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For builder, wireless app hits nail on the head

A construction firm says its Palm VII-based wireless messaging application from AirToolz helps it communicate problems to subcontractors more quickly, helping it save money and build homes faster.

Wireless technologies often give the biggest bang for the buck to industries that are not often tech savvy. For one homebuilder, that was certainly the case.

Amberwood Homes Inc., Arizona's largest custom homebuilder, faced the same problem homebuilders across the country do: Inevitable delays cause constant rescheduling of dozens of subcontractors, adding time and expense to the home building process.

Dan Johnson, project manger at Phoenix-based Amberwood, said that traditionally he went from construction site to construction site, examining progress and noting problems. Later, upon returning to his desk, he would update paperwork and inform subcontractors about any delays or repair work needed.

"That was not the best system," Johnson said. "I wanted to act on a problem the moment I noticed it. I could forget things if I waited until I got back [to] the trailer."

Through one of his co-workers, Johnson heard about an application from a Scottsdale, Ariz., wireless vendor, AirToolz Software LLC. Over the course of two years, AirToolz worked with Johnson and Amberwood to create an application that addresses real job site problems.

Johnson has deployed PalmVII PDAs to his four managers, who visit each construction site a number of times a day. When they find a problem, instead of jotting down the problem or making a cell phone call to a subcontractor, the application lets them send a memo to a subcontractor requesting that they to return to fix it or re-work their schedule.

All that communication is done on the job site at the moment that the problem is discovered.

Johnson has also found that the application works well for resolving more immediate problems. For example, he said, at his sites, workers are not allowed to park on the job site; they must park on the street, or face a possible $500 fine. But enforcing that rule often leads to bitter arguments between site managers and subcontractors, and multiple phone calls are sometimes needed to find a solution.

With the new application, Johnson can just send a memo to the offending company notifying them of the fine. He said that, within minutes, the offending truck is usually moved.

In addition, the application tracks and records the communication between Amberwood and its subcontractors, which can be very helpful in case of litigation, an increasing issue in the construction industry.

Though the construction industry is not known for its high-tech employees, Johnson said, training has not been overly burdensome. But he is amused by how his employees do and don't use their PDAs. Many simply use it for the application and are almost afraid to touch it for anything else, he said. Many don't even store phone numbers on the PDA, but go to their cell phone instead for numbers.

Johnson wanted to eliminate 95% of the 40 to 50 calls a supervisor makes in an average day. Right now, that number has been cut by 50%.

More important, the application has helped Amberwood build homes more quickly. AirToolz had hoped to shave 10% off the amount of time it takes Amberwood to build a home, said Thaddeus West, director of products management at AirToolz. Amberwood has seen even better returns, at times shaving 30 days off the average 90 to 120 days needed to complete a custom home.

The application has helped the entire home building process move much more smoothly, Johnson said.


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