Building the bridge to better construction data

How modern technologies are leading to a data transformation for contractor

Matt Harris / February 29, 2020
A back-office worker on Viewpoint Analytics solution

A new decade means new opportunities for heavy highway and civil contractors. There has been a renewed emphasis on infrastructure and public works projects around the globe in the past few years. Despite some roadblocks—a comprehensive infrastructure bill in the U.S. potentially worth more than $1 trillion in new work has yet to see significant movement in Congress—more and more work is being approved in smaller batches at all levels of government. 

Globally, construction spending could reach $17.5 trillion by 2030, research and consultancy firm Frost & Sullivan noted recently. A Dodge Data & Analytics report that hints at an overall slowdown in U.S. construction still noted projected growth for public works projects. “Public works construction starts will move 4% higher in 2020 with growth continuing across all project types. By and large, recent federal appropriations have kept funding for public works construction either steady or slightly higher—translating into continued growth in environmental and transportation infrastructure starts,” the report noted. 

So, there should be plenty of work available for heavy highway and civil contractors in the near future. But there will also be plenty of competition—and more demanding goals and benchmarks to meet. 

Project owners and government agencies want higher quality projects, delivered on faster timelines. And, in the wake of many high-profile construction safety incidents and recent design flaws, they want better assurances that the jobs will be done right. In demand will be data-driven modern contractors that can project manage in real time, provide stronger collaboration vehicles across all project stakeholders, and deliver instant insights and actions on projects. 

Percentage of Contractors attributing importance to collecting different data types

Data-driven projects

Technology is empowering better means of collecting and analyzing project data to help transportation contractors work smarter, enjoy significantly higher levels of productivity, realize cost savings from mitigated risks and overhead reduction, and achieve greater profit margins. Comprehensive and correlated data is also helping contractors better scale their organizations, diversify their work, and build better, more ambitious projects. 

Recently, Dodge Data & Analytics and Viewpoint surveyed contractors on how data impacts their projects. The report, Improving Performance with Project Data, looked at how data was currently being collected, stored, analyzed, and used among contractors, as well as what the next few years might hold.

Some quick highlights:

  • 54% — Percentage of general and heavy highway contractors who viewed the ability to gather accurate data from the field as a top priority. Also of note: 42% of contractors said they needed prompt access to data from the field 
  • 93% — Percentage of general and heavy highway contractors that listed project performance data such as job cost and work in progress (WIP) as the most important type of data collected. Additionally, payroll and labor hours came in second with 76%, while productivity data placed third with 75%
  • 76% — Commercial software has the highest average satisfaction rate (76%) as a means forcontractors to gather crucial data from their projects. In fact, the report showed that commercial software excelled in all categories (timeliness of data, accuracy, level of detail, and ability to analyze across projects) over methods like paper forms, spreadsheets, and custom-designed software.
  • 78% — Still, while many contractors are moving further into automated systems, 78% of contractors are still using some mix of software automation and spreadsheets. And many contractors are still using other manual processes like paper forms and email for project collaboration. 
  • 59% — Percentage of contractors are still using manual processes to collect, track, and analyze safety data. Despite the recent spotlight on construction safety incidents and the industry’s push for safer jobsites, more than half of contractors are still relying on manual processes to collect and analyze safety data. Currently, 34% are still using spreadsheets and surprisingly, 25% are still using paper forms. However, those numbers are expected to change dramatically within the next three years. A whopping 79% of contractors surveyed are expected to switch to construction management software to securely track safety data.
  • 82% — General, heavy highway, and civil contractors have fully embraced the use of apps on mobile devices to capture field data, with 82% of firms surveyed reporting the use of these applications.

Electronic tools used to capture field data

Undergoing a data transformation

Many of today’s leading contractors have, or are in the process of, digitizing their operations. They are embracing integrated, cloud-based construction software platforms and technologies to streamline workflows and achieve real-time access to project data. The ability to work in real time means a much more connected construction operation, with data and collaborative communication flowing fluidly between the back office, the field, and the extended project team at all times. Contractors can see work as it is happening and make immediate adjustments when issues or productivity gaps are identified.  

