What’s the ROI for Mobile Tools in Construction?

By Charlie O’Neil
FieldLens VP of Business Development

Last week I had the chance to meet with a superintendent at a large GC here in New York City who’s working on a huge multi-year project. When I asked him what technology he is using to manage his day-to-day, he proceeded to show me the following:

  • 2 smartphones (one for personal use and one for company use)
  • 1 high performance digital camera
  • 1 tablet computer
  • 1 company laptop in the job office
  • A pocket full of color-coded note cards
  • 2 different sized clipboards
  • 1 spiral notebook
  • At least a dozen rolls of paper plans
  • Email/Outlook
  • MS Excel
  • DropBox and dozens of other mobile apps

I was a little surprised. This guy is in his late 20’s – a child of the technology era. He is smart, experienced and he knows what he is talking about when it comes to construction. His company is more than big enough to use of any technology they want.

So how had mobile technology made his day any easier? I don’t think it had. He’d added some new hardware but the workflows he used for communication hadn’t really changed at all. He was stuck between two worlds.

Last year more construction companies than ever — especially subs and general contractors — invested in mobile hardware for their field-based employees. I see it on every project I walk. Tablets and smartphones are everywhere. But what are the users actually doing on their devices? How are the firms justifying the added cost? What’s the Return on Investment (ROI)?

A McGraw Hill Construction survey of contractors and subcontractors found that while initial use of mobility tools such as tablets and cloud services showed real benefits, many of the 300 contractors surveyed —58% general contractors, 42% specialty contractors— felt that a truly compelling ROI would require additional use cases. So what are those use cases and how do we measure the return?

When I ask construction executives what they want technology to do for them they usually give me some version of the big three:

  1. Lower project costs
  2. Shorter schedules
  3. Increased profitability

But what kind of behavior does that actually translate to out in the field where their project teams are spending 90% of the construction budget? The place where hundreds of decisions are being made each day that could tip the scales one way or another. What would that look like?

When I visit jobsites and talk to “field leaders” I hear things like:

“I need an easier way to communicate with the project team, not just my company.”

“I need access to the most current information in the field to make informed decisions.”

“I want to feel comfortable that I’m tracking everything that is going on at my site.”

“I spend too much time having the same conversations over and over.”

I’ve spent most of my career selling technology into the AEC market and every time I hear the ROI conversation come up I get worried. Identifying causality in a big operation is a hard thing to nail down and there is never enough time or resources to really dig into the numbers. But it has to be done. Some firms have been investing in gadgets just because they’re trendy but they don’t really understand the impact.

The Super I mentioned earlier had access to all the mobile technology he could carry but his company’s processes hadn’t evolved in a way that made those devices impactful. The firms I see having the most success with mobile technology are those that develop one initiative at a time while simultaneously evaluating both the technology and its impact on the workflow.

This type of change is never easy; maybe particularly so for the construction industry. But just like the technology and process revolution the manufacturing industry experienced over the past 60 years, the construction industry stands to benefit greatly from technology. Mobile  – when used in the right way – seems like the perfect place to start.