The applications of wireless technologies in construction are as wide as the variety of building project types. Projects range from refitting and remodelling of existing buildings to huge public infrastructure projects spread over large areas such as the building of London’s Olympic village.
In addition, all projects involve many different trades, which have a raft of specific requirements ranging from the supply chain, to health and safety, remote workers communicating with head office and tracking of plant, materials and equipment.
‘As the construction industry is very broad, it’s difficult to generalise about trends or themes in the use of wireless technology right across the board,’ says Jason Scott of Balfour Beatty Ground Engineering and construction chair of industry organisation COMIT (Construction Opportunities for Mobile IT).
‘There are literally thousands of different trades involved in construction. Contractors range from companies such as ourselves who are at present very early on in the process, digging holes and pouring concrete to form foundations in an unstructured environment with little or no infrastructure, to those such as the mechanical and electrical contractors who will be installing services in a nearly completed building.’
Balfour Beatty Ground Engineering is a specialist foundations contractor and is therefore involved in the very early stages of construction. The company is among the first contractors on site, where, whether it is brownfield or greenfield, there may be no fixed communication lines for several weeks or often the full duration of a contract. It is therefore often dependent on wireless technology for voice calls and data transfer.
Balfour Beatty has been a customer of cellular provider Orange for 15 years and the operator runs the majority of the Balfour Beatty Ground Engineering group’s mobile fleet.
Graham McLean, MD of CI-NET, which specialises in providing both fixed and wireless connectivity and services to the construction industry, sees the flexibility and speed of deployment of wireless technologies as a key advantage for construction companies.
‘Wireless in construction is a means to provide rapid site deployment,’ he says. ‘Typically, a construction company will bid for a contract and won’t want to spend any money until they know they’ve won, so, in theory, there will be no warning of where they’re working until they’ve won the business.
However, the day they’ve won the project, they want someone on site tomorrow. That obviously means no leased line or DSL connection, so we’ll deploy an extension via a wireless link to their network before moving to fibre or copper as the site ramps up. At the start of a project, there will be a small number of workers on site so, depending on the site and the project requirements, we use wireless as an interim solution to get things up and running rapidly. Fibre does take 60 working days to get delivered, so wireless addresses the crucial first few weeks.’
However, McLean points out that rapid start isn’t the only advantage or application that wireless technology brings to construction sites. ‘It is also used on construction sites that cover a large area,’ he says.
‘Our current flagship project is a large project in east London that involves more than 40 Portakabin units around the site and is a very hostile environment. Different contractors are building roads, clearing soil and putting in foundations, everything is being dug up so wired connections present an obvious problem.
'We ran in a [wired] gigabit backbone and spurred off to various Portakabins using wireless. That solved two problems; the hostile nature of the site to cables and the fact that the Portakabins are not always static. They get moved for tarmac surfacing reasons, for example, and therefore a fixed line is not viable. Wireless gives that flexibility – if you wired in the Portakabins you would have to redig and extend the cables every time they move.’
Dmitry Okorokov, chief operating officer at InfiNet Wireless, says both those attributes make wireless a first choice for construction project deployments and often it is the only choice. ‘One of the key requirements is speed of deployment and ability to provide wide coverage on site - when it comes to Wi-Fi,’ he says.
‘Cabling can be very inconvenient at construction sites because, as the construction project progresses, cables have to be redeployed. Moreover, cabling can interfere with the construction process. Therefore, wireless becomes a top choice for communication technology.’
To illustrate the scope and variety of construction networking projects, McLean describes how CI-Net is involved in a long-term construction project with Thames Water.
‘In contrast to the east London site, our projects up and down the Thames are long, narrow projects, and are also suited to wireless communications. We also were involved at the Buncefield oil depot in the aftermath of the explosion there. In a sense, it became a building site so we built a Red Kite, our leased lines in the sky brand, node to get people up and running very quickly. The antennae could be moved on site so the solution was very flexible.’
McLean also points out that the economics of wireless also stack up since equipment installed on each site can be moved, not just to address the changes that project progress necessitates but also on to the next project when a building is completed. That makes economic sense for the construction companies because their wireless equipment investments are re-usable and the equipment itself becomes familiar to use.
Speaking in his role at COMIT, which aims to help its members realise benefits from the use of mobile information and communication technologies (ICT), Scott thinks the construction industry gets bad press when it comes to its use of technology to improve operations. The organisation takes proven technologies and applies them to the construction environment and aims to redress the imbalance in how the industry is perceived.
‘The industry has probably been slower than other areas, like manufacturing, at implementing technology that allows for data capture to get processes under control. That’s probably due in part to the fact that it’s difficult to prove the cost savings and efficiencies to be gained upfront from implementing such technology,’ he says.
‘The other problem has always been the lack of infrastructure and, very importantly and often overlooked, the changing and generally unstructured nature of the environment on a construction site. Construction has been compared unfavourably to manufacturing in respect of its process control, but few manufacturing data systems have to contend with spoil heaps appearing in the middle of their production facilities or other manufacturers sharing their workspace.’
That is a key reason why wireless is so applicable to construction projects. ‘One major benefit with wireless technology is that it allows a communications infrastructure to be created in just such an unstructured environment,’ adds Scott, who thinks the construction process is becoming more structured, thanks in part to the functionality wireless technologies are bringing on site.
‘[Wireless] is starting to change things in construction with increasing use of manufacturing-style process control. With the advent of rugged hand-held PCs and PDAs and software platforms like Windows Mobile, the cost of developing bespoke process-specific systems has also tumbled, further encouraging the