For the professional construction contractor, the goal is always to be successful as a business owner. Undoubtedly, there’s a lot of complexity in reaching that success.
In today’s world, it almost goes without saying that a technological or digitized solution is a good place to start. While some may think that is a logical statement, many contractors who approach construction software or tech companies for new solutions are still primarily using manual processes such as spreadsheets and whiteboards.
Equipment World sat down with three software company representatives to gain some insight into the importance of technology in the construction industry.
“We've seen every version of a spreadsheet known to man; we've seen every version of a whiteboard that's out there,” says Sean McCreanor, CEO of Assignar. “I'd say a lot of them have recognized that digitizing a lot of their processes is a good thing and especially doing it in the cloud.”
Technology-based workflows allow contractors to make faster and better decisions because they have greater access to more information that is more accurate.
“Connected construction is the way of the future,” says Elwyn McLachlan, vice president of civil solutions at Trimble. “From the current backlog of projects to labor, supply-chain and materials challenges, contractors have a lot on their plates. Technology can help them do more with less. This includes connecting the field to the office, the office to the field, and connecting stakeholders throughout the entire construction lifecycle.”
McLachlan notes that manual data is error-prone, time-consuming and difficult to share.
“Construction software can connect information that was previously isolated, giving contractors a better overall picture of their jobsites and their business,” she says. “Increased accuracy is a big benefit of going paperless, simply because you reduce the chance of human error when it comes to recording and sharing information.”
Nick Pettengill, construction specialist at Raken, notes that time is the most valuable resource in construction.
“Smart tools make life easier for both the field and office by automating repetitive tasks and reducing communication errors,” he says.
Outside of contractors, project owners are also driving the need for technology, particularly on infrastructure projects, which require higher levels of reporting.
“Many of today’s project owners are looking for real-time data, proof points and workflow automation that you can only get through the use of connected, cloud-based construction technology like the Trimble Construction One suite,” McLachlan says. “In some cases, owners are even mandating the use of various types of technology, so contractors who want to compete for this work must be adept at using the required technology solutions.”
Beyond the required use of some technology, project management software and other types of construction technology play a big role in sustainability. “Technology helps us build better, more environmentally friendly buildings and do so in a more environmentally friendly manner,” she says. “Improving material utilization, for example, which is a big benefit of software like Trimble ProjectSight, can both minimize materials waste and reduce rework.”
Not surprisingly, with the work-from-home mandates of the Covid pandemic, many software companies were able to expand their reach the past couple of years. Despite the seeming necessity of such a transition, many contractors still wrestle with adoption of technology.
McCreanor says there are a few reasons for that. One is that the contractors who are averse to technology have their old-school systems and processes that work.
“They’re manual but they do work, and they’ve probably been running them a long time,” he says.
Secondly, contracting is a tough business with a low margin. “You can’t afford to get it wrong,” McCreanor says. “You don't just buy technology, you have to implement it and go on a change management journey as well.”
Tech companies are seeing superintendents, foremen and equipment operators wanting to use technology, since nearly everyone has a smartphone and has some knowledge of technology. Meanwhile, the owners want visibility in real time and realistically the only way to do that is with tech.
As a former contractor, McCreanor knows that contractors, superintendents, foremen and crew want to build stuff and not have to live in the technology or in the piles of paperwork.
A success story from a tech company is having a superintendent talk about how they used to get home, eat dinner, and go to bed and now using technology they can get home, have a hot dinner, play with the kids, and put them to bed and wake the next day well rested.
“That's kind of really nice when I think as much as it is for getting the data in real time from the field,” McCreanor says. “It's not always the case, of course. You have naysayers that don't believe it's going to improve them or the project or anything else.”
Overall, he says, there seems to be a real appetite for change within the industry.
“Construction software is highly fragmented, and there's been a lot of tech that's been around for a long time,” McCreanor says. “There are some systems that are not in the cloud; they're hosted on premise.”
Many software companies offer connectivity or integration with other software packages. Modern technology allows data sharing seamlessly between systems.
“Without integrations, manual data entry is required, wasting valuable hours on menial tasks and leaving room for miscommunication,” Pettengill says.
“I think that's definitely the right approach, pick the best tools to solve the pain point for your business, make sure there's connectivity between them for the workflows that you want,” he says.
For example, Assignar has partnered with other software companies that are thinking about the future or are already cloud-based. They integrate with several accounting systems such as Acumatica, Sage and QuickBooks, and from a project management perspective, Assignar has worked with Autodesk, Procore and others based on what customers ask for.
Trimble also tries to meet customers wherever they are along their technology journey.
“Some have already adopted sophisticated project management solutions, others are still using pencils and spreadsheets,” McLachlan adds. “We would be doing our customers a disservice if we couldn’t integrate with non-Trimble or even non-technology solutions.”
She notes that to really unlock the power of technology, you must be able to aggregate all kinds of data about schedules, materials, budgets, designs and more from a lot of different sources, both within the construction organization and among the extended team of project stakeholders.
“People work with a lot of different apps and programs, and we see it as our job to help tie all of those loose ends together so what our customers get is meaningful and actionable,” McLachlan says.
When making any substantial investment, it is always wise to gather information and do some research. It’s important to understand the full breadth of features that a software solution can provide.
“It can be really confusing as a contractor, because there's a lot of technology out there,” McCreanor says. “I think the first thing is focusing in on what type and profile of contractor you are.”
There are a lot of solutions that are built for general contractors. “If you're not a general contractor, you're a subcontractor and you do the work; you really should be looking for a solution that helps you as a subcontractor,” he says.
