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The big data game: can it improve civils contracting?

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Richard Humphrey argues that the civils engineering industry needs to make efforts to capture and use data on projects.

Today’s heavy civil construction projects are larger, longer and more complex than ever before. To minimise the very real risk of delays and broken budgets, construction companies need to have a firm grasp on the vast quantities of materials, people and equipment they manage daily.

What’s more, large construction projects are constantly in flux, with personnel and equipment ebbing and flowing according to when they’re needed in the project. Therefore, to keep track of your operations, it’s no longer enough to stick with what you know – especially if that means clinging to outdated, inefficient paper processes. Instead, your organisation needs a much more dynamic approach.

These days, the name of the game in heavy civil construction is big data. Companies now have access to much more valuable data than ever before, and can easily gain insight into performance and operations to understand where you are, and where you’re going. With the ability to leverage that data to make better, more informed decisions, you can gain a significant competitive edge.

Construction is one of the least digitised industries, which also means it has the most room to grow in terms of technological advances. Unfortunately, many heavy civil construction companies continue using paper-based processes and workflows.

However, paper-based processes are simply too slow for modern heavy civil construction projects, especially when it comes to time-sensitive operations such as equipment inspections and maintenance requests. Far too often, project delays occur when managers make decisions based on faulty or missing information, leading to errors in judgment.

Big data allows access to the information you need from anywhere at any time. Utilising data-based electronic processes will be a quantum leap for your organisation.

How to capture data

Before you can put big data to good use within your organisation, you need to have processes in place to capture it. There are a variety of ways that data collection can happen on the job site, with mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones near the top of the list.  

Today, tablets and smartphones are commonplace, which means your employees are already intimately familiar with these technologies and are more willing to adopt them as part of their regular workflow. From there, it’s a short step to get them to start using tablets or smartphones to make the data collection process as quick and painless as possible.

Information can be gathered through easy-to-use applications, with helpful features such as electronic forms, autocomplete and e-signatures, supplemented by multimedia elements like photos, videos and audio, easily captured by tablet or smartphone from the field.

Electronic field logs, for example, provide data on production, materials and labour immediately, from the field, every day. Being able to analyse your data immediately allows you to make more data-driven decisions about adjusting operations in the field, and leverage the data over time to identify trends and adjust accordingly.

It’s the availability of the data that provides the most significant benefit. Big data accessed using tablets and mobile technology is more accurate, timely, and structured. Paper forms leave data integrity to chance, and can take several days to reach the individuals who need to interpret that data.

There is also no consistent structure with paper forms, as information might not always appear in the same format. With electronic forms or software applications, you can collect data in a consistent, structured manner. This function allows you to aggregate and analyse the data automatically, without redundant manual interpretation and data entry steps.

Collecting big data on the job site extends far beyond tablets and mobile technology, however. For example, wearable devices can automatically capture information such as workers’ locations and movements throughout the day, alerting them when they get too close to a dangerous or exclusionary zone.

Another major form of data collection in heavy civil construction is vehicle and automotive telematics. Using GPS systems and other telecommunications devices, individual machines can transmit information about their use, performance and maintenance status.

Although telematics offers potentially huge benefits for your organisation’s data strategy, only one in six contractors were using it in 2015. This statistic demonstrates that telematics can be a powerful way for you to get a leg up on your competitors.

Telematics data can, of course, be used in individual cases, such as detecting when a vehicle needs repair, but true insights are revealed in aggregate using predictive analytics, such as tracking repair and maintenance trends across your organisation.

How to get in the big data game

Data is an incredibly valuable currency in an increasingly digital world, and if you don’t take full advantage of it, you could be costing your operation valuable time and revenue. If you’re on the fence about leveraging the power of big data for your organisation, consider a trial run that’s intended to improve a single aspect of your field processes.

Construction workers at Skanska, for example, walked an average of six miles a day before bringing big data into their workflow. By examining workers’ locations and movements throughout the day, the company could optimise their positions and activities. Once in place, these new and improved paths reduced workers’ daily walks by an average of two miles and added an extra hour of productivity into their day.

If you’re already fully on board with big data, the future holds a lot of promise for your heavy civil construction business and the industry in general.

Choosing the right solution for predictive analytics means you’ll be able to leverage your data to make better business decisions and increase profitability. For example, software applications can examine files such as contracts, work orders and RFPs to better understand your subcontractors, making contract negotiation a far easier, quicker and more accurate process.

The value proposition for big data is simple: it makes your life easier and helps everyone within your organisation do their jobs better. The data you collect is available for sharing and collaboration instantly, wherever you are. When workers are more informed, your workflows become more streamlined and more efficient.

Richard Humphrey is vice president of marketing at B2W Software. The company’s ONE Platform connects people, workflows and data and includes advanced, unified applications to manage estimating, scheduling, field tracking, equipment maintenance, data capture and business intelligence. He can be reached at rhumphrey@b2wsoftware.com

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