Sheet Metal & Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association

Construction Tech Trends: 2020 Year in Review and Predictions for 2021

IMG_4869_eric_tucker 400x600Here is a short look at the most important tech trends that came out of this volatile year and will continue to impact SMACNA contractors.

Cloud Is Now Standard
In the past, solutions necessary for managing the complexity involved in the sheet metal and AC business simply did not exist in a modern tech stack. Most of you grew up on desktop or server-based ERP systems, Nextel phones, and Excel spreadsheets — because that was all that was available.

Two factors have driven cloud adoption this year. The first is necessity. In March and April of 2020, we were forced to leave our job sites and offices overnight, and work needed to come with us. Installed software, just like whiteboards and file cabinets, does not travel well. Cloud solutions won.

The second factor, and necessary for wide-scale cloud adoption, was volume and availability of cloud-based solutions. Every operation can now be optimized with cloud solutions and mobile apps — from bid to fabrication to maintenance — is impressive.

Here are just a few:
•    Document storage: Egnyte and Dropbox
•    Labor resource planning: LaborChart
•    Service and maintenance: ServiceTrade, BuildOps
•    Tool tracking: Milwaukee One-Key and ToolWatch
•    Estimating and takeoff: Esticom, Stack, Accubid Anywhere
•    HR: Arcoro
•    ERP: Sage Intacct, Acumatica

Fabrication Management Software
Running an effective shop operation is an effort that involves logistics, skilled teams, and pure innovation. Firms that get it right are doing better for their customers, their employees, and their margins. As of 2020, modern software solutions are here to stay to enable this critical function.

MSuite, GTP Stratus, and Manufacton have been first to market and are gaining popularity among fabricating contractors. They are solving for spooling, labor tracking, delivery coordination, and even change management. With the growth of prefab, these solutions should be expected to expand their feature sets and more tightly integrate to serve other components of the operation, like project management and estimation.

Unprecedented Data and Insights
At the contractor level, the use of cloud solutions has allowed leaders to look across productivity data, project management information, and financial info at the click of a button. This has been particularly critical with distributed teams to keep entire organizations aware of the realities of the field.

The New Horizons Foundation and ELECTRI also launched their productivity research project this year by deploying a mobile application to participating contractors. The resulting data taught us about true impacts of COVID restrictions and how to mitigate against them. On the software side, Smartvid.io, Procore, and other software companies also publish aggregated data to the industry on safety and headcount fluctuations. As an industry, we saw the power of collaboration drive meaningful discussions during stressful periods of lockdown orders.

enter 2021
For most of 2021, we will still be in a COVID world. Your people will need every edge they can get to keep you profitable. Here are a few areas where you can expect innovation in the new year.

Alternative User Interfaces
When we think of software applications, we typically think of screens. In the pursuit of keeping teams focused on what they do best, navigating an app is often too slow.

Take Nyfty.ai, which allows users to run complex functions by giving voice commands. It also allows field teams to take health surveys via text message. This means project leaders can enable COVID-compliant crews without requiring apps installed on worker devices.

Smartbarrel has developed a sophisticated labor management solution. However, the interface they built for the field is a simple grey box that sits on site with a small light and a camera. On the back end, the system verifies a worker’s identity, confirms if they had proper PPE, and punches their timecard all in a matter of seconds.

Software Enabled Procurement
Procurement involves communication between the field, supplier, accounts payable and purchasing, and PMs. Meanwhile, project management systems, ERPs and supplier tech stacks all have to be maintained with consistent order statuses, invoices, and proper PO tracking. This is still widely accomplished in excel and manual entry. Several technology solutions are poised to revolutionize this process, from spec through delivery — opening up new areas for savings and efficiency in your supply chain.

All Departments Connected Through Software
Many of the 2020 cloud solutions mentioned above already integrate with one another. The number of connections and depth of integrations are increasing across the construction cloud ecosystem. This means different departments will be able to have the same information, allowing for trust, agility, and performance across operations.

Meanwhile, leaders will be able to enjoy insights from data aggregated across their systems. To capture this value, firms must continue to make technology a key pillar of their strategy in 2021. 

Eric Tucker leads technology partnerships for specialty contractors at Procore. He can be reached at eric.tucker@procore.com.

Reminders