Construction Turns to Tablets for Efficiency

Devices Replacing Traditional Paper Plans on Job Sites, Save Money and Time

Photo of a Caltrans worker holding a tablet at a job site
Ariel Mendoza, a Caltrans transportation engineer who works out of Lodi, checks project details on his Department-issued tablet at a job site this summer. About 1,000 field tablets have been distributed to engineers as a way to keep projects on schedule, save money and enhance safety.

Concrete, steel and asphalt endure as irreplaceable components of road and bridge projects, but paper — used for plans, specifications, procedural manuals, forms and the like — is being phased out in Caltrans’ Division of Construction.

Caltrans distributed about 1,000 tablets to its field engineers in 2017-18, which means about half of the total field workforce is equipped with that form of digital technology. Staff in the field use the tablets to access contract documents and Caltrans manuals, enter information, conduct research, and email interested parties. The devices cut costs, save time and, because they can reduce the need for trips between the office and work sites, lower environmental impact and state vehicles’ exposure to vehicular accidents.

A recent survey noted that each tablet used by the Division of Construction resulted in an average reduction of 4.4 trips per week between the field office and job site. That translates to an annual travel savings of $2.1 million. Another $350,000 is saved annually by each tablet user printing an average of 7,100 fewer pages. Subtract the devices’ $1,100-per-unit purchase and servicing expenses, and the annual savings of having 1,000 tablets in the field adds up to nearly $1.5 million.

Once the division provides all 2,000 of its field engineers with tablets, the annual savings could rise to $3 million. As users become more proficient using tablets to gather and access information in the field, those savings might increase even more.

Field tablet users who can call up documents remotely and enter data at the job site — in other words, perform more of their duties at the source than they could before — are making better use of their time than by physically having to retrieve documents, retype data or fill out forms in their office. A project’s plans, manuals on how to perform the work, and contract specifications are examples of pertinent information that can be preloaded on a mobile device.

Field engineers who work on a tablet can answer contractors’ questions quickly, at the job site, rather than going through a prolonged, fragmented exchange. That capability helps projects run smoothly, helping keep work on schedule and under budget.

Tablets also cut down on stacks of paperwork. Every four years, Caltrans updates and prints thousands of copies of its multivolume contract standard specifications. Revisions to these publications are made twice a year, adding to their bulk, making it more difficult to navigate and even more inconvenient to lug around or grab copies off the shelf. Field engineers often must look in multiple places to find the latest information, which eats up time and can ratchet up annoyance.

The final print version of these specifications was released in 2018. Digital versions have taken their place and will now be issued annually, perhaps as often as every six months. Digital revisions to the specifications can now be immediately incorporated in the appropriate sections.

Print reductions also are envisioned for projects’ sets of plans, which now can consist of up to 2,000 sheets of drawings on 11-by-17-inch paper. Tablets’ zoom function can make drawing details easy to read — no dime-store readers or magnifying glasses required.

While the benefits of accessing contract documents in a digital format on tablets has shown immediate results, fully incorporating these devices as a digital platform in our work environment has proved challenging. Caltrans’ information technology (IT) team has been instrumental in working closely with the Division of Construction to provide support, address technical challenges, and expand the functionality of these mobile workforce tools.

Loading information (including photographs) onto tablets at a job site is straightforward and a definite step toward greater efficiency. However, should a tablet break or be misplaced, any new or stored data would be at risk unless it has been transmitted to a central repository. The IT team is looking into cloud storage and is zeroing in on a solution.

To access the internet, enable email, and report time, some field tablets have been loaded with a cellular card to allow for direct connectivity. (Decisions about whether tablets have cellular capabilities are made at the regional or district level.) The costs involved with connecting in such a way are minimal compared with the cost of employees going back and forth to the office, or trying to figure out the technology to connect via a cell phone.

According to the survey released earlier this year, about one-third of the field tablets had a cellular plan subscription, another third employed tethering to a cell phone, and the rest relied on the office WiFi to connect to the internet.

The survey also polled participants on how quickly they are adapting to the technology. Nearly half said that after three months of experience, they had attained a comfort level with the tablets and felt capable of training colleagues on their use.

Local user groups have proved to be a solid resource, with District 8 and the Central Regions’ groups being good examples. Caltrans headquarters offers an electronic forum where staff members ask questions — not just about the tablets, but any construction issue. A link is provided on the desktop of the tablets, as is a link to get downloads of manuals.

Source: John Hancock, Office Chief for Performance and Innovation, Caltrans Division of Construction

Pilot Program’s Clear Success Paved Way for Big Commitment

In a pilot program conducted in 2015 and 2016, the Division of Construction deployed field tablets on eight project contracts of varying types and complexity. The costs of the projects ranged from $800,000 to $632 million.

The pilot program was deemed such a success in terms of work-pace efficiency that the purchase and deployment of 1,000 more tablets soon followed.

The pilot also addressed how tablets might reduce Caltrans’ environmental footprint. It was judged that universal use of the devices could reduce annual greenhouse gas production by more than 2.9 million pounds (related to vehicle use and paper production), eliminate 1.2 million gallons of waste water (paper production), and reduce paper usage by approximately 12.6 million sheets.

The changeover to tablets in the field supports Caltrans’ goals of sustainability and system efficiency as part of its 2015-2020 Strategic Management Plan.