• A Doster Construction employee utilizes an F5 tablet PC on the jobsite.

    Credit: Doster Construction

    A Doster Construction employee utilizes an F5 tablet PC on the jobsite.

Technology doesn’t always get smaller. When Doster Construction found job-site and general contractor applications for PDAs lacking late last year, the Birmingham, Ala.-based multifamily and commercial construction firm decided to upgrade to tablet PCs, and has seen such a seamless adoption among personnel and a sky’s-the-limit host of applications, that they’re already plugging the use of tablet technology in bids and meetings with developers across the Southeast.

“With the PDAs, we were basically limited to doing punch lists,” says Doster network support specialist CJ Rainer. “The functionality and software of today’s tablets mean we can basically do anything that we could do at a desktop PC: issue safety reports, access hotlist items, scheduling, plan review, anything you can think of. It really takes project management to a whole new level.”

After evaluating available tablet PCs (including the Panasonic Toughbook), Doster opted to roll out F5 tablets from Austin, Texas-based Motion Computing, which sees large-scale multifamily and commercial construction as one of its fastest-growing industry verticals.

“It’s an industry where the users are screaming for more power and more screen size,” says Motion Computing senior manager of corporate communications Mary Anne Gunn. “But the hardware needs to be lightweight, and it needs to be rugged.” Doster’s F5 tablets have a 10-inch screen, a stylus and drop-down menu user interface, are wireless card compatible, include a bar-code scanner and digital camera, and run Windows XP on Intel Core Duo processors. The tablet housing is drop-resistant and is completely sealed, which means contractors can clean the PCs with regular cleaning solvents.

Although Highlands Ranch, Colo.-based UDR has been focusing on consumer-centric mobile technologies (the REIT released its Pedestrian Apartment Navigation Search mobile app for T-Mobile Android phones on Sept. 15, with iPhone and Sprint app availability coming in October), the company’s development and operations team has begun attacking mobile hardware and application possibilities for on-site maintenance and service workers via both handheld devices and bar-code functional tablet PCs.

“We’re writing a mobile application for iPhone service request,” says UDR vice president of marketing Steve Taraborelli. “But we are also seriously looking at barcode technologies for parts and inventory management and also for the service request side of the business.”

Doster project manager for scheduling and quality control Bryan Love says the tablet PC rollout was relatively seamless and thinks the year of experience that Doster personnel and subcontractors have under their belt will serve them well as construction activity returns in 2010 and 2011.  “We switched out the laptops and PDAs one job site at a time, with about a two-month full conversion timeline,” Love says. “The first job site was close to headquarters, so we could get out on site and tweak things if necessary, and we also made sure we had tech-savvy people on site for the roll out.”

Not that you necessarily need to be tech-savvy with stylus-optimized hardware. Handwriting recognition software enables contractors to write notes, draw plans, and make calculations just like they would with a regular carpenter’s pencil, and inexpensive mobile projector capabilities may mean the death of the job site trailer office.

“I’ve been pretty impressed with the handwriting recognition,” Love says. “You can imagine some of the guys we have on site don’t have the best handwriting in the world, and it picks it up pretty well. With a portable projector, we envision being inside a building under construction where you have an 8 foot wall to beam out your plans, and everyone can be right there and looking at it as opposed to be cramped in a construction trailer. We really think the efficiencies and improvements from the technology are endless.”