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Connected Construction Strategies and Insights

Greg Norris on April 8, 2024 - in Articles, Feature, Featured

Four contractors discuss the challenges and opportunities of linking people, workflows and data through integrated technology.

With contractors deploying software systems at an accelerated pace, connecting applications and the data they generate is emerging as a leading opportunity to improve performance and profitability. Executives from four heavy-construction companies shared insights on strategies and technologies they see as the keys to linking their workflows and realizing such potential at a session during the B2W Software User Conference.

“We’re passionate about creating an integrated project lifecycle, with continuity and connectedness to the data, from the opportunity through bidding, construction and analysis,” explains Chris Malafa, IT director of Griffith Company, one of the panelists. His company is focused on capturing or entering data once and having it available to help people ask the right questions and make the best decisions at every step of the construction process.

Malafa was joined by Rich King, CFO at Schlouch Inc.; Dan Vallencourt, vice president at Vallencourt Construction; and Ryan Russell, vice president of construction performance for CRH Americas Materials. Elwyn McLachlan, vice president of civil solutions for Trimble, the parent company of B2W, moderated the discussion.


A “Make Work Flow” panel of heavy-construction company executives at the B2W Software User Conference included (from left to right) Rich King, CFO at Schlouch Inc.; Ryan Russell, vice president of construction performance for CRH Americas Materials; Chris Malafa, IT director of Griffith Company; and Dan Vallencourt, vice president at Vallencourt Construction. Elwyn McLachlan, vice president of civil solutions for Trimble, the parent company of B2W, moderated the discussion (see group photo).

From Point Solutions to Connected Workflows

Historically, contractors looked to technology to optimize individual tasks, according to McLachlan. Resulting data was often discarded or lost after it served its purpose of supporting one role or providing one answer.

“One of the great opportunities now is to connect this siloed, single-purpose data and realize its potential to provide rich insight into the status of jobs and help contractors project outcomes and guide critical decisions,” she adds.

Vallencourt outlined how he originally approached B2W Software for a system to manage equipment maintenance, an area he said was turning into a “black hole” in terms of money being spent and lack of data. Instead, the fast-growing, family owned sitework company in Florida opted for the full B2W platform to have maintenance, scheduling and performance-tracking systems that could talk to each other, with one database.

“How do you know which direction to take if you don’t know where you already are, whether it’s material moved on a jobsite, money spent on a piece of equipment or other factors?” asks Vallencourt. “The way we connect our data together allows us to make relatively informed decisions.”

McLachlan said Trimble’s mission is to connect physical and digital aspects of construction and tighten the connection between the office and the field. She emphasized the need for new technology to support and enable people and not make their jobs more difficult.

“What we’ve tried to achieve with integration is streamlining processes to make them faster, more repeatable and more reliable,” explains Malafa. He pointed to payroll processing at Griffith as an example.

Previously, paper time sheets were filled out in the field and physically transported to the office. There, people spent hours rekeying the data and making phone calls to validate information. Now, with electronic field logs and connectivity between the field-tracking and accounting systems, the payroll process is much faster, with less rework and fewer errors.

Griffith Company, an employee-owned company, has been in business since 1902 and completes a wide range of heavy highway and civil projects throughout southern California.

Schlouch Incorporated is a sitework contractor in eastern Pennsylvania and a longtime user of technology from Trimble, B2W and Viewpoint. Rich King, the company’s CFO, cited strides Schlouch has made in moving from paper to electronic forms, importing meter reading to equipment maintenance software, and pulling data from the field-tracking system to the Viewpoint Vista accounting system as data connectivity examples.

Russell from CRH says it’s important for customer-centric contractors to also think beyond their own processes and data requirements. “We are thinking about what we can do today to connect our data and reporting to the needs of our customers and what they may not even know they want,” he notes.

Metrics That Matter

Panelists at the B2W session agreed, one of the most-valuable aspects of data they capture is its ability to indicate the status of projects with real-time or close-to-real-time immediacy as well as predict what will happen with those projects going forward. The increasing volume of information, however, presents a new challenge: how to avoid being overwhelmed.

“Frankly, we sometimes have more data than we think we do, and we probably need less than we think we do,” claims Russell. He pointed to a recent audit that revealed close to 100 key performance indicators (KPIs) were being used in construction operations at CRH. The company operates throughout North America, supplying materials and self-performing work that ranges from paving and structures to earthwork and utilities.

The challenge is to cut out the excess and consolidate information to what Russell calls a “leading indicator” standpoint that gives people closest to the work the opportunity to do their jobs better.

