Information Technology Forecast for Construction

Engineering News Record, 12/28/2011, in an article by discusses the growing use of information technology in construction. Here are excerpts with my comments about what this means for building product manufacturers:
The new year will be the year of mobility... when the constraints on the flow of data into and out of the field, and the use of mobile devices to collect, share and present it, give way for good.
Almost everyone on construction jobsites carries a smart phone or other computerized device. This offers great new avenues for building product manufacturers to communicate with customers.
Watch for wireless networks, technology kiosks and pads, and tablets to sprout on more and more jobsites...
Your shop drawings, installation instructions, training videos, and other information has to be accessible.
The value chain has been joined from one end of the project delivery process to the other...
Consider the impact on your distribution strategy, sales management, and customer service.
...relatively inexpensive Tablet PCs running Android and the forthcoming Windows 8, challenge Apple's iPad and iPhone for business use in the field.  
Your field reps will have to be similarly equipped.
...independently created and relatively inexpensive apps will continue to compete with, and sometimes challenge the capabilities of more expensive, old-school, licensed software.
 "Independently created" means "provided by building product manufacturers." Move beyond providing materials to offering tools the contractor can use to run his or her business.
Three-dimensional printing of models and components will become commonly used tools. Imagineers will design, model, and print in 3-D to test and communicate ideas, and then build for real.
This will first happen in design offices. Some manufacturers use this for rapid prototyping of parts. In other cases, actual parts are now "printed."
The "Internet of Things" will grow exponentially and have a direct impact on design, engineering, construction and facilities management, as embedded sensors, cloud-based analysis and rapid data exchange turns our deaf, dumb and blind structures into introspective communicators. 
How will you build intelligence into your product? 
...expect the challenge of capturing, storing, sharing, managing, analyzing, interpreting and presenting the "big data"—that vast collection of information piling up as a product of all of that sensor data collection and analysis, to grow as well.
Intelligent machines are great at capturing, storing, sharing, and managing data, but human beings are still best for analyzing and interpreting a problem and presenting solutions. This means your sales reps must still earn the trust of customers.
In response, look for a drive to simplify data delivery through browser-based interfaces, neutral file formats and innovative visualization.
Don't leave this to your IT guy. Make sure your marketing communications team leads the charge.
In short, look for an exciting year ahead.
I agree.

iPad Apps

A year since its release, the iPad platform continues to gain broad appeal in the design and building product community.  That big, bright, highly portable screen is replacing both the clipboard and the laptop in many meetings and site visits. Businesses in all corners of industry and commerce have found it advantageous to create apps for the iPhone.

As an electronic catalogue, or purchasing device, its big screen can display architectural materials at a pleasant scale, and explain design problems and concepts with readily accessible illustrations.  The iPad-based catalog not only weighs nothing, so it can be carried anywhere, but it can go conceptually where a hardcopy catalog cannot: interactivity, video displays, and far more.

A thoughtfully designed app can be an effective means of interacting with your customers. We believe that developing such apps, is a great opportunity for building products marketers, and we are working with our clients to take advantage of it.

When tablets meet your website

Many companies are still working on designing a mobile version of their website, but the internet, being a creature that can never sleep or stand still, is already moving on. This time to tablets like Apple's iPad.

With the new technology comes a host of new formatting issues. In many cases your standard website (the "desktop version" as it is now being called), while slightly too big, will work just fine on a tablet; for other websites, or tablets with smaller screens, the mobile version is better, if slightly too small.

As Goldilocks discovered, though, "too big" and "too little" are different from "just right".

Putting a mobile-scale layout onto a tablet's larger screen tends to look ridiculous, as many app designers learned when they tried to export existing iPhone apps directly to the iPad. And using your desktop website might not work if it is designed to take advantage of larger screens, Flash, complex forms, or other hardware or software resources common to a desktop computer that may be lacking on a tablet.

