RedBuilt Sheds SAP for the Cloud

Many of you are no doubt familiar with Trus Joist, I know I’ve specified its products many times to cut down on weight and to increase spans. In August 2009 its commercial division got a new name with its separation from Weyerhauser. Now called RedBuilt, it had a laundry list of needs that caused it to move to the cloud, not the least of which was lower cost. This is a one-page overview of what it wanted from the cloud and what the results were.  The star of this one is NetSuite, and while the case study is not very in-depth it will be especially beneficial to those who might be considering migrating from a SAP on-premise solution.  RedBuilt LLC case study

(This category is a service for those who are already here at the site and who want examples of how construction-related firms are using and have adopted cloud offerings. These case studies are provided by companies that sell cloud services. There is no intention to endorse any of the products or services and companies do not pay to have their case studies placed here. Some companies that provide case studies that are posted here may also buy advertising on this site. The case studies are provided for informational purposes and to supply balanced coverage of the topics.)

Spray-On Solar Power Material Makes Windows Power Generators

New Energy Technologies, Inc. researchers have developed a first-of-its-kind, spray-on technology able to transform everyday surfaces, such as windows, into energy-generating devices using both natural and artificial light sources, outperforming today’s commercial solar and thin-film technologies by as much as 10-fold under low-intensity irradiance. The company developed a working prototype of its SolarWindow™ technology in preparation for eventual full-scale production. Low production costs, improved manufacturability, and increased power performance are objectives researchers are now targeting. Key to these advances is the development of new methods and technologies for applying New Energy’s electricity-generating coatings to glass surfaces.

Electrical power is generated on glass when New Energy’s SolarWindow™ coatings are sprayed onto surfaces using commercially available equipment. This patent-pending process enables researchers to spray SolarWindow™ coatings onto glass at room temperature, eliminating expensive and often cumbersome high-temperature or high-vacuum production methods typically used by current solar manufacturers.

Until now, most solar modules have remained opaque with the prospect of creating a see-thru glass window capable of generating electricity limited by the use of metals and various expensive processes which block visibility and prevent light from passing through glass window surfaces.

Researchers are also working to bolster the electrical power output of SolarWindow™, generated from both natural sunlight and artificial sources such as fluorescent lighting typically installed inside commercial offices and incandescent bulbs inside residential homes. Unlike conventional solar technologies, New Energy’s SolarWindow™ generates electricity from both natural and artificial light sources, outperforming today’s commercial solar and thin-film technologies by as much as 10-fold under low-intensity irradiance.

Read the rest of the story here.

Construction Compliance Finds Home in the Cloud

Businesses in construction and related fields face a daunting list of items requiring compliance with regulations and standards. Requirements for compliance apply not only to building and fire codes, but also to safety, environment, labor laws, green house gas emissions and energy use. Requirements for compliance come not only from government entities, (including federal, state, county and local), but also from the owners, architects, engineers, partners and interested or invested parties such as insurance companies, banks and subcontractors.

A joint effort by the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency highlights how the federal government views the compliance landscape. The pair established the Construction Industry Compliance Assistance Center as a “source for plain language explanations of environmental rules for the construction industry.” Included in those pages is a Compliance Summary Tool where you can select a state, the type of construction and how the project might impact the environment. It then produces a page with a list of each environmental compliance item along with specific compliance steps and contact information.

It’s been common for contractors, architects and engineers to handle compliance in silos. So there’s a safety program with checklists and compliance requirements reminders, and there’s another one for storm water management and other environmental compliance issues. All the labor compliance items are handled under the HR processes and compliance on subcontractor insurances is dealt with in the accounting processes. If you move compliance tracking to the cloud there are providers who consolidate the tracking.

“Our technology is basically a $40 million relational database workflow management engine that the largest companies in the world use to automate compliance,” explains Larry Goldenhersh, CEO and founder of Enviance. “It automates the workflow of compliance including data capture and data management, whether you’re talking about core drilling, permit sign off or an overtime issue. We provide compliance workflow automation in the cloud, over the Internet.”