The next step is to look at the problems you want to solve in your business. “If it's contract workflows, then look for a solution that's designed for contract management or document management, document control,” McCreanor says. “If you're looking for managing resources and utilization, workers, equipment and productivity on the jobsite, then really focus in on that. You really must honestly assess what's the pain point in my business. That should help you make an informed decision on the type of software.”
McCreanor recalls his days as a contractor and attending the larger trade shows such as World of Concrete or ConExpo and entering the technology halls and thinking about how everything looks the same.
“Look for solutions that solve the specific problem you’re trying to solve, but also offer enhancements, add-ons or an extended technology portfolio that can grow as your company grows and your needs change,” McLachlan says.
It is important for contractors to identify and position themselves and be clear as to what type of contractor you are and what pain points you are trying to solve. Focus should be placed on finding a solution that solves the workflow best.
“Most people have had experience with being promised, one thing to solve them all,” McCreanor says. “In my view, it doesn't exist in construction. Contractors want flexibility in the tools just like they do when they build stuff. They want flexibility in their business systems as well, and I'm a huge advocate for that.”
Contractors should prioritize software with easy-to-use interfaces. Time is so often a factor, which those averse to technology cite as an issue.
In addition, Pettengill says, tools that allow for photo and video capture offer the best visibility project managers can achieve offsite. Also, he notes, that in-software messaging features help teams stay connected without the noise of separate emails, phone calls or text messages. Most modern software solutions should allow team members to share insights in real-time through dashboards and cloud storage.
“If it isn’t simple, intuitive or empowering, new software is not a worthwhile investment,” Pettengill says. “Contractors should look for solutions that help all employees work smarter and faster, not tools that overcomplicate their processes. The right software will be easy to use and help the business save time and gain valuable insight.”
McLachlan cites two key things to keep in mind when shopping for construction management software.
First, she says, look for a technology provider that has a long and solid reputation for helping companies like yours solve problems with solutions designed for construction, and that will provide support when and where you need it.
“There are a lot of companies just starting to develop technology for the construction industry, so it’s important to choose a vendor with a proven history, good reputation and the resources to help with training, installation and support,” he says.
Secondly, McLachlan says, look for a company that can grow with you.
“Often, contractors make the move from manual to digital processes gradually over time, starting with one very specific need and then increasing their use of technology as they see the benefits,” she says. “We offer solutions that can connect a jobsite throughout the entirety of the job lifecycle, from time sheets to RFP submittals to bidding, estimating, design, construction and maintenance. Choosing a vendor now that can easily integrate additional solutions as your business grows will pay off in the long run.”
Business management software is a long-term investment not just a one-time expense. It’s one thing for a multi-million-dollar company to invest in such technology, but what about the small to mid-sized contractors ($3 million to $15 million annual revenue) being able to justify such an investment?
In some regards, small contractors stand to benefit more than anyone from implementing project management, business management or other construction technology tools.
“For many small contractors, a big mistake could be disastrous; they’re less able to weather the storm than bigger contractors,” McLachlan says. “For this reason, getting it right the first time is important. We have some progressive small contractors who are technology early adopters. They’re using technology in interesting ways and seeing big benefits from it. Technology can help level the playing field and even help small contractors compete against large contractors in many cases.”
Investment in the right technology will help a small to mid-sized contractor improve profitability in the long run.
“Digital tools save time and increase project visibility, helping stakeholders better understand how their teams work,” Pettengill says.
Using the information provided by the digital tools, contractors can plan more accurate project schedules, catch potential issues early and prevent costly disputes.
“When it comes time to bid on a project, technology gives contractors a competitive edge with more accurate bids and the added assurance that clients will receive accurate, timely reporting,” he says.
Most smaller contractors have a desire to grow their business and want to scale up.
“They'll tell you that the constraints on doing that is the labor shortage, materials supply-chain challenges and the notion that equipment is really hard to buy right now,” McCreanor says. “Those are tough market-driven problems that can't easily be solved.”
However, he said, the other problem those same contractors are having is they can’t afford to just throw people at the problem in the back office to create leverage.
“If I can do that with technology, and I can have one project manager scheduling and planning across three projects or five projects as opposed to one because technology allows them to do it more easily, then they have that ability to take on more work and grow their company,” he says. “I think the more sort of progressive contractors are thinking about it that way.”
For many, there’s been that generational change. A lot of contracting businesses started 30 or 40 years ago, and now the businesses are being passed on to their children who might be in their 20s or 30s and grew up with technology. Sometimes this is seen by the tech companies, even if the contractors are trying to use Dropbox or Google Drive.
“Those may not be the right solutions, but the intent there is to create a better connection to the field and the office and use technology,” McCreanor says.
Still, he notes, there remains those that are averse to the idea of using technology. Their common refrain: “I don’t have time to deploy technology and roll it out in my business, because I’m too busy.”
Most tech companies are often able to balance that retort with case studies indicating that they can sometimes double productivity of the back office without adding overhead when utilizing technology.
“You can have the team working on higher-value tasks in the back office, because technology has helped,” McCreanor says. “I think it is just going to continue to evolve over time as these generational shifts happen.”
Eight years ago when he founded Assignar, they would encounter customers averse to the switch and those looking for tech solutions. In either case, they were often left answering questions like, “What’s the cloud?” or “My crews don’t have smartphones.”
Today, the primary questions are about data security and the tech companies’ information security policy. The idea that questions on data security versus the cloud are now coming up demonstrates the maturity that’s happened in the last 10 years.
“I definitely think there's an education that's been happening,” McCreanor says. “We continue to progress technologies everywhere around us in every dimension and facet of life, so I'm really optimistic that we're going to continue to keep driving forward.”