Going Mobile
Going Mobile
Going Mobile
5 minute read

Wireless devices help trace, track and tabulate work — faster and more accurately than ever. Their use adds value to the planning, design and construction process for some of the most steadfast and sedentary projects on the planet.

Burns & McDonnell is adding value to the planning, design and construction of some of the most steadfast and sedentary projects on the planet — by going mobile.

Wireless devices empower the efficient and effective delivery of new power plants, transmission and distribution lines, military installations, data centers, highways, sewers, processing plants, refineries and dozens of other projects.

Tablets, iPhones, iPads and other devices serve as vehicles driving increased safety, accuracy, speed and overall value for planners, engineers, inspectors and others on the job, as professional services build upon conveniences and upgrades that are popular among consumers.

"Everyone expects that everything they can do on their phones, they can do in other realms of their lives," says Steve Santovasi, a senior GIS specialist in the New England office of Burns & McDonnell. "In the business realm, people expect all the same functionality."

They're getting it, too.

Touch-Screen Technology

Common applications that enable mapping, directions, data tables, calendars, photos, discussions and comments — all immediately at hand, with the touch of a screen — no longer are limited to the personal lives of seemingly everyone everywhere.

Burns & McDonnell is at the forefront of applying new and upgraded applications at work. Mobile devices increasingly are used on projects to track timetables, trace tasks and tackle matters ranging from the technical to the tabular, all with a focus on the overall mission: making clients successful.

Clients and their consultants rely so heavily upon the high-speed and ultra-accurate results that they can't imagine turning back.

"The technology becomes quickly ingrained," says David Smith, who oversaw use of pen tablets by more than 100 monitors working on environmental compliance for the Sunrise Powerlink project in Southern California. "It's almost addictive."

Inspectors, technicians, public involvement personnel and others at project sites find themselves free from physical limitations. They no longer need to haul around printed maps, binders of property-owner data, or boxes of contracts, notebooks or other project documents.

They're all in the palms of their hands.

"Tablets provide the user with a fully functioning, lightweight PC that can store gigabytes of data to support the field effort," says Bryan Claxton, an associate project manager at Burns & McDonnell. "Users would never be able to carry that amount of hardcopy information to the field, but the tablets put that key project data at their fingertips."

Real-Time Accessibility

By combining devices with an Internet connection, or even just GPS coordinates, users can turn their work — what previously had been hours of first-hand notes, observations and contacts — into readily accessible information for all those who need it, as quickly as possible.

No more transcriptions. No more conversions. No more sitting up in a hotel room until after midnight entering data into a laptop for future use.

That's because the information already is in the system, uploaded either as soon as it was saved in the field or once the device can connect to the Internet.

"That saves an hour to two hours per day," says Don Draper, senior information management specialist in the New England office, where he's responsible for research-and-development efforts on mobile devices.

"And we can't overestimate the value of the quality of the information," says Chris O'Grady, department manager for the Information Management Group in New England. "We're able to save time out in the field, as well as provide more accurate data."

And provide access. For a project with AltaLink — in an area with limited Internet connectivity in Calgary, Alberta — Burns & McDonnell created a mobile constructability application that includes electronic maps loaded onto iPads. The images allow field personnel to pinpoint their locations, document field conditions and guide rights-of-way surveys by helicopter.

On the Sunrise Powerlink project, data from on-site observations went directly into a database owned by San Diego Gas & Electric and administered by Burns & McDonnell. From there, project decision makers and other key participants shared data on a web map, thanks to a secure network deployed
by Burns & McDonnell.

The mobile-driven system kept hundreds of project participants informed, with all data shared within 24 hours of initial observation.

"The ‘old' method of sending information to GIS for new map production had a lag time of one to two weeks, depending on the urgency of the request and the GIS workload," says Smith, department manager for the Information Management Group in the Southern California office of Burns & McDonnell. "In fact, we just about put the GIS support on the project out of business because they stopped getting map requests for routine work. Everybody had embraced the electronic tools and was creating their own maps." 

Such technology indeed is becoming pervasive at work, with 97 percent of general contractors nationwide employing mobile devices at their work sites, according to an August survey conducted by McGraw-Hill Construction's Industry Insights group.

The survey found that 87 percent of subcontractors use mobile devices on site, a share that subs expect to be 91 percent by 2015.

Technology on Target

Aside from their increasing usefulness — in addressing problems, enabling communication and sharing important documents and revisions, according to the survey — the devices carry another persuasive reason for use on the job: They're familiar.

Not only does the number of wireless devices in the country now outnumber the actual number of people, but nearly seven of every eight firms surveyed by Industry Insights report that they allow their employees to bring their own personal devices to job sites. Turns out those personal iPhones, Androids and tablets can provide a welcome boost in productivity at minimal cost, managed through proper procedures and protocols.

Such overwhelming familiarity helps folks like Ryan Boyce, a senior programmer and analyst at Burns & McDonnell. He combined existing products with client-specific needs to create a new iPad app for use on a contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: tracking, documenting and reporting data associated with missile launch and alert sites in line for decommissioning and demolition.

The app, dubbed iSilo, gives crews visiting the contract's 113 targeted facilities in Montana, Wyoming and California a handheld vehicle for gathering and communicating information. Crews use iPads to take photos, gather observations and note site conditions — all to be combined, automatically, into site-specific reports for later examination by potential demolition contractors. Read more about the app >

That may sound complicated, Boyce says, but the app is anything but.

"You don't have to sell users on a technology that's new. You don't have to sell them on something that they already like carrying around with them," says Boyce, who spent less than a week writing the app and refining its features. "They're already sold on it, because they already have it and they already know how to use it. We're just building upon that."

For more information, contact Robert Wolfe, 203-949-2333.


Looking into the Future

"Things are escalating and accelerating. Within three years, you'll see the demise of things like laptops. It'll be very, very specialized. Everyone will
have a mobile device. Certainly, within our company, everyone will need one."

Chris O'Grady, department manager for the Information Management Group in the New England region

"Access to the network, to the Internet, is an issue. I think in a few years that issue may go away as cellular service becomes more widespread or other communication protocols become more available, but I don't see the form factor changing a whole lot. Most people are not accustomed to typing on small devices in the field. I don't see the form factor getting much smaller and still being useful for field work."

Don Draper, senior information management specialist, New England

"Decision-makers come to expect highly responsive data-collection tools and 24/7 access to up-to-date information. Many people seem to forget that not so long ago we lived in the Paper Age, when field visits required rolls of printed maps and binders full of spreadsheets. This portends a growing dependency on technology, as well as a growing expectation of data speed and efficiency."

David Smith, department manager for the Information Management Group in the Southern California region

Tools of Technology

Examples of uses at Burns & McDonnell for mobile-application tools:

  • Pavement assessments 
  • Environmental monitoring 
  • Transmission line routing 
  • NERC compliance 
  • Airport fueling system audits 
  • Encroachment/stakeholder management 
  • Public meetings 
  • Construction safety tracking and monitoring 
  • Punch listing/commissioning 
  • Environmental cleanup 
  • Construction status tracking 
  • Facility audits

Mobile Advantages

The top nine ways that mobile devices boost productivity on job sites, according to a survey of general contractors conducted in August by McGraw-Hill Construction's Industry Insights group:

  1. Address site problems efficiently
  2. Improve communication by main office
  3. Increase collaboration
  4. Share project documents and revisions
  5. Communicate with owners
  6. Gather real-time field data
  7. Work with specialty trade contractors
  8. Improve ability to manage workforce
  9. Improve project schedule


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