vans, and when it is used. Most important, a mobile solution enables workers in the field to access data about the location and status of the material they need, immediately.

Mobile inventory-management systems can do much more than just locate goods; they can also tie into other mobile systems. For instance, knowing when inventory is used helps contractors automate billing. They can also generate automatic orders for replenishment from distributors and suppliers. Many mobile solutions enable users to track the project’s expenses as it proceeds based on the inventory being used, thereby giving contractors real-time information about the job.

Improving processes and cutting shrink

“[At Dexter + Cheney,] we’re finding that our customers are starting to mine data,” Newitts said.

Customers do this to learn where efficiencies can be improved. By viewing historic data, managers can see how long it takes to order and receive goods, or how long it takes to get a delivery to a work site and how that may correspond with staffing levels in the warehouse.

To accomplish the mobility contractors need, software vendors are more often designing systems that operate in the cloud. This means if a company has an IT department, it can focus more on doing IT work and spend less time helping office or site staff work with the software.

The other advantage of cloud-based software is that it does not need an app. Tablet users can access software in the cloud.

Newitts said software systems, such as those offered by Dexter + Chaney, can provide bidirectional data “in the field, where the craziness happens.” That way electricians and project managers can share and access data about where goods are, who has them and when they are used.

Data can also be shared between the warehouse and the field. By synchronizing data over time between the two sites—a warehouse at the contractor’s office or other location and the work site—movement of inventory can be streamlined, and the data can be reviewed to better manage how equipment flows onto the work site, as it is needed.

In the warehouse, software or apps can be used to stage and prepare the items needed on job sites and do predictive inventory management. Warehouse staff increasingly are using tablets or phones to keep track of what material they have on hand and when they will need to move it or order more.

“[With this technology,] people are less casual about inventory,” Newitts said, adding that there is now clear accountability if something isn’t on-site when needed, or goes missing entirely.

The loss of tools or materials—known as "shrinkage"—is no minor problem. Most contractors’ customers are demanding, with both tighter budgets and deadlines, and any traditionally cavalier attitude about inventory loss has passed. When the software is in place, and visibility is there in the field and at the office, shrinkage is reduced.

Thinking smaller

Inventory fundamentals haven’t changed, Newitts said. Contractors need their equipment on-site at the right time and an understanding of what is being used.

“That’s not going to change, ever,” he said. But, how that information is being captured and shared is changing. 

Smaller companies aren’t driven by the same demands as the large firms with complex projects, but the value of a software system is just as great.

“Smaller folks are not as driven to adopt new technology because of the cost,” Newitts said.

However, the smaller companies may have even more benefit to be gained from a mobile-based solution. For instance, larger companies can absorb the loss of some equipment better than a small company can. Newitts predicted that smaller companies will move toward mobile app or software solutions over time.

Managing equipment inspections

Construction mobile-based solutions company Kordata, based in Boise, Idaho, offers complete solutions that include inventory management to general and subcontractors—typically, large companies with complex projects to manage. The company customizes its solutions for each customer and sets up apps to meet their needs on-site. That can include parts requests, inventory and parts installed. The apps can also be used to track inspection of assets on-site, such as lifting equipment and vehicles, so that they can ensure proper working condition of their equipment and also provide proof of compliance to regulatory bodies or the customer.

By using the technology, construction companies are moving toward a paperless model on work sites, and electrical contractors can expect to be moving in the same direction, both the large firms and the smaller ones.

“When you put in a request on paper, there’s a lot of back and forth,” said Kyle Mulder, Kordata product marketing analyst.

Paper forms are input into software systems, or phone calls are made to confirm information. Standard software takes up digital memory and may require a Wi-Fi connection, so the apps are providing the mobility that enable a paperless system.

By tracking inventory using a mobile app, a contractor can also set up a record of the product that actually went into the project—which kind of cable was installed and where. This data is now automatically collected.

“Clients used to be more flexible when it came to paying if there’s a delay,” Mulder said.

Now, they tend to resist change orders and scrutinize the costs. The most competitive electrical contractor, for this reason, is the one that can provide clear data about what is being used and when, to stay on schedule.

In the next few years, he predicted that companies with technology that helps them lower their costs will be at an advantage.

“As technology evolves, these solutions get cheaper and easier to adopt,” he said.

RFID, Bluetooth and drones

No mobile app can do it all without an effective way to mark and identify the inventory that staff needs access to. In some cases, products can be tracked with barcode scans, printed serial numbers or radio-frequency identification (RFID) to individually identify items. In the latter case, an RFID tag applied to each asset creates a way to automatically identify it. Contractors can then easily capture the ID numbers, as items pass through a reading chokepoint or with a handheld reader.

Companies such as GAO RFID, Toronto, offer readers that can be installed on work sites, in warehouses, and in vehicles, so that each tagged piece of equipment passes through the reader portal, and that action is uploaded to a cloud-based server. If workers are wearing RFID-enabled badges, the system can automatically know what was removed from the warehouse or from a vehicle and who has it.

Bluetooth-low-energy (BLE) can be used in a similar way, enabling contractors to capture information about goods with their smartphone, but that technology does require a battery powered tag, which can be more expensive when a contractor is logging in high volume.

The future will not only include data on mobile devices but more automation through technology. Unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) are already being used on construction sites and that’s expected to increase further. The drone can fly overhead to photograph or read RFID or BLE tags to count what is on-site at the end of a work day. (For more, read "The Buzz About Drones," in the October 2016 issue).

This kind of technology is already being piloted on some work sites.

About The Author

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at [email protected].





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