Volume 48, Issue 4- April 2013


Intangible Tools
How the Cloud and Other Digital Technologies are Improving Construction Communications
by Megan Headley

The whole world is going digital these days, with little remaining concrete it seems. Where the construction of buildings collides with today’s new digital tools, glazing contractors are finding that work (and change orders) is becoming more efficient and precise.

Keeping an Eye on Progress
Among the digital tools where glazing contractors can get the biggest bang for their buck is the traditional webcam. No longer is this simple tool just for publicizing the day-by-day progress of big-name projects. “Site webcams are becoming quite commonplace,” says Brian O’Connell, senior project manager for Enclos in Los Angeles.

According to O’Connell, “Well over half of our current projects utilize webcams, and this trend is waxing. They are useful tools for our entire team, not only for the project managers, but for the engineering team, the shop, senior management and others. It’s a nice tool for them to see the progress of the building, since many of these team players don't get to visit the site often, if at all.”

Jim Mitchell, president of Gamma Windows and Walls Canada, says Gamma often uses these tools as well, although he points out that they are generally provided by the general contractor and/or the construction manager. “They’re very useful for tracking purposes, providing the webcam shows all elevations and the full height of the tower. That’s not always the case, depending on whether or not there are adjacent buildings that allow cameras to be installed,” he says.

Mic Patterson, Enclos’ director of strategic development, finds this to be the case as well. “It is common for the owner or build team to install the webcam for the use of all the subcontractors,” he says. “It has been rare that we have had to install a webcam for our own purposes, but we have done that in a few past instances.” In the case where the general contractor omits this handy documentation tool, the benefits seem too big to be overlooked by these glazing contractors.

And what are those benefits? For starters, O’Connell says, “We use the webcam to monitor the progress onsite. Prior to us mobilizing, we use the webcam to evaluate the concrete and work platforms’ progress, which needs to be at a certain floor before we can mobilize to begin our installation. It’s helpful to see where they are week by week for planning purposes. It is also helpful after we begin installation to remotely monitor our installation progress.”

He adds, “Some webcams give you the ability to select a date from the past to investigate the historical sequence of progress. This has been helpful in updating schedules and, in some cases, resolving disputes with the general contractor as to our progress or documenting occurrences that have impeded our progress.”

The precise documentation afforded by the webcam’s date selection feature is a benefit that Ed Zaucha, CEO of APG International in Glassboro, N.J., is not likely to overlook anytime soon. Zaucha shares a haunting example of just how this feature can pay off.

“As an example, on the Borgata tower that we finished a couple years ago, they had that fire that took place during the construction (see September 2009 USGlass, page 28),” he recalls. “It burned off an entire elevation of the building; that was gone. We then were working on behalf of the owner and the insurance company to get all the new materials made for reconstruction.”

As part of the reconstruction job, Zaucha put in a call to the glass supplier, Owatonna, Minn.-based Viracon, and asked then-senior vice president Brad Austin for a favor. As Zaucha recalls, “I said, ‘Are you near a computer?’ I gave him a link to the webcam and said ‘click over here, there’s a dropdown menu, go back to this day and click down to this time.’ He clicked on it. I said, ‘There it is, you see that beautiful wall that’s there?’ He said yes. I said, ‘Now click 15 minutes later.’ And it was all gone, it was burnt off. I said, ‘Brad, I need glass.’ He said, ‘That’s the most compelling argument anybody’s ever presented to me about a need for glass.’

“That’s the type of thing for which it’s very helpful,” Zaucha says of the webcam, a bit of an understatement for this particular dramatic case for this simple-to-use, minute-by-minute digital project documentation. “We could literally monitor activities: what’s being installed on jobs any hour, day, minute-by-minute if you wanted to [since] you can keep it live. We do monitor and can measure what’s been done in terms of installation.”

As if the benefits can be overlooked, O’Connell stresses: “They are helpful on every project.”

Tracking Those “Spare” Parts
In the field, some construction sites are looking to say no to theft in a new, digital way: by adding GPS tags to their tools.

Mitchell agrees that GPS tracking “could prove useful on large, spread out projects and for safekeeping of tools at the jobsite.”

“Our site operations guys are currently investigating GPS systems for tracking tools and equipment,” Patterson says.

GPS signals are best used to track an item to a distance of miles; radio frequency identification (RFID), however, can be used to precisely pinpoint material on a localized scale, making it useful in tracking down the specific puzzle piece needed to clad a building.

“Regarding RFID, I’ve done a lot of investigation on this because we actually fabricate all of the parts and pieces of the unitized wall in our shop,” Zaucha says. As he explains it, “There are active and passive RFID tags.” Passive tags require a scanner of some sort to read the information locked in their coding, whereas active tags are themselves putting out a signal that can be tracked. “It’s similar to how a lot of the big box distributors have requirements that all of their goods now have to come with passive RFID tags. They go through these wholesale chains where [their information is] immediately fed right in and it’s fully integrated. They know exactly what’s in every box, every bundle, how it’s been moved throughout the complex and then been broken down to be distributed to the various stores and the like,” Zaucha says.