For CRH, that means an appropriate volume of data in a basic, consumable format providing insight into the status of a job and the actions needed to stay on target or improve the projection. “We need to keep people doing what they do best, which is construction, and not overwhelm them with data, reports and reporting requirements,” he adds.

What most executives ultimately want, according to Malafa, is a dashboard that tells them anything that might need their attention. “If it’s going right, you don’t need to worry about it,” he summarizes. “It’s the problems and the things you need to insert yourself into that you need to be aware of as soon as possible to facilitate a solution.”

King uses the National Football League’s “Red Zone” television broadcast, where viewers are redirected to the most critical plays from a variety of games as they are happening, as an analogy for how contractors should think about using data and reporting. “They show you the plays that matter when the game is on the line,” he explains. “That’s the KPI information we want to give to our team. Then, when something more critical is happening somewhere, we want to change the channel for them.”

Open Systems Are Important

Although Trimble provides a wide range of integrated solutions, McLachlan was quick to note that the company is focused on open systems that can bring together data from Trimble and non-Trimble sources.

King said companies such as Schlouch have made great progress in connecting workflows. He cautioned that there’s still a lot to be done, particularly with replacing import/export connectivity with API connectivity. He also points out that contractors don’t have complete control.

“A critical part of connected workflows is looking at our customers, the project owners, and their needs,” explains King. “We’ve all been in circumstances where our customer dictates a project-management or other system that we need to utilize. We may have connected workflows within our business, but the customer is using a different software that we have to comply with. Sometimes there is no integration, not even an import/export functionality.”

“As much as Trimble, or another supplier, may make things open, there is no single entity that is able to push it through everything and make a standard,” adds Malafa. “So, the ability for systems to communicate with each other needs to happen, because no one is going to have the ability to dictate ‘this is the way it’s going to be.’”

Vallencourt concurs that open systems—ideally with API connectivity to eliminate the need to export, import and manually manipulate data—are essential. He emphasizes the need to make data available to whoever needs it without locking contractors into one proprietary solution.

The People Aspect

Displacement at the hands of technology is a fear among some construction employees. Panelists predicted a replacement of certain tasks is a more-likely scenario, liberating people to do more meaningful and potentially fulfilling work.

“It’s amazing to see people freed up from daily routines—something manual they have to repeat—and now they get to work on analysis, coming up with conclusions and supporting people with data, which is a lot more fun and exciting than just keying it in,” says Malafa.

Still, the shift could change job descriptions and raise the floor of entry for some employees. “Some of the data you’re getting or want to use requires some extra people to sift through it,” Vallencourt explains. At his company, for example, monitoring telematics data from equipment and managing the resource-scheduling and performance-tracking systems are positions that didn’t exist just a few years ago.

“There are definitely some new roles,” he adds. “Managing technology and data requires extra people, but what you get out of it is worth it.”

Russell emphasizes the importance of communication when implementing technology and connecting workflows. His goal is to get employees to understand the “why” to get buy-in and engagement.

King agrees and adds that training is a vital component. He suggests contractors should evaluate investing in training the same way they consider investing in hardware and software. His company took advantage of the slower winter season caused by the weather in Pennsylvania to provide 3,000 hours of technology and skills training to field employees.

“Looking at that as an investment in people and in the business is a good way to approach it, and, ultimately, there will be a return that will more than pay for the cost,” he believes.

Vallencourt said finding and training employees is one of his biggest challenges, but he disputed the generalization that the latest generation of construction employees doesn’t want to or isn’t equipped to work hard. His experience is that younger employees will meet and exceed performance expectations when they’re given the right direction, tools, training and feedback. He pointed to real-time feedback from Trimble machine-control technology as an example. Supervisors at Vallencourt use that data to indicate when and what type of additional training for operators may be needed.

Malafa echoed the importance of immediacy. “In the past, we would look at a financial report for the month and in hindsight see how everything went,” he explains. “Today, the field can see, at the end of the day, how they did, and that information is available to supervisors who can step in if something is out of line.”

“When we’re able to give people information to do their jobs quicker, with higher quality and less effort, it gets them engaged with the technology,” according to King. “They can make decisions at an earlier time when it can make a difference on the project.”

Vallencourt summarized the group’s feelings when it comes to connected data and immediate feedback. “When my dad ran the business—and he had two jobs—he knew exactly what was happening on those sites. With overwhelming growth, our challenge is to use and connect technology to get that same level of efficiency and insight at scale.”

About Greg Norris

Greg Norris is communications director at B2W Software, a Trimble company; email: [email protected].

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