ReadWriteWeb has a good checklist to help you test your existing website on a tablet from John Paul Titlow. First step, get a tablet to work with (in case you're still looking for an excuse). Then, go through these steps (and read the full article for further details):

  1. Test your site on a tablet
  2. Simplify the layout
  3. Ditch the Flash
  4. Check your form fields
  5. Make the user interface app-like
Tellingly, this list is very similar to the checklist for testing a mobile website. Or a desktop website, for that matter, substituting the various browsers for tablets and smartphones. In fact, a couple of these points are becoming standard best practices for all web design: Flash is no longer a good option for site navigation (use it for flavor only), and simpler layouts tend, in almost every case, to work better and make navigation easier. Or, as Titlow puts it: 
If simplicity is important in standard Web design, it's even more critical in designing for the iPad and similar devices. As a rule of thumb, strip out any elements of a page's layout that are not absolutely essential. Consider dropping that three-column layout for two columns. In many cases, cleaning up your site's design for the benefit of tablet browsers will have the added advantage of making the desktop browsing experience better.
Titlow recommends, resources permitting, creating a dedicated tablet-specific website. That's probably somewhat overkill, especially since tablet standards are still developing, and now describe devices ranging in size from "slightly bigger than an iPhone" to "slightly smaller than a laptop", with a wide variety of aspect ratios, browser combinations, and technical capabilities.

More likely your company will be fine making a few modifications to the existing website, and providing tablet-optimized versions of the resources your clients are most likely to need while away from their desks.

Gigabyte-Sized Photos add interest to website

A new digital photographic technique has exciting potential for building product presentations, websites, and social media.

Back in the days of film photography, I would take a dozen or more overlapping photos of a scenic panorama, then cut and paste individual snapshots together to show the entire vista. Software like Photoshop made the job easier as one could "stitch" images together digitally, even automatically. Recent advances take this a step further, making it simple to stitch together dozens of images. The composite files, which can contain gigabytes of information, capture an awesome amount of detail.

For example, this image of the most recent presidential inauguration is made up of 220 separate exposures. The composite image size is 59,783 X 24,658 pixels or 1,474 megapixels.

While an ordinary camera with a wide angle lens could capture the same view, it would not allow the viewer to zoom in to see details like the following:
When viewed online, one can see an amazing amount of visual information. In addition to the president, one can pan and zoom in to see thousands of individuals and details of Washington. For example, these architectural details are just below the dome of the Capitol:
If you have ever used Google Earth or the satellite or street views on Google Maps, you already know how powerful composite images can be. What is new is that an inexpensive device from Gigapan Systems now makes it possible for almost anybody with a digital camera to create gigabyte images that are easy to display and manipulate online. While the "pro" model costs $900, for only $300,
"the GigaPan Epic robotic camera mount makes it fun and easy to capture gigapixel panoramas with most compact digital cameras and works seamlessly with GigaPan Stitch software and Compact and lightweight, yet powerful and durable - the GigaPan EPIC is ideal for travel and adventure."

Scale: One of the challenges of architecture and engineering is to be able to move between scales. The architect needs to see an entire space or even an entire building within the context of its environment, but also has to understand how a doorknob or window detail fits into the the project. The structural engineer must understand how forces get distributed throughout an entire structure, but must also pay attention to individual joint and anchorage details.

GigaPan allows you to present your products in context. Beneath the overall composite, you can show thumbnails of interesting close-ups. When a thumbnail is clicked, the software zooms from the macro image to the indicated item.

A typical photograph will capture a viewer's attention for a fraction of a second. But a GigaPan invites a viewer to explore, increasing his or her time on your website page where other product-related messages can also be displayed.

Games and Contests:
This may be the ultimate "Where's Waldo" puzzle. A contest can encourage viewers to search an image to find your treasure or clues. Information about your product can be embedded throughout the image. Games like these can be especially attractive to a younger audience that grew up playing online games.

Technical and Quality Control Issues:
The stitching works not only with vast vistas, but also with micro photography. This opens many opportunities for use in technical presentations or for offering evidence of quality control.  Click here for micro images of insects.

Training and Presentations:
Complex products, machines, and systems can be made easier to understand when the viewer can move around and get in close to see parts of interest.

Social Media and Mobile Media:
These giga images can be inserted into websites or e-mail and used in other social media applications. They offer a way to display large images on a small mobile platform like an iPad or smart phone.

Search Engine Optimization:
Images can be posted at the GigaPan website and linked into Google Earth. Undoubtedly, other platforms will embrace the format and they will become integrated into video and photo sharing sites. These sites allow the use of tags and keywords that can help search engines and potential customers find you.