While there has been reluctance by construction firms to use the cloud for compliance management in the past, John (J.J.) Castner, business development executive with CMO Compliance sees more acceptance these days.

“We originally offered our construction audit, risk and compliance solution as cloud only,” Castner says. “However the industry pushed back and we had to provide an on premise solution as well. But that was a few years ago, and now the construction industry is more open to cloud solutions.”

He says the sensitivity of audit, risk and compliance data that his company’s solutions capture for construction clients, and other industries such as financial, aviation and food safety, means many clients may be reluctant to host such data off premise. However, as internet banking and other cloud based technologies are more widely adopted, the industry has been more receptive to cloud solutions for compliance.

Goldenhersh uses the example of Chevron, one of his company’s clients, to illustrate the kinds of complex compliance management tasks being handled in the cloud.

Chevron uses the Enviance system to manage the permitting for the construction of the largest liquid natural gas facility being built in the world today in Gorgon, Australia. Chevron also uses it for environmental compliance and permit compliance in the San Joaquin Valley in Central California where Chevron operates exploration and production activities in a 6,000 square mile area. Within that area Goldenhersh says Chevron manages 2,000 air permits and has 50,000 monthly compliance obligations. Thirty-thousand of those obligations are data capture, and more than 25,000 are tasks. Chevron also uses Enviance’s solution to automate the collection of the data, compare it against allowable ranges, and establish tasks that are required by statute, or by the company, to get things fixed. The system also handles all the reporting to local, state and federal authorities.

Both Enviance and CMO Compliance typically work with very large construction enterprises that operate globally and it’s exactly because of their global operations that companies like these turn to cloud solutions.

“Given that our construction audit, risk and compliance solution sits in the cloud, it can be accessed anytime, anywhere – and we now even provide support for iPads and iPhones, so information can easily be logged or reviewed onsite,” explains Castner. “ If you can make a phone call on your iPhone or PDA/Smartphone, you can do a construction site safety inspection on your iPhone or PDA/Smartphone using our cloud solution.”

Compliance also requires interaction with many different players on a given project, and they all need access to project data and have the ability to interact with it. Goldenhersh says the interoperability is transparent.

“Those involved in projects would want separate access and so we have a security system that allows the architect to have access to the system and the architect can see only what the architect is supposed to see,” explains Goldenhersh. “The contractor can also have its own subscription and do exactly what it wants, but all the data can be common in the system. It’s truly a collaboration platform because construction projects are not well executed in stove pipes. You have to have the architect and engineer talking to the contractor, and somewhere in there the construction manager too, otherwise everything hits the fan.”

Of course, the cloud depends on connectivity, so for projects out in the boonies where there is limited, low speed or nonexistent Internet access it’s not going to be a viable solution. But for those who have to manage modest to difficult compliance tracking and reconciliation where there is Internet service, doing so in the cloud can make the task timely, efficient, accurate, accessible, scalable and inexpensive.

CI Podcast for September 26, 2010: Fires, Oil and Railroads

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Welcome to the Construction Informer. The Podcast for September 26, 2010


Full Podcast Transcript (for those of you who still read)

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) released some interim guidance on using anti-freeze in residential fire sprinkler systems. Apparently, research has shown that glycerin and propylene glycol solutions might ignite when the sprinkler systems go off to put out a fire.

A report prepared by Code Consultants Inc., and published by The Fire Protection Research Foundation, outlined how two different test were performed and gave the results. One test type (Scope A) used six models of sprinklers at elevations of 8 feet and 20 feet “to investigate the potential for large-scale ignition of antifreeze sprays at pressures ranging from 10 psi to 150 psi. Scope B consisted of room fire tests, similar to UL 1626, that were designed to investigate the effective(ness) of sprinklers discharging antifreeze solutions, and their ability to maintain tenable conditions,” according to the report.

Scope A showed that solutions with more than 40 percent propylene glycol, and those with more than 50 percent glycerin can ignite when they are released from sprinklers. Apparently the deciding factors include the ignition source, sprinkler model, sprinkler elevation and the discharge pressure. Scope B tests showed concentrations of propylene glycol lower than 40 percent, and glycerin lower than 50 percent, performed like water. The report also suggested that solutions of diethylene glycol and ethylene glycol should be “limited unless testing is conducted to establish that they are appropriate for use in home fire sprinkler systems.”