APG had looked at employing RFID tags, “Since on a typical curtainwall on a major building, frequently the system will arrive in our shop in a knock-down state,” Zaucha says. “We have every part and piece there, then assemble and glaze it and unitize it for the project. It wouldn’t be unusual to have a project where you are receiving literally 100,000 to 200,000 parts and pieces.” The puzzle only gets more complicated when every piece is slightly different to accommodate, say, a curved design.

Zaucha explains, “We had looked at whether or not we could adapt it to our industry and the cost of passive RFID tags at the time was maybe $0.20 or $0.30 each. This sounds like a big number when you’re looking at 200,000 parts and pieces on a project, but overall it could save you [a lot of] time to pinpoint exactly where in your warehouse that part that you’re looking for is, because they’re continually being moved around as glaziers are assembling things. We thought that might be a cost savings overall, but the technology just really wasn’t developed enough for us to get to that point.”

While APG might take a second look at RFID as prices go down, Enclos is putting this technology to work in its curtainwall manufacturing facility currently going up in Richmond, Va. “As part of this effort, we are integrating RFID and GPS technology into our fabrication, assembly, delivery and installation processes. We are quite excited about this technology,” Patterson says.

Patterson explains that the benefits of digital tracking are bigger than ever on stick-built jobs where staging can’t be done in-house. “We do a lot of very big projects in the midst of high-density urban environments that require the delivery and installation of many thousands of large, prefabricated curtainwall units of many different types. There is typically little to no onsite storage available, and staging areas are equally challenging. We often have to deliver to the site on a just-in-time basis, lifting units right from the delivery trucks and setting them on the building. To feed site operations we may use an intermediate staging area between our manufacturing facility and the jobsite, as close to the site as practical. Logistics can become quite complex. The ability to identify and track units from their inception through this entire process will be greatly facilitated by the RFID and GPS technologies.”

To the Cloud Many
glazing contractors who are used to looking up at the sky as a building rises are now turning to the Cloud to keep things moving on time. Cloud computing essentially refers to the process of allowing individuals to move information seamlessly between different devices (such as the desktop and the smartphone, or the project manager’s laptop and the boss’ desktop) through a server, be it the Google or Apple Cloud or a company’s individual network. The benefit to the first two is that networking can be shared with other companies.

Mitchell says, “In addition to iPhones, Blackberry’s and digital cameras” (see apps article in the only online section of the digital issue) the company has been using “‘total station’ survey equipment, as well as laptops/desktops to view and keep all electronic files and/or drawings.” These tools are becoming more commonplace on jobsites as helpful electronic additions.

Not familiar with “total station?” Not to worry, as this is a tool with which many glazing contactors are now becoming more familiar, but one that has proven indispensable to subcontractors in the know.

“I was over at the BAU exhibition in Germany with a lot of people from the unions and other contractors, and one of the things that they’re focusing on right now is getting people trained in this process,” Zaucha says of the total station tools. “That’s an interesting product and the capability is there.” Total station is simply a surveying tool, but it is one that is becoming more commonplace in glass installations.

“We have someone that comes in frequently on projects for us and does what’s called a 3D Cloud survey,” Zaucha explains. “Basically what they do is they come out and set up [total station] camera equipment at various angles and they can survey an entire façade and pinpoint within 1-milimeter of accuracy where every little item is that you want surveyed as part of it.”

Just how does that help? Zaucha offers a few eye-opening examples.

“For instance, on the work we’re doing at the [World Trade Center] Tower One lobby on one project, they had already put in shear walls in the interior of the building there, in which they had placed all of these Halfen anchors everywhere. They had no rhyme or reason where they were placed, but the [contractor] knew they would need something so they literally just put an array of these things everywhere. Then, in addition to that, some of the forms actually broke, so it extended out in different places. So we had the Cloud survey done so we could pinpoint within 1-milimeter where every one of those Halfen anchors points were, and how far in and out the concrete was to which we needed to attach.”

He adds, “Our crew is up installing some work in the Tower One lobby there right now and the workers up there just can’t believe how accurate all the information is. [They know] exactly where everything is that they’re tying into.”

Not convinced? Zaucha offers another example. “We were brought onboard to do the work with the owner and the architect on the redesign of the Tower One podium. The contractor who was terminated had already begun installing clips and anchors on the building. When we were brought onboard I sat in a design meeting where they were talking about how one of the first things they’d have to do was burn off all the clips and anchors and everything because they had no idea where they were and didn’t know if they’d be useful to anyone. I explained to them that they could do a survey and pinpoint exactly where all those clips and anchors were and someone could utilize them to the extent they could and save some money since they were already installed.”

Zaucha adds, “That’s done a fair amount; I guess we’ve done it on almost every one of our projects over the last year.”

What can be particularly helpful is that once the data is pinpointed, it is converted right into a CAD drawing that can then be uploaded to rapidly show the entire team where the part in question is located. And that drawing can then, of course, be uploaded via the Cloud to any individual involved on that project.

While construction is anything but instantaneous, digital tools such as this one are making the process every day more efficient.

Megan Headley is special projects editor for USGlass magazine. She can be reached at mheadley@glass.com.

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