Let’s explore the evolution of construction industry technology. Humans have been constructing grandeur out of stone and metal for thousands of years, and we’ve been doing it well. Go to any ancient site still standing for evidence of that. The art of building is a timeless element of human history, but the workflow of today’s construction industry still faces bottlenecks in both productivity rates and project performance. The unique set of design challenges that accompany each project makes it difficult to change the standard of productivity or streamline processes for the industry as a whole. Technology has started to drive change, as it has in every other sector in the last few decades. While construction has been quick to embrace advancements in engineering with robotics, and real-time collaboration software, there are significant benefits that could be gained from a dedicated IT relationship including, timeline and budget efficiencies and increased security.
In his book, Globalization of Technology (1988), Alden P. Yates makes some of the same critiques on the underinvestment of construction firms in technology that are echoed today. Many of his predictions, although 30 years old at this point, are being implemented industry-wide. Innovations like augmented reality, connected equipment and tools, 3D modeling, real-time collaboration software, automation systems, drones, robotics, and augmented reality have arrived, and are being used on construction sites across the world. How can the construction industry derive every possible efficiency and benefit from this evolving technology landscape?
We talked with Jeff Griffith at the Kentucky-based commercial construction company Churchill McGee. We wanted to understand the evolution of technology in the industry from his point of view, and find out where the benefit of developing an IT relationship might start. Interview below.
V: Hi Jeff, thanks for joining me today. As an introduction for our readers, would you mind telling me a bit about your business and what you all do at Churchill McGee?
J: Sure. We’re a commercial construction company. We range anywhere from 250 thousand to 10 million dollar projects. Probably our sweet spot is in the 2-5 million dollar range. We do some smaller projects, but that’s mostly for the clients that we do a lot of work for just as a favor. We’ve got two offices right now in Lexington and Louisville. We had three, but we closed the one in Cincinnati for now. We’re in the process of merging those two companies together as one. We also have two satellite companies, D9 and C3. C3 is a concrete company and D9 is a drywall company. And we’re merging those into one business right now. So we’re going through a pretty big transition that started the first of the year.
V: Alright cool. So I want to start off by delving into what I discovered in some of my research. I read some articles that implied that construction companies were slower to hop on to new technology during the computer and internet boom. That might simply be because a lot of the old ways of doing things still worked pretty well in the industry.
J: Yes, and to be honest we still have guys sending us faxes for bids. I mean it’s ridiculous, but it still happens. We have to keep an open fax line all the time. We spend you know 15 hundred dollars a year for a fax line because we still have 3 or 4 subs who send faxes. I mean it’s unbelievable! You’re right, it is.
V: But I think slowly, but surely we’re seeing things changed based on the desire for better productivity and the integration of cloud-based management tools for scheduling and mobile technology.
J: When I started in the industry we were just setting up fax machines. We were using that roll of paper to fax. It was a God awful mess trying to do anything. But I think the biggest thing that changed in the industry was cell phones. We didn’t even have pagers when I started. If you had to make a phone call you had to set up a trailer with a phone line in it. I remember we got our first phone line with a fax machine. We couldn’t get service to the trailer so we decided to use a phone for faxing… well we didn’t realize at the time that it was a dollar per page so our first phone bill was like 47 hundred dollars.
V: Oh man. So the mobile technology has made a big difference for sure. Are there any other technologies that you’ve seen change the way you do business?
J: Being able to transmit pdf drawings back and forth digitally is a huge change. There was no email when I started; it was all phone calls and faxes. Now we’ve gone to Bluebeam and Rivett and all these different integration software that let you combine drawings together and overlay them. These tools have really started to take off just in the last 3 or 4 years. Even something as simple as being able to take a picture of a problem and send it to an architect and say here’s what we’re dealing with, has been a huge change. It used to be the architect or engineer would have to come out every time there was an issue. There weren’t even digital cameras, let alone cellphone cameras.
V: So that’s probably boosted productivity like one hundred percent.
J: Oh a thousand percent.
V: How has Churchill McGee technically evolved or changed in the last 4 years?
J: I think the biggest thing we did was install a new server, and then we set up VPN so that everybody from the trailer could work in our accounting software and management software onsite. When I first started we had that in place, but it didn’t work at all, so we had a lot of project managers that would have to go back to the office to do paperwork, which was crazy. The guys need to be on the jobsite, and I was pretty instrumental in raising a hundred types of hell until we could get that done. It took about 2-3 months to implement, but it was worth it.
V: That speaks a bit to data collection, but before I get to that, I wanted to share an interesting point in my research. I read about a lot of really cool high tech stuff the industry’s utilizing like autonomous drones that photograph and scan the construction site so you can compare to your schedules and BIM. What’s one of the coolest tools that you guys use or would like to use?
J: We’ve got a drone we photograph the job site with, but we haven’t integrated that into the drawings or being able to automatically update the drawings. That probably comes more into play with a 25 million dollar company. We’re trying to get there, but we’re not there yet.
V: I want to run this past you because it’s interesting and pertinent to what Volta does for our customers, which is find ways to manage, store and secure big data. There was a statistic that came out in 2017 that said 95% of all data in the construction industry was either being thrown away – or not even collected in the first place. Do you think the construction industry is missing an opportunity to collect a wider array of data than it currently does?
J: I think probably the biggest way we waste data is by not doing enough final reports on a job to know exactly what we spent on certain things, and then create better estimates for future projects from that. We do some of it, but we don’t do it well, and I think most companies don’t do it well either if you want to know the truth.
V: That sounds more operational than anything else. You have the data, but you’re not analyzing it enough on the backend to put it to good use.
V: So some of the advantages of collecting and analyzing data would pertain to productivity and workflow. Or being able to give your next customer a better estimate based off another project.
J: Yeah, it would help with giving betters estimates for sure and it would probably help boost productivity on the job too. Every job in construction is different though. I’ve been doing this for 30 years and every job has a different test for you or a different situation that you haven’t run into before but documenting can help. We are constantly working on this manual we call our cookbook for new project managers to see how we operate.
V: What have been some of the technical challenges your company has faced?
J: We need to get into Bluebeam and Rivett a lot more than we are.
V: So it’s more of a skills gap that you deal with?
J: Yeah. There’s definitely a skills gap. I think one of the hardest things about construction management is that you’ve got to have the older guys who know how to build a building, but you’ve also got to have the newer guys who can work on a computer. I’ve got some people who do well just to send an email. It’s a hard balance to manage. I got lucky in that I started around the time computers took off, and I took advantage of that simply because it was so much easier to do the work on a computer. A lot of other guys I worked with kept doing everything the way they were used to doing it, and still are.
V: This is more for my general knowledge. Do you think it’s important for a construction company to work with an IT provider?
J: I think even smaller companies could benefit from an IT relationship. We work with an IT provider on a support basis. The main goal in the construction industry is to keep the guys in the field where the work is, and to be able to manage that work remotely.
Contact Volta to talk about Managed IT Support for your business.
Jeff Griffith is the General Manager of the Louisville Branch at Churchill McGee. He’s worked in the construction industry for 30 years, and at Churchill McGee for 4.