For existing systems the NFPA advised “owners and contractors to take immediate steps to review the status of their existing residential sprinkler systems and take appropriate action.” Actions include investigating alternatives to antifreeze to keep pipes from freezing, like using pipe insulation. If there is no alternative then factory-mixed propylene glycol or glycerin solutions of less than 40 and 50 percent respectively should be considered, and in all cases the lowest concentration that will protect from freezing should be used. There is much more at the links in the transcript on the blog.

When it comes to fires, sometimes you just need to light a fire under your team but you can’t seem to efficiently get them all together for a meeting. Well, right now you can try GoToMeeting for free just by visiting GoToMeeting dot com slash podcast. Sometimes the personal touch is required to really drive home the point you are trying to make. And while it is fashionable to avoid using meetings sometimes they are necessary and beneficial. With everyone logged into GoToMeeting dot com, whether they’re across the country, or across town, they can see your computer desktop on their computer screen, regardless of the operating system they use. So why not try it out and set your team on fire the easy way. (Of course I’m talking figuratively there.) Try GoToMeeting free for 45 days by simply visiting Go To Meeting dot com slash podcast.

Well, T. Boone Pickens has jumped back into the oil debates by issuing a call for the U.S. to switch large portions of its transportation sector to natural gas to help get the country off the foreign oil spigot. Keep in mind that Pickens was bullish on alternative energy until last winter when the wind went out of the wind power sails, (that’s sails as in sails on boats), at least that’s according to Jeff Carter, a market commenter for several media outlets. And, Pickens admittedly has a large investment in natural gas through a company called Clean Energy Fuels, claimed to be the largest provider of vehicular natural gas in North America, according to text on a BP Capital Inc. Website. Pickens is CEO of BP Capital. So his rhetoric may well be slanted just a bit, and some have called him on that. But it’s most interesting what appears on the Website, because it evokes the fear of the looming oil crunch that many have been predicting, in order to advance a concept that is near and dear to the oilman’s heart. Here’s an excerpt:

“I’ve been an oilman my whole life, but this is one emergency we can’t drill our way out of.” His scribbling white board presentations, in which he outlined the impact of Peak Oil and the U.S. dependence on imports, became water cooler talk throughout the nation.

And so, only talk continues in the face of this looming reality, making it even more clear it is very hard to get people to accept change that requires them putting their own self interest a few steps behind that of the self-interest of the whole. Pickens’ outcry mirrors 48 percent of the American mindset that is so enamored with money that it has never found a way to view the world within a context that doesn’t include profits. Perhaps it’s time for some inspiration that doesn’t depend on money?

So the global economy continues to beat and we are seeing places where construction melds with agriculture. They are very dissimilar activities but if you follow the money you can see how they easily become bedfellows. Ethiopia has vast amounts of fertile land for growing crops, and agriculture accounts for about 84 percent of its GDP and 80 percent of its total employment, according to a reasonably well-sourced article at Wikipedia. The European Union and major food retailers are very interested in sourcing food from the area. China and India have been on a land-acquisition-spree across the globe because they realize their own land will not support their growing populations. Ethiopia needs cheap transportation for all the agricultural products. So, it is building a 3,100 mile railroad that will go from the capital of Addis Ababa to the outlying regions. At its peak 305,000 people will be laboring to build it but it will only cost $336 million per year. This gets into calculations with more than six zeros which my readily-accessible calculator doesn’t handle well, but it looks like each worker might make about $1800. That doesn’t take any other project expenses into account, so I think we must be looking at really cheap pick and shovel labor here. In May the project got a loan of more than $100 million from China. From my reading there are no U.S. companies involved. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Ethiopia is also on track to boost its power output by 10,000 MW. That’s more than a few billion dollars worth of construction. I can see the estimating pencils getting sharpened already.

And, that’s it for this edition of the Construction Informer podcast. Until the next time…build it well.