The digital transformation replaces cumbersome manual processes with automated workflows and expanded collaboration through anywhere, anytime access to relevant data, ensuring all team members are working from the latest data at all times. 

The next step is a data transformation, leveraging these cloud solutions to implement emerging technologies that will change how construction data is collected, stored, analyzed, and used, transforming the very way construction operates. The combination of powerful analytics tools with cloud accessibility and mobile connectivity are fueling today’s construction data transformation, giving contractors greater insights into their projects and the tools to make smarter, real-time decisions.

Construction projects have always produced mountains of data, but few contractors have had the ability to effectively parse, segment, and analyze that data in a timely manner. Thanks to the cloud and integrated construction management platforms, however, those mountains of data can now be easily filtered through intuitive analytic and business intelligence tools—in some cases built directly into the construction management software platforms themselves. 

These tools can often accomplish in minutes what has traditionally taken weeks or even months to pull together through a variety of players that include back office staff, IT professionals, project managers, and executives. The best part is that contractors do not need a team of data scientists and hours of labor-intensive work to get to this level of insight. Virtually anyone can get the data relevant to them or their teams in just a few clicks of a mouse.

From automated, detailed reports that allow users to drill into underlying data for greater focus, to interactive dashboards and self-serve data queries, to drag-and-drop data comparisons to create virtually any data visualization imaginable, contractors can now work with deep levels of data instantly for on-the-spot metrics, without breaking a sweat. Powerful, cloud-based software with integrated data intelligence are doing the heavy lifting

For heavy and civil contractors, the list of benefits to this expanded data intelligence includes: 

  • Spotting potential financial shortfalls on projects and getting ahead of billing issues;
  • Identifying and addressing workflow or productivity lags
  • The ability to make more informed decisions on equipment usage, maintenance, and replacement in the field
  • Mitigating project risks like safety issues or design and build errors before they occur, saving projects from costly rework. 

This means projects are more productive, cost less, and are more profitable. 

Project data most important to contractors

The predictive analytic approach

Beyond improving contractors’ everyday project performance, BI and analytic tools open the door to new possibilities. Many are already using BI solutions to forecast future work and develop predictive models of future projects. Using advanced algorithms, these solutions can find previously unknown data relationships to help guide future business decisions. 

It is not unlike having the ability to run an advanced simulation to show how both projects and cash flow will look if workflows, costs, productivity rates, and more stay at current levels or if they are improved. And predictive analytic tools can also help identify where gaps or shortcomings might exist, allowing contractors to better plan ahead, ultimately producing more efficient, higher-quality projects—and ultimately win more work.

One example of this is getting out ahead of an issue like profit fade. Long a challenge within the construction industry as a whole, data analytic models can compare current and historical cash flow data with other data like equipment usage metrics, labor and material costs, and productivity metrics, contractors can predict if there will be profit fade on projects ahead of time, allowing contractors to mitigate and possibly reverse trends. 

Other applications of data analytics include integration and comparison with industry benchmarks and using algorithms and data trends to establish new benchmarks for contractors. This lets them see where they are outperforming or underperforming industry standards and make adjustments. This will be a vital measurement for helping determine business focus, areas of expansion and diversification, and much more. 

Advanced data is also powering the next wave of construction technologies like robotics and process automation, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence/machine learning. Advanced data and predictive modeling techniques are already being applied to technologies like wearable devices that allow users to visualize entire project models and data while standing on the jobsite. Data is driving technologies like robotics and 3-D printing, helping reduce overhead costs and create safer building environments. 

And, smarter data is helping machinery operate without a constant human companion. Imagine a heavy paver being programmed to pave an entire stretch of roadway, with the ability to turn, recognize obstacles and site lines, know where job progress lies and where to stop, when to restart, and much more, without the aid of human involvement.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. As technologies continue to advance, data will continue to be harnessed in new ways, and the contractors that have the technology in place to easily scale for these innovations will be poised to streamline construction productivity, increase profitability, and expand possibilities.

Contractors' Top Needs to advance data collections & analysis over three years

About the Author

Harris is Chief Product and Strategy Officer at Portland, Oregon-based Viewpoint.

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