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Connecting to Good Communication

A worker leaves in a company vehicle to pick up a load of supplies, but instead stops off for a quick bite to eat. He comes back to tell anyone who will listen about how bad traffic has gotten in the city. And just that easily, another man-hour of labour has been lost to poor communication.
It’s a problem as old as the construction industry itself, but one that technology is finally beginning to solve. GPS devices; mobile phones that can transmit invoices, signatures and photographs; detailed vehicle sensors; the list goes on and on. The technologies most widely used fall into three categories:

An Eye in the Sky
The first could best be described as comprised of monitoring devices. One of the leading examples of this is BSM Wireless’ Sentinel-FM application. It allows its users to record their vehicles’ ignition on and off events, where they are in the field via GPS, idle times as well as the travel time and speed of travel between any two points. It all adds up to a much more effective monitoring of company vehicles and worker productivity.
“I hate to call it big brother watching but at the end of the day you get enough information that I could dictate to you a driver’s day down to the second,” notes Chris Panczuk, general manager of BSM Wireless.
The information collected by the system is stored for a period of 60 days in a web-based interface and can be referenced at any time through a standard web browser. Aside from the obvious savings from reduced idling times and more productive use of company resources, there are also notable fringe benefits such as theft recovery and potentially reduced insurance rates from having detailed information on vehicle use. 

Eyes and Ears on the Ground
A second class of communications technologies is made up of applications that allow first-hand field information to be collected, transmitted and stored wirelessly. Cyber Cat’s Vizu Forms allow their users to collect signatures, photos and invoice data directly on their cell phones and then transmit them to a Web-based interface where the information can later be extracted and analyzed.
“They don’t have any infrastructure to install and they don’t have a server to maintain,” says Cyber Cat president, Benjamin Garant, of the product’s ease of installation. “We can have a client up and running within hours using Vizu Forms and they are going to manage everything via a Web-based interface so all they need to have is a computer with an Internet connection.”
The forms can even be set up so that they can’t be closed until all necessary fields have been filled, thus eliminating costly attention lapses.

Facilitating Two-way Communication
Then there are applications which attempt to do what walkie-talkies never fully could: create instantaneous, reliable and all-encompassing two-way communication. Spira Data Corporation’s Field Ticketing Tool, is slated for release in the first quarter of 2009 and is one such application. Though it has been on the market for several years, the Field Ticketing Tool is now being reworked to better meet the needs of the construction industry. It is currently being tested for multiple platforms and allows its users to communicate with messages, photos, notes and raw data. Its strength, and what differentiates it from Vizu Forms and other communication devices, is that it allows either end of the transmission line —  the head office or the worker in the field — to request or send information.
“The most important thing for us is it’s a controlled infrastructure,” says Jon Watts, president of Spira. “Because [the packets are] associated already with the type of project, with the phase of the project — and can have sub-trades that are sending this data in as well — all the data is collected and associated properly.”
In addition, if at any point the field worker is unable to receive a wireless signal, perhaps because he is working in a basement or remote area, the application is still accessible and information can still be uploaded, which will then be automatically transmitted as soon as a signal becomes available.

Bringing the Field to You
All these innovations share one thing in common: they are making communication more effective. Whether it be the ability to keep tabs on vehicles in the field, being able to virtually record the information gathered on site, or being able to communicate and oversee a job directly through two-way communication, it has never been easier to monitor your company’s work.

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