Hard Hat Colors Defy Logic And Standardization

On very large projects that have many workers on site at the same time, the owners of the project might decide what hard hat colors to use on the job. Other times the general contractor-in-charge will decide.

Most construction firms provide hard hats of various colors to their people and many also have hats available on site for visitors to use. These include bank officials, owner representatives and insurance and code inspectors. The hard hat colors are often assigned based on the work the person does.

Hard Hat Colors Denote Jobs

In many places white is used by managers, owners, inspectors and others who are visiting the site. Yellow is often assigned to the rank and file laborers and crafts people who are not supervisors. Red might be assigned to an individual who has advanced training in first aid or those who are in the electrical trades.

Companies will sometimes have stripes baked into multiple hard hats of the same color to denote specific trades or specialties. So a yellow hat with two stripes might identify a carpenter while one with three could be a mason. Others will add markings to the hard hats to distinguish new employees so they can be watched more closely to help protect them from accidents while they become acquainted with the hazards of a busy site.

Simple to Complex

Many companies use just one hard hat color and everyone wears it. Some companies will even attempt to assign value to the wearer of certain colored hats by making them gold, platinum or silver. Other companies may only require hard hats and not specify any particular color for any particular position or skill. In most cases however, hard hat colors are used to denote the function the person carries out, either in the company, or at the job site.

New versions of hard hats include those with built-in fans and sweat bands and pads to help the wearer stay more comfortable in hot weather. You can see and read about these right here. These hard hats come from the manufacturer either in the color ordered, or in one standard color. There is an earlier post about hard hats here that provides more information.

This information on hard hat colors is specific to the U.S. In other countries there may be more standardized colors to denote different functions, skills and trades.

New Rugged Laptop: Don’t You Just Want to Throw It?

Ultra Rugged Laptop
The ultra-rugged Algiz XRW notebook is a full featured performer that weighs only 1.5 kg (3.3 lb). (PRNewsFoto/Handheld Group)

Just when we thought laptops couldn’t get any tougher along comes The Handheld Group to demonstrate it just might be possible. The Algiz XRW is a rugged laptop sporting a 10.1-inch widescreen with sunlight-readable screen technology, and a 2 GHz Intel Atom processor. It has a 64 GB solid state disk and 2 GB of DDR2 RAM. The Algiz XRW runs the Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate operating system.

Here are the other specs the company provides:

The Algiz XRW comes standard with Bluetooth, WLAN and GPS as well as a built-in 2-megapixel autofocus camera that allows video conferencing in the field.

An optional 3G modem can provide high-speed GSM/UMTS/EVDO data transmission. The Algiz XRW is ready for Gobi(TM) 2000 technology – which means you’ll be able to work on your choice of wireless frequency anywhere in the world. And you can put in a full day’s work, with a 57.6 Wh battery that works for 8 hours on a single charge.

The company says the unit weighs three-and-a-third pounds (1.5 kilos), has keyboard and mouse-touchpad that are illuminated by two led lights and are fully sealed, and it carries an IP65 rating against sand, dust and water. It passes MIL-STD-810F ruggedness testing, including drop tests from almost 4 feet (1.2 meters), and it is comfortable in temperatures between -5.5 degrees F and 158 degrees F (-21 degreesC to 70 degreesC).

I’m not convinced the company has actually “redefined the world of rugged computing,” and there’s not much in the press release that explains just how it has done that. But with that observation aside, it does for me what all the other rugged laptops I’ve written about here and here do, and that’s create an insane desire to throw them against a brick wall and see what happens.

CI Construction Podcast for September 21, 2010

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Welcome to the Construction Informer the podcast for September 21st, 2010.

Full Transcript

It’s always cool to discover a way to make a building component do double duty. One example of this comes from recent research done by previous students of Daniel Stancil, a former Carnegie-Mellon professor who is now heading up the electrical and computer engineering department at North Carolina State University.

In the not-to-distant future HVAC techs might be installing radio equipment inside the ductwork, turning it into conduits for ultra-high frequencies (UHF) used by radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags. You often hear about these tags being used to track inventory and to travel with shipments of goods, but they can also be fitted with sensors that will monitor environmental conditions like temperature and humidity and send that information to a control device that might then turn on an air conditioning unit.

