While there’s a perception construction software applications are only affordable and needed by large multinational companies working on billion-dollar jobs, that’s actually not the case, states Toronto’s Flat Iron Building Group president Daniel De Monte.
"We’re a boutique construction company," he says. "We’re not EllisDon or PCL. But we saw the way the economy was changing and things were shifting and we knew we needed to be efficient and communications is a big part of that."
De Monte says it was the logical choice to get with the times.
"We can’t change our methodology in construction — timelines are shrinking, owners and clients are always looking at costs and financing costs," he says. "We needed a way to be more efficient, to fast track our ability to do what we do and that’s what led us to the software."
Ken Feinstein, director of marketing and the designated sustainability advocate, says Flat Iron started looking at software applications for the industry about three-and-a-half years ago and until recently was using the Procore suite of modules.
Procore has approximately 1.3 million users worldwide in 92 countries and claims to be the most widely used construction software application.
"What we like is that the app is on the device, the phone or the tablet, and the data is in the Cloud where everyone can share it," says Feinstein. "The relevant email, the changes, the site issues, everything is there to see for everyone involved from the owner, to the site superintendent, to us here in the office."
For example, he says, on a recent $4.5-million job for Brookfield Global Integrated Solutions, a 70,000-square-foot interior renovation, there was a site issue. The site superintendent took pictures of the issue, described the problem and sent it out to the team of designers, engineers, trades and support staff.
"Then he booked a conference call and discussed it, came up with a decision as to how we were going to resolve it and by end of day we were back on track," says Feinstein. "In the old way we would all have had to go down there, meet, look at it, go back, then get back for a meeting on how to resolve it. It would have taken days."
He says the software, which also serves as a hub for all related documents, is as effective on longer term projects as it is on short and mid-length jobs.
Those smaller companies are catching on to what mid-sized companies learned long ago.
For example, the North American Construction Group (NACG) in Edmonton, active in the oilsands, has been running Oracle’s JD Edward’s EnterpriseOne ERP (JDE) platform since about 2002. It’s a general application that many businesses use, but instead of customizing it for construction, David Brunetta, the director of finance and information technology with North American, says they have been stripping out the upgrades and add-ons to get to the core of the platform.
"Every time they add a function or a module or integrate an application they think is useful we have to upgrade everything," he says. "We’ve found that instead of paying for rather expensive customization, we de-customize it because it works well out-of-the-box for us."
He says part of that is NACG’s simple business model: "We move dirt around. We move it from one pile to another pile or we take a pile of dirt and build something intelligent with it, like a road, dam or wall, whatever the client wants."
As a result, he says, the biggest expense centres around heavy equipment. "We’ve got a lot of big yellow iron out there and with the JDE suite we have a way to break down the costs so we can track maintenance and what’s costing us," he says.
NACG is a $150-to-$200 million a year revenue company so it’s still dwarfed by the giant multinationals, but cost control and project management are still mission critical at any level.
He says NACG works with Oracle to improve their system and look at other applications or modules which could be best fit with their needs.
In the last year they’ve also outsourced their IT and gone to a Cloud solution where the support is provided by a tech company based in Ontario, which in turn allows NACG to focus on its core businesses.
"We also recently added STR software’s AventX work order document manager and it paid for itself in four months because the maintenance guys can chip out documents any way they want instead of the big merged PDFs they used to get and they love it," Brunetta says.
With the outsourcing shift behind them and the new relationship working, the company is now looking at what the next technology adoption might be beyond revenue recognition, document management and cost tracking.
"We haven’t got a mobile strategy yet and that’s one area we might be looking to find the right partner who understands our business and our challenges," he says.
Back in Toronto, Flat Iron’s De Monte is already hungry for more features.
"We’re looking now at other software for estimating, for example, which is more purpose-built and which may suit our needs better," De Monte says.
As with any new technology, there’s always a learning curve but the shift from paper to digital wasn’t difficult, he adds.
"In construction, it’s true that things don’t change quickly," De Monte says. "And not all of our people have fully embraced the technology. Certainly some people use a lot more of the features than others, just as in an office, some are better at Excel."
And not all clients want to deploy the construction project management system on their projects, he says. "We’ve had some who have said, ‘no, stay with paper,’" he explains. "But it really is about transparency. People talk about transparency, but here everything is there. The minutes of meetings, the to-do lists, the responsibilities, the lists. The system even reminds you if you haven’t completed an assigned task."