New Advertising and Publishing Format:
I can imagine giga photos as a type of online banner ad that allows one to zoom in or out to get more information. An entire catalog or magazine could be captured in a single giga image.

Final Thoughts:
I am sure I have just touched the surface what will emerge from this technology. Eventually you will be able to use systems like this to transmit real time images, and photos like this will be integrated into building information models (BIM) and virtual reality worlds.

I invite you to contact Chusid Associates to discuss how giga photos can be most useful in your marketing mix.
Here are links to a few architectural or construction images from the GigaPan website:
Burj Khalifa Tower
Burning Man Waffle Structure
Frank Gehry's Fred and Ginger Building
Leonardo Dialogo (nanotechnology art) - Interior
Union Station, Washington DC - Interior
Building after gutting by fire - forensic record

Another publisher of panoramic giga photos is at

Should you buy your friends?

In the lead-up to World of Concrete 2011, Wacker Neuson ran a fairly aggressive (and judging by their Twitter traffic, successful) campaign to increase their pool of Facebook friends. In short: they bribed them. This tactic can be very successful, but for most small to medium-sized manufacturers I recommend against it.

The plan was simple: take your picture at their booth, upload it to their Facebook page, and win (potentially) an iPad! There was also a related campaign encoura- ging Twitter users to retweet announce- ments about the contest, again by offering an iPad.

This is an impressively well designed cross-platform campaign; it was set to drive traffic to their Facebook page, Twitter stream, and World of Concrete booth; not bad for marketing synergy! The landing page is well designed; it is clear, clean, uncluttered, easy to read, and has prominent subscription and retweet buttons. I would go so far as to say that, in the B2B construction market, this is about the best you could do a campaign of this nature. (Also, check out their YouTube channel; this company really understands social media!)

Here's the problem: unless your company is the size of Wacker Neuson, you probably cannot afford to do this.

Start with the basics: can your company currently afford to buy several iPads just to give away? This tactic is the equivalent of making friends in school by throwing great parties; everyone will come for a free trip to Disneyland, but few will come for microwaved pizza and DVDs. Likewise, as the cost of the giveaway decreases, you see sharply diminishing returns on the campaign. iPads are cool enough and expensive enough that tons of people will jump through hoops to get one; substantially fewer people would take the effort for a $25 gift certificate. This makes finding an effective value-priced incentive extremely difficult.

More importantly, the friends this will make you are not friends you will keep. Like the school party, again, everyone will be your friend until the party is over. If that is the only reason they like you, though, you only keep them as long as you keep throwing parties. I guarantee Wacker Neuson will have a huge boost in Facebook followers during and immediately after the show, and I guarantee that, barring some amazing follow-up campaign, most of them will un-follow or go dormant within a month.

For a company like Wacker Neuson that is probably ok; their social media strategy seems based on TV marketing, meaning they want eyeballs and brand recognition, not an enduring, engaged community. And that brand recognition is probably all they need.

For most manufacturers, though, that is not enough. The construction industry is big enough and varied enough that almost every product is a niche product (granted, some have very large niches). Short-term engagement will not produce the long-term brand recognition that you need, because there are not enough people using your product often enough. For you, social media campaigns need to be about engagement and long-term relationship building, so when the day comes that they need your product, they remember your name.

As in real life, buying online friends is a great strategy if you can afford it. Most of us, though, make friends by being interesting, polite, helpful, and social. And that strategy will help just as much online.

Continuing Education on my iPod? Yes, please!

I love podcasts. Living in LA there's lots of time stuck in traffic, and podcasts become drivetime educational opportunities, which is why I am excited to see The Continuing Architect - an online continuing education course catalog from the publishers of Architectural Products - now offers streaming and downloads for iPad and other mobile devices.

There are a lot of online course catalogs for the A/E/C community; I haven't had enough experience with all of them to endorse the course quality, selection, or ease of use, but I predict The Continuing Architect's mobile-compatibility will be a winning edge. Or at least spur the others to introduce similar capabilities.

Tim Shea, publisher of Architectural Products, was telling me about The Continuing Architect's features when he came through town last month. Based on what he said, and my experience browsing around the site, this site is angling to be the most useful for marketers. Effort was made to make it as easy as possible to link to a course directly from your website (or a QR Code on your business card...) and the interface is clean and easy to navigate.