RFID tags that operate on UHF are hamstrung somewhat because they have to be placed within 33 feet of the device that will receive their signal. The researchers discovered that they can extend that distance to more than 98 feet if the signals are transmitted through HVAC ducts. This could be great for health and safety monitoring systems since it will eliminate all the wiring that is currently needed. Now, RFID tags could be smoke detectors, carbon monoxide monitors, and could also detect chemical, biological and radiological agents.

The ducts work well for these kinds of radio frequencies since it corrals the waves, keeping them from dispersing so the signal stays strong over a longer distance. There could be some potential limitations though. Storefront Backtalk published an article based on the press release from North Carolina State and one commenter suggested there could be limitations due to fire code technicalities for items installed inside plenums that would eliminate any plastic or fiberglass components. The commenter also noted the UHF system would have to be shut down for any HVAC maintenance to protect people from concentrated radio frequencies.

Well, just like those UHF radio waves that tend to disperse over large areas, construction workforces do the same thing, so it’s very difficult to get everybody together in one place for meetings. By its nature construction sends us all to the four winds. But there is a solution and it’s called Go-To-Meeting. Right now, listeners of this show can try GoToMeeting free for 45 days. Just visit GoToMeeting dot com slash podcast. I tried it for the first time a couple of years ago and found it to be straight forward, easy to use and very effective. For the AEC industries it’s especially powerful because of this document intensive world we operate in. You can share documents and plans, and you can even mark things up and give everyone updated copies, all right there online. So why not try it out and corral your team the easy way. Try GoToMeeting free for 45 days by simply visiting GoToMeeting dot com slash podcast.

Mikron, maker of extruded products, has just come out with MikronWood. They call it a “new hybrid composite window frame material, performs like no other material on the market.” Indeed the company says it has significantly better thermal performance than wood, fiberglass or hollow PVC. Unlike other materials like fiberglass, MikronWood does not require pre-drilling or mechanical joinery. It offers the ability to be milled and fabricates just like wood but is also bendable and weldable for watertight corner joinery. Because the frame is more energy efficient the company says it has gone through certified lab testing by the National Fenestration Rating Council and Mikron claims the results show the material as having better thermal performance than wood, fiberglass or hollow PVC. The frame is for a double slider, replacement window and by using this frame you don’t have to remove exterior stops when replacing old wood windows.

The company provides a 20-year warranty for dimensional performance. Well, I’m wondering two things. What happens when it burns, if it does, and what in the heck is dimensional performance? After an exhaustive search using a bunch of negative operators all I’ve found is a reference to it in relation to plastic injection molding. It would be better if companies would think very hard about what it is they are saying and then try to do it as precisely as possible.

Sure, based on my life experience and electro-mechanical ability I can assume it means something about how well the item maintains its shape. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg of next questions. So does it just refer to the frame deforming? If that’s the case it’s not much of a guarantee since it is fastened in place to framing. Anything similarly rigid, mounted similarly to windows mounted in a wooden frame would require some extraordinary stress to deform it…like a tornado, hurricane or earthquake. I know there’s probably some industry standards that tell all about just what dimensional performance means, but most people don’t have access to that information and most people really don’t want to spend their time finding out what it means so they can assess the value of a product. I’m not picking on Mikron here because really, this is done all the time by countless manufacturers. A claim is made that has absolutely no meaning to most anybody, and is used, in a way that implies it’s some kind of a benefit.

The finish on these window frames is also supposed to be tough since it is molecularly fused.

I got an email from Chase Gugenheim telling me about a Website called Construction Management This is a comprehensive list of construction management educational programs that is really comprehensive. Of course Chase acknowledges there may be omissions and at the bottom of the page you can make suggestions. It’s kind of an interesting story how this page came to be, and it IS just a one page site – a very long page at that. Chase was trying to find the right fit with a school to get a construction management degree, did loads of research and then put it all on the Website, on one page, right down to schools by state. Check it out sometime.

