Huge construction firm uses iPads and Apple TV to save millions

construction workers
Credit: Balfour Beatty

Shortly after the global construction giant Balfour Beatty got the multibillion-dollar contract to rebuild two terminals at Dallas-Forth Worth airport, the company discovered an unpleasant surprise: the architectural and planning documents were expected to run to 60,000 pages.

"We kept thinking, that's got to be off by an order of magnitude here," says Jeff Pistor, a senior project manager for the company's U.S. central region. But it turns out that the redesign cut across lots of systems, from communications to security to concessions, all of which required reams of graphical plans known as reprographics.

"We came to the conclusion that trying to run this project on paper would be problematic -- or we'd need to hire much bigger superintendents to carry the paper around."

It was time to go digital. Pistor arranged to buy about 50 iPads for the superintendents in the field, and chose Egnyte's back-end system for storing and managing all the digital documents in digital form. The main reason he chose Egnyte was because it offers a hybrid on-premise/cloud solution called the Enterprise Local Cloud (ELC), which allowed Pistor to save network bandwidth -- a big consideration as many of these graphic drawings are 100MB or larger. In addition, airports have strict security requirements, and at the time Egnyte had the most granular user-access controls of the cloud products Pistor tested.

The system is centered on a PC in a work trailer with a wired connection to the Internet. Managers use that computer to make major changes to plans using a PDF-editing program from Bluebeam, or to upload new files. This data is synced back to Egnyte's cloud over the fast wired connection. Then, workers in the field can use the iPads and a Wi-Fi connection to get the latest, most up-to-date versions of relevant plans from Egnyte's cloud. They can also mark up plans and take photos of the work site.

Along with the iPads, Pistor set up two digital plan tables on the site. Normal plan tables consist of a big angled slab where workers gather around to consult architectural plans on paper. These digital plan tables include a pair of 55-inch monitors connected to a PC that's wired to the local network, as well as an Apple TV box. Workers can walk up to the table, connect their iPads wirelessly through the Apple TV to the monitor, and discuss what they're looking at on the big monitors. 

Credit: Balfour Beatty
A digital plan table lets workers collaborate by connecting their iPads wirelessly to a pair of 55-inch monitors via Apple TV.

The company is now about two and a half years into the seven-year project, and Pistor estimates they've already saved $1.2 million just by eliminating paper -- even as the number of plans required has doubled. "In a paper-based system, we'd be doubling our costs on reprographics. In this case, my cost center hasn't increased one dime." A spokesperson for Dallas Fort Worth airport says that the total savings on documents across the whole project will be more than $5 million.

Plus, since installing the system, there hasn't been a single mistake from contractors using outdated plans, which is a fairly common occurrence on construction sites. "No rework, that's huge in our world," says Pistor.

But perhaps more important, the new system saves superintendents time and hassle. Before this, if contractor asked a superintendent a question that he didn't know how to answer, the superintendent would have to go back to the trailer, find the answer on the paper plans, then find the contractor and explain the answer. On a big job site like an airport, that could take an hour or more. 

"Now if a subcontractor stops me, I go 'hang on,' pull my iPad out of my bag, answer the question, and in five minutes I'm back to what I was doing," says Pistor.

The superintendents like the new iPads so much, they're treating them with extra care -- only two have suffered broken screens. (And if that seems high, remember this is a busy construction site -- they're not sitting at home on couches.) "If guys weren't really using them, if they were secondary, they'd get beat up. They're taking care of them. These are their tools."

The project has been successful enough that similar projects are cropping up throughout the company. The Dallas Fort Worth airport is enormous, but even on a $500,000 project, it makes financial sense to switch from paper to iPads. Some managers on smaller projects worried that they couldn't get the client to cover the cost of an iPad. 

Pistor counters, "We come back, what's the reprographic costs on this project? $10,000. You just paid for how many iPads? It becomes a non-issue when you really start looking at it."

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