It's great to see this convergence of two trends - mobile computing and continuing education. It means architects get the content they need in the format they want. McGraw-Hill and AEC Daily currently have the biggest audience, but The Continuing Architect is an upstart worth watching!

iPad in Construction

Can iPad help your sales presentation? Here's one example:

Second, check out the Construction Equipment Owner's Blogs podcast "Construction Uses for the iPad".

I had the chance to view iPads in the wild, so to speak, recently and my opinions - both positive and negative - have been reinforced.

First the good.

At CONSTRUCT this Spring I saw one exhibitor using their iPad as part of the booth display. Mostly they showed videos and pictures of their product in the field. Was the video better than it would be on a desktop pc? No. But when he put the video into my hands, letting me view and control it, the impact was considerable. Most booths I would just walk past, catching the video out of the corner of my eye. In his booth I stayed to watch the entire clip, and then spent a few minutes playing around with his photo gallery.

Granted, that was as much about playing with the technology as about his product (ok, it was mostly about the technology), but this gets back to the concept of engagement; I spent 30 minutes playing with the iPad, but I was looking at his pictures, his videos, his product literature while I did it. That increases the amount of time eyeballs stay on your literature and builds a relationship with the brand. This effect may decrease as the novelty of the iPad (and slate or tablet computers in general) wears off, but transforming prospects into participants rather than viewers of your message will remain powerful.

A hotel I stayed at recently used iPads at the front desk for similar purpose. Instead of suggesting restaurants and scribbling directions on scrap paper, the concierge invited guests to "explore the neighborhood" themselves, pulling up restaurant reviews, showtimes, directions, and even booking tables. Again, the payoff was increased engagement with the guests; even if the actual utility and information gain remained the same - it didn't; it increased - the richer experience improved their perception of the interaction.

I believe this will be a very powerful feature for selling to architects. In addition to being very visual, architects tend to be very experiential. Giving them something they can manipulate - either a physical object or digital representation - will reach them more than static photography or videos. 

I also was struck again by the iPad's portability. It was smaller, but heavier than I expected. I would not hold it one-handed like I would a book I was reading. Still, its slim profile means it fits nicely into a briefcase, laptop bag, purse, or portfolio, making it incredibly convenient to carry it with me on sales calls.

Now the bad. The iPad has been called "the ideal device for multimedia consumption"; that title is both a compliment and a limitation. Its use has expanded to multimedia content creation, but it still seems somewhat limited to the "multimedia" part. Which means an iPad may be a wonderful addition to my gadget library, but it's just that; an addition. It will not replace anything I'm currently using.

I still need my camera (although I wouldn't be surprised if one gets put in the next generation), I still need my smartphone, and I still need my laptop. Granted, this could greatly reduce laptop usage, but Apple's insistence on maintaining a walled garden prevents some of the utility I need from my laptop as a business and productivity tool. Plus, for extended text writing (such as this blog post) I think I would need the wireless keyboard. And by the time I'm carrying the iPad, a keyboard, peripherals, and a power supply, I might as well be using my laptop.

In summary, I see great potential for the iPad as a new sales tool, but it will be an extension to your tool kit. This might change in future generations, and as competing tablet products reach the market, but for now the iPad remains a tool for the sales team and for personal entertainment.

How AT&T's limits on data use will impact A/E/C users

AT&T announced yesterday they are eliminating unlimited data plans, capping the "premium" plan at 2GB per month, with fees for additional gigabytes. Reports suggest Verison has a similar plan in the works. Some commentators are getting a bit melodramatic about this step, but there will be potentially serious impacts on the way we use mobile data, especially in an industry like construction where files tend to be large and graphic intensive.

In an interview Mike Collins, AT&T's senior VP of data and voice products, mobility and consumer products, explained the rationale behind this move. Sadly, despite all his nostalgic discussion of "The early days of wireless" and pro-tech, futuristic visions of "innovation", the company's motivations come down to this:
Overall this is a way to reallocate demand based on products and services that customers are willing to consume and pay for. It goes back to the phrase, what is something worth? It’s worth what someone is willing to pay you for it.
At a time when high data-use app development is soaring, smartphone adoption is increasing, and the best predictions suggest cell phones will become the primary mode of internet access globally within the next decade, AT&T redesigned their data plans based on last year's data usage.

