Home builder uses wireless for construction schedules

A wireless handheld messaging application is saving dozens of phone calls and scheduling headaches each week for construction managers at Amberwood Homes Inc. in Phoenix.

The custom home builder recently completed a trial run of the setup using Palm VII wireless handheld computers and judged it successful enough to implement company-wide, Dan Johnson, a construction manager at Amberwood, said in an interview last week.

The application was developed by AirToolz Software in Scottsdale, Ariz., and relies on IBM Corp.’s WebSphere as the application server, officials at both companies said.

“With this system, we’re light years beyond using a paper notebook and a cell phone for scheduling construction work,” Johnson said. Paper and cell phones were in use just six months ago, when the wireless trial began.

After years as a construction manager wrangling with setting up dozens of inspections and subcontractors on a single home, Johnson said the wireless system “is the one I’ve been looking for.”

The system works because a single delay by one subcontractor can push back many other workers. If a plumber has the wrong parts or defective ones, it means the tile and carpet crews can’t start on the original schedule, and still other crews depend on them. Weather delays and inspection delays are also common. At minimum, that’s four or five phone calls and possibly as many as 20 that Johnson would need to make to reschedule work for a single delay.

Multiply that amount by the number of homes the company is working on and a supervisor might have to make many dozens of rescheduling calls per week.

The AirToolz system allows Johnson to update a schedule on his handheld, which is sent to a WebSphere server almost immediately. Faxes are then automatically delivered to all the other work crews. The system is also used to provide reminders each week to crews that are supposed to arrive on a job.

Although such notices could be sent wirelessly from the server, many construction crews need to receive the notice on paper, Johnson said.

Johnson said the system is inexpensive. Each Palm VII costs only US$200 with a rebate and connects to the Palm.Net wireless network, using Mobitex technology, for about US$50 per month per user. The application costs Amberwood US$200 per house.

“That pricing is not bad,” said Gartner Inc. analyst Bill Clark, adding that he is getting inquiries from many businesses on how to set up a wireless application connected to a wireless server. The benefits Johnson described “seem like a reasonable upside,” Clark added.

Amberwood hasn’t had enough time to do a complete return-on-investment analysis.

Another feature now being implemented by Amberwood allows written notes explaining delays or construction problems to be sent wirelessly using handwriting recognition or an onscreen keyboard. The system can also be used by Amberwood home buyers, who can quickly learn through an Amberwood agent the current status of their homes.

Johnson said the Palm.net network has more dead zones than some smart phones he has tried on other wireless networks, but the system’s unlimited usage pricing makes it worth having. He also doesn’t need or want a single device with voice and data, he said, since he constantly needs to talk and use the data function at the same time, easily burning up 5,000 minutes of voice cell time per month.

AirToolz is specializing in wireless applications for home builders and has several pilots underway with other builders, said David Dean, AirToolz marketing director. AirToolz chose IBM’s WebSphere for scalability and reliability and also because it works with many wireless devices, including Palm and smart phones. AirToolz also relies on the security features within WebSphere, he said.

Angus McIntyre, a product line manager at IBM, said WebSphere will support Pocket PC handhelds as well. WebSphere is in its third version since its introduction in late 2000, and development is through Java 2 Micro Edition. “The use of open middleware and integration to the back-end server is the IBM differentiator,” he said.

Clark said IBM’s WebSphere product is “becoming more real as a wireless application server in recent months.” Before, it was “a bunch of disparate pieces,” he said. The IBM marketers describe WebSphere as a comprehensive wireless solution, but Clark said it is hard to tell whether IBM or an integrator like AirToolz is putting in a lot of development and services effort to bring it all together.

There are “literally dozens” of little companies that are piecing together similar wireless Web applications, Clark said.

Big players that are developing wireless Web applications appear to be Sun Microsystems Inc., with its allegiance to Java, and Microsoft Inc., with custom tools and the .Net framework, he said.

“IBM tries to be all-encompassing,” Clark said.