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Tech, GP

January 14, 2012

Visit a construction site and you'll probably find an iPad

It was just about two years ago now, that the iPad came out, and I wrote a column about it. At that time, I went out on a limb and said that I thought it was a product that would fill certain niches very well, but that it wasn't very likely to fill in for what is normally considered a computer.

After all, it lacked a keyboard, so I knew it wouldn't be very successful at many things that we usually do on computers. I figured that if it was going to be successful, its success would arise from doing new things, things that we weren't even thinking about.

Well, I'm not much of a gambler, but I should have bet on that idea. I would have won.

Two years later, and it is, indeed, successful, and yes, it's doing things that we didn't think about back then.

I have several clients who are using them now, and are pretty pleased with them. Although I'm sure the iPad has found many different niches, it happens that all my clients who use them are in the construction business.

That's something I would never have guessed would happen. The construction business is not what leaps to mind when you're talking about leading-edge technology. What does comes to mind are guys getting dirty doing heavy duty work, such as running bulldozers, driving dump trucks, pulling wire and working with hammers and saws.

In reality, though, technology is playing a bigger and bigger part in the construction business. You wouldn't think of it, but almost all new buildings are first built on a computer, way before being built at the construction site.

Powerful computers are used by engineers and architects to design buildings, including all the facets of construction, from digging the hole to where to run the pipes and wires.

After the building is designed, you can take a walk around in it and see what it looks like before the first shovel even breaks ground. Courtesy, of course, of a computer program with 3-D virtualization capabilities.

At that point, the computer files with the designs can be sent out to contractors. The contractor can use different software that will take the design file and suck it into a program that analyzes everything about the building, and figures out how much it will cost to build. This would be what they call an estimating program.

You'd be amazed just how quickly a contractor can come up with an accurate cost figure for even a very complex project. I know I am.

Once the actual construction work begins, you'll see the progress planned and tracked in project management software, especially at larger construction companies.

If you go to the job site, you'll see workmen using lasers, the smartphones will be everywhere, laptops have homes in all the job trailers, and now, even the occasional iPad.

They are becoming the preferred method of reading email, as they are larger than a smartphone and therefore it's easier to read messages on them and for large, strong hands and fingers to hit the right keys.

They're especially good for email that comes from the home office and doesn't require a long-winded reply.

I have one client who has even integrated the iPad into the accounting system.

You may not realize it, but wage rates in the construction business can be very complex, with different rates for operating different kinds of equipment, prevailing wage rates for government jobs, and more.

At this company, the job site supervisors can enter the hours their employees work at different kinds of tasks into their iPad. The data then goes over the Internet to a server at the home office, and after being reviewed, transfers right into the accounting system for complex record keeping and payroll. Saves a lot of accounting work.

So, if you're a techie like me, the next time you see a big construction job, don't think just of the hard, dirty work going on. Take a minute to appreciate all the high tech stuff that's also working pretty much unseen in the background.

There may even be a couple of those new-fangled iPads there, filling its niche.

Bruce Endries is former systems manager at The Daily Star. He can be reached by e-mail at techgp@thedailystar.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/techgp.

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