Ok, maybe I'm a little upset. 

But what will this mean for the construction industry?

First of all, it will mean streamlined website development. Contractors in the field looking for product information won't want to pay for a big, fancy site to load. Additionally, successful manufacturers will offer mobile-optimized sites. Any large photos or documents will need two versions, normal and low-resolution, with the low-res version set as default. Hopefully your company is already doing this.

Secondly, it could chill the growing movement towards mobile CAD and BIM programs. Just yesterday I was listening to a podcast extolling the virtues of AutoCAD's iPad program. These will still be useful for working on local projects, but the cloud-based aspect of BIM could face limitations.

Basically, this will be a problem in the field -- which is usually where we need our smartphone data connections. WiFi connections will still provide unlimited usage, so using smartphones at your office, home, or Starbucks will be unaffected. But a lot of our work happens outside these locations, such as in clients' offices.

Will they be willing to share their wireless network so you can stream your presentation? Maybe; this might be the move that makes wireless data as much a public resource as the water fountain, restrooms, and coffee pot. That brings up a slew of privacy and liability issues, though. Maybe the government will finally get around to making WiFi a free public utility, but I wouldn't count on it.

Ironically, this may drive adoption of the WiFi-only iPad; or, as I call it, the affordable model. Originally I felt WiFi-only was too limiting on how I would use the iPad, but if data pricing continues along this trend then I have enough of an incentive to rely more on locally-stored files and WiFi hotspots.

How will this impact your smartphone adoption? Does it discourage iPad or social media campaigns?

DuPont's iPhone App

DuPont's iPhone app, mySurface, bills itself as a full catalog of "full-sized samples you can take anywhere you go". I would love to see an app like this with more augmented reality capabilities, but the app does a good job of taking you from color selection to sales rep in one easy package.

User reviews are largely positive; pay special attention to the users that claim they decided to use DuPont products because of the app:

I was always thinking of Corian a
nd now, after flipping through these Zodiaq selections I am thinking of doing the bathroom not just the kitchen!

...easy, smooth, simple process...good for business!
This app does what B2B smartphone apps should do: it makes it easy and attractive to use DuPont's products. I can only imagine that an iPad version would be even more effective, as the larger screen could allow larger sample photos and maybe even side-by-side comparisons.

iPad Apps: Channel to Reach Designers

The arrival of the Apple iPad on April 3 was followed, just 5 days later, by the arrival of the first BIM app for the iPad. Structural Engineering & Design reports that goBIM is the first iPad-compatible app to enable users to navigate models and review data tagged to model elements (such as materials, manufacturer information and volumetric information).

Apple's iPad has a large, bright, colorful screen that is likely to be very useful to design professionals.

This early entry of A/E tools to the iPad platform is, perhaps, an indication that the device will have broad appeal in the design community.  That big, bright, highly portable screen could be replacing both the clipboard and the laptop in many meetings and site visits.

Businesses in all corners of industry and commerce have found it advantageous to create apps for the iPhone.  Some of these apps are simply brand promoters, such as the brilliant sponsoring by Charmin toilet paper of a free app that locates public restrooms in the user’s immediate vicinity.  Some serve a function directly related to doing business, such as a dedicated insurance quote app for a particular insurance carrier’s agents.  Some serve as an electronic catalogue, or a purchasing device.  This last idea lends itself far better to the big-screen iPad, where it can display architectural materials at a pleasant scale, and explain design problems and concepts with readily accessible illustrations.  The iPad-based catalogue not only weighs nothing, so it can be carried anywhere, but it can go conceptually where a hardcopy catalogue cannot: interactivity, video displays, and far more.

Apps have powered the mushroom-like growth of the iPhone, and can be expected to have a big effect on the popularity of its larger sibling, the iPad.  The device will in all likelihood attract design professionals, which will attract developers to make apps for those designers to buy.  This means the device will probably be in their hands in large numbers by this time next year. Put the pieces together, and it suggests that iPad apps could be a golden road to the hearts and minds of architects and engineers.  

A thoughtfully designed app that is both useful and free will always be popular. We believe that developing such apps, to give away from promotional purposes, is a great opportunity for building products marketers, and we are working with our clients to take advantage of it.