Finally, the depth of the greatest depression, this one we’re currently in, was made even more painfully clear in a survey done by CBIZ Tofias, an accounting and tax provider, ( well maybe they mean something other than that, they probably don’t provide taxes they’re probably tax accountants), anyway it seems they surveyed the architects in Boston and found this year’s profits are the lowest in 25 years. The company says the drop in profits started in late 2008. Some firms made things into an advantage by getting more efficient and improving their project management processes so they actually ended up with higher profits. It just goes to show there’s nothing like a great depression to increase productivity. Kind of makes you wonder what our economic system has in store for us next.

And, that’s it for this edition of the Construction Informer. Thanks for tuning in and until next time…build it well.

Bye, Bye Hardware, Hello SaaS Virtualization

Take all your servers and that rack of hard drives and give them to your local recycler. Cloud computing using SaaS means you don’t need them anymore. At least not if you choose to use SaaS virtualization technology in the public cloud. In the process you can get out of the information technology business and back into your construction, architecture or engineering business.

“The idea behind SaaS virtualization is you use the application in its native format but you do it remotely,” says R. Byron Attridge, Jr., executive vice president at ClubDrive Systems, Inc. You connect directly to a cloud server instead of using a Web browser to access the application. It’s just another form of SaaS and one that many are embracing because they want to get out of the IT business and back to their core construction, architecture or engineering businesses.

Beyond the cost savings of not having to maintain, power, cool and replace hardware, there are some performance improvements.

“When you are running applications on high performance servers you get a lot better performance than running them through a Web browser,” explains Attridge. “ If you have an old machine that is painfully slow and you’re running the application on a Web browser it’s going to run poorly. But, if you access the same application with the same old machine using virtualization technologies you’re not going to see any kind of performance degradation because it’s not running on the machine. The application is having to accept key strokes and mouse clicks but that kind of data can be highly compressed, and it isn’t resource intensive.”

Attridge also says that in most cases the data is secure since it never resides on the device you use, and you can use any device that is capable of connecting to the Internet. That includes smart phones, normal laptops and desktops and even thin clients.

Thin clients, sometimes called zero clients, are functional boxes that have no hard drive. When you turn them on, they connect to your cloud provider and render the application on the screen. Also equipped with USB and Ethernet ports they can be attached to many peripherals including a router for making the Internet connection. While thin client technology is robust and highly functional it is not without potential drawbacks.

There have been at least a couple of cases where thin client network security has been called into question. In one case in August of 2009, NCC Group based in Manchester, UK claimed it had uncovered serious concerns about thin client security. NCC is an IT consultancy. As reported by Tech Target in its Information Security News, NCC found five ways the units could be compromised. It tested units from Wyse, HP and VXL.

In its April 2010 white paper “Evaluating Thin Client Security in a Changing Threat Landscape,” Intel raised concerns related to thin clients and the centralization of data, although the same concerns also applied to PCs. Intel concluded that, “while the controls often associated with thin clients can contribute to a more secure environment, they would not have provided protection against recent zero-day attacks.”

While no technology is bulletproof AEC businesses adopting SaaS using virtualization technology can find some attractive subscription models that might make kicking the software-in-a-box habit look pretty good.

ClubDrive for example, maintains a service provider licensing agreement with Microsoft so it can resell the use of Microsoft products to its clients. Users simply log on and use whatever applications in the MSOffice suite they need at the time. The user pays a monthly fee to ClubDrive for using the software.

If you want to use your favorite estimating program but ClubDrive does not have a licensing agreement with that vendor then you continue to license the software while using it on ClubDrive’s servers. That eliminates software conflicts and maintenance, troubleshooting and the hardware maintenance you would normally have if you hosted it on your own equipment. Attridge says the cost varies greatly but for people who want core Microsoft products along with several other software packages a typical cost is $125 per user per month.

Perhaps the biggest reason to consider SaaS using a virtualization model is the migration it offers back to your core business.

“Nobody started a construction firm wanting to get into IT,” says Attridge. “You end up having to manage it because it provides you with tools that you need to have. However, at the same time you’re having to manage it more than you ever wanted to. With that in mind, we developed a service like this so businesses can get out of the IT business and back to their businesses.”