I've written quite a bit about things I consider to be useful
technology that can be taken into the field: tools like Punch
List, which runs on Palm OSbased PDAs, and the various
hand-held versions of scheduling software and information
managers that are available for both Palm and Pocket PC. These
products work well, especially if it's just you using a PDA or
Smartphone in conjunction with your own personal computer. But
it's a different story when you're trying to outfit several
project managers or salespeople, none of whom is very tech
savvy. For every builder putting PDAs to work effectively,
you'll find ten who have tried and given up. After observing
this for a few years, I've decided that it boils down to two
issues: training and synchronization.
Learning and relearning.
Project managers are gung-ho about having better information at
their fingertips on a PDA, until they realize how much effort
it takes to actually get it. Mention that they'll be throwing
their trusty clipboard or day planner away, and you and your
PDAs are apt to become part of the backfill. Even if they have
the desire, they probably don't have the time to learn
something new. At larger companies, I've found the same thing
to be true of sales departments.
Synchronization. The word
strikes fear in the heart of any technology manager. For those
of you not yet familiar with the ritual, "hot sync" amounts to
dropping your PDA into a little holder called a cradle, which
is hooked up to a computer. Push a button and the computer and
PDA transfer their latest information to each other so that, in
theory, they are both up to date. If you have multiple project
managers, lead carpenters, or salespeople using PDAs, everyone
has to get good at synchronizing, and more important, they
actually have to do it — every day. If just one person
forgets or is unable to sync his PDA for whatever reason, you
won't have complete information about what's going on in the
field and your field people won't know what happened at the
office that day. And if you're using something like Punch List
that pushes task lists to your subs and suppliers, they'll be
in the dark as well.
Setting up multi-user synchronization also presents logistical
problems. It could mean making all employees drive out of their
way during morning or afternoon rush hour to come back to the
office. Or it could mean setting up a complicated networking
system to connect your office to job trailers, model homes, or
even an employee's home office. PDA modems, wireless cards, and
Smartphones like the Treo 600 have definitely made this task
easier, but you still have to establish secure communications
with your office network and make provision for multiple users
to access the system. Even if you can make it work, it's less
A Better Way
I recently stumbled onto a new tablet PC system that completely
eliminates the top two PDA problems of training and
synchronization, making it painless to ease technology into
your field operation. I mentioned it briefly in
A Builder's Guide to
Computer Hardware (5/04) but was so impressed with it, I
wanted to give it a closer look. ConstructConnect by Field2Base
(www.field2base.com) was created for
commercial construction, but here's a prediction: I think this
technology has the potential to revolutionize how residential
projects are handled as well.
ConstructConnect is a web-based service (meaning you pay a
monthly rental fee to access it) that works with tablet PCs
(not PDAs) running special software. You can use your own
tablet PC or lease one from Field2Base. If you lease theirs, it
comes equipped with both WiFi and cellular wireless cards, a
built-in digital camera, and your choice of soft or hard
ConstructConnect is actually two applications in one: Project
Communications and Forms Engine. Both make use of the tablet
PC's handwriting recognition and sketching capability, meaning
that you can write and draw directly on the touch-sensitive
screen with a special stylus.
Project Communications allows users in the field to put
together what Field2Base calls a "digital envelope." Using
ConstructConnect, a project manager can snap some photos, make
some notes and sketches, and mark up a drawing — just
like she would on her old-fashioned clipboard. Except now,
instead of running back to the office to find a printer and the
FedEx guy, she just taps "Send," and the whole thing gets
delivered by electronic fax or e-mail through the air —
to subs, suppliers, clients, whoever needs to see it. There is
also a secure password- protected website where you can give
your team access to project communications and documents.
The Forms Engine is equally impressive. Back at the office, an
administrator scans and uploads all your standard paper forms
to the Field2Base servers using the included Form Designer
application, which runs on an office PC. Change orders,
purchase orders, time cards, job logs, punch lists —
pretty much anything that can be scanned with an inexpensive
scanner — can become part of the system (see Figure
Figure 1.ConstructConnect's Forms Engine
lets you transform any paper document you use in the
field to an exact digital replica that can be filled
out on the tablet PC.
Once tweaked and uploaded, digital forms look exactly like
the paper originals, and they're instantly available to users
in the field from a simple menu on their tablet PCs (Figure 2).
They're simply filled in electronically using the tablet PC
pen. The Forms Engine enhances the tablet PC's built-in
handwriting recognition by assigning areas of the forms as
Numeric, Calculating, Checkbox, or Text. That way, the system
doesn't mistake a zero for the letter "O." Once filled in, a
digital document can be wirelessly e-mailed or faxed to an
individual or group. Digital documents sent and received by the
system are all logged, so it's easy to re-create a paper
2.Once uploaded into the
system, ConstructConnect documents are used just like
the paper forms they replace, except now they can be
Pen-based computing and tablets have been tried before
(remember the Apple Newton?) but have never really taken off.
ConstructConnect is different in two important ways. First,
there are no "windows," no "file management," nothing to "save"
or "back up," and literally nothing new for anyone to learn
Figure 3.ConstructConnect's simple and
intuitive interface requires almost zero training. If
your users can write with a pencil and push "on," they
can use the system.
ConstructConnect hides all the technology in the background,
leaving users with the same familiar forms they were used to
using on their clipboards. Second, Construct-Connect's
"connection engine" eliminates the usual PDA "HotSync" hassles,
as well as the need for mobile users to constantly hunt for a
way to get online. Instead, the system queues up all incoming
and outgoing digital documents and messages and waits patiently
until the user either drives into a cellular signal or walks
into a WiFi "hot spot." Everything is then automatically sent
and received in the background. If a transmission is
interrupted midstream, it's no problem. The system
automatically picks up where it left off as soon as a signal is
available. All the user has to do is remember to keep the
tablet PC turned on.
ConstructConnect pricing starts at $299 per user per month.
That may sound like a lot until you realize what it replaces.
The price includes a fully-insured lease on the tablet PC (if
you lose it or run over it, it's covered), a server hosting
account, and all necessary software and server access. You also
get a built-in digital camera, 802.11 wireless LAN, and Sierra
wireless cellular modem cards.
The supplied tablet PC has enough horsepower to run any other
Windows application and could easily be used as your primary
computer. Hardware prices will no doubt fall over time, as will
the price of the service, as more and more users come on board.
Volume pricing is available now.
Joe Stoddardis a technology consultant to the
building industry and a contributing editor toThe Journal of Light
Construction. You can reach him at