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The Deployment of WLAN (WI-FI) on Open Area Construction Projects

Introduction

The economic value of the construction industry is significant and the industry contributes up to 10% of the annual GDP for most nations (Michael 2005, p.2). The industry encompasses the use of many other complementary industries such as electrical, mining, steel and transportation to name but a few. This involvement of multiple industries suggests that the construction industry’s success or failure can reflect on a number of other industries. Despite the clearly vital role of construction as an economic entity, the industry continues to be affected by inefficiencies which mostly spring from a lack of communication between the relevant parties involved especially in the field setting (Best & De Valence 2002, p.111). This is because the success of projects in the construction scenario hinges on the availability of information to the necessary personnel when they need it. Bowden et. al (as cited by Deibert Hemmer & Heinzl 2009, p.1) assert that automating information capturing and access by use of mobile technology greatly enhances performance in such settings.

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Considering the significance that information systems can have in the construction industry, it would be prudent to look into the ways in which these systems can be exploited for optimal benefit. Wireless communications technology implementation provides the best means for dealing with inefficient communication systems. This paper sets out to illustrate that implementation of mobile communication technologies in the construction industry is not only technologically and economically feasible but also the most cost effective manner in which construction companies can best utilize their IT resources in the field setting thereby leading to optimal results. This paper shall delve into the various hardware and software required to achieve a functional network. A case study shall also be looked into so as to shed light on the merits and demerits associated with this WLAN implementation.

Communication Development

Martinez and Scherer (2006, p.1) declare that the construction industry is communication dependent and the absence of efficient and accurate information exchanges leads to non-productive field activities therefore reducing the capacity and productivity of a company. The industry has therefore been involved in research efforts to enable it overcome the communication inefficiency obstacle which greatly hampers the productivity of the industry. Attempts at transforming the manner in which data and information are handled in the construction industry began as early as the late 90’s where novel projects were tested which involved equipping of foremen with laptops to enable the instantaneous record of the field events as opposed to recording on paper and then having to transcribe the information to a digital form at a later time Luff & Heath 1998, p.309). This innovation was supposed to increase the efficiency of the foremen and reduce the likelihood of errors that occurred during the transcribing process. However, these developments failed as the technology was not yet mature and the new system led to increased bureaucratic activity for the foremen. Despite the perceived failure, these early attempts laid the groundwork for the research into the needs of information needs of the construction industry personnel and as such, future systems could be developed that satisfied the user’s processing and informational needs.

Wireless Implementations

The mobile computing industry has come a long way since its inception in terms of technological advancement and cost. Malone (2004, p.2) suggests that as of the year 2001, wireless LANs and WLANs were rare and limited to only large institutes as wireless devices such as integrated routers and access points were non-existent and the cost of laptops was prohibitive to most medium size to small corporations. This resulted in the construction industry shying away from wireless technology since it was not cost effective. However, the hardware cost has greatly reduced over the years to a cost that can be comfortably afforded by even small organizations. This compounded with the advancement in technology has led to the reduction of infrastructure costs for setting up wireless networks. It has therefore become economically feasible for organizations to implement WLANs at their sites.

Hardware Requirements

For any kind of network to be implemented, various hardware and software components must be made available. As has been previously stated, a WLAN is a grouping of computing devices that share a common communication network. There are a number of components that are basic to any WLAN implementation. An access point which is a device that links the wireless land to a wired LAN is one of the core components in the network system Wi-Fi Alliance (2004). This is the device that is directly responsible for transmitting signals which are used for communication by the computing devices. The capacity that this device can support is largely dependent on the particular Wireless Access unit. Ideally, this device should be installed on a central location to the site and at a high point so as to ensure that there is a direct line of site to as many spots on the site as possible. High gain antennas can be fitted in case the site is expansive but this would require the station remains EU compliant with the resultant Effective Isotropic Radiated Power (Otani, 2002).

The other device of equally great importance in the network is the Wireless Network Interface Card. It is this piece of hardware that will enable the machines of the various users to detect and connect to the Access Point. These devices are mostly inbuilt in the computing devices that many of the users utilize. In a situation where this is not the case, the same can be purchased and installed fairly easily. Thanks to In the event whereby the network will be connected to the internet, a Router will be used. A router is a device that is used to share a single internet connection by many computers which are on the same network (Otani, 2002). This would come in handy in a situation where the workers in the construction industry require some resources from the internet. The organization may also greatly benefit from the vast pool of resources that are available on the internet should they connect their network to the internet.

The hardware that will be used by individual users varies greatly. According to Martinez and Scherer (2006), the most popular mobile computing device in the construction industry is the personal digital assistant (PDA). This device is largely favoured because of its relatively small size (as compared to notebooks) as well as the wide range of applications that can be run on it. By use of a PDA, uses can perform tasks such as tracking material received, sending emails and accessing the centralized database. Apart from PDA’s, other mobile devices also do exist such as laptops, tablet PCs and Pocket PCs.

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Application Software

The basic software that will be needed in all devices will be an Operating System that allows for network communication. There exist a number of vendors for this and the choice selected may be a matter of organizational preference or a consideration of various other software that the particular platform supports. Owing to the large number of users in the construction industry who are highly mobile, a number of applications have been developed to support this versatile group of users. These classes of applications are known as mobile business-to-employee (B2E) applications and they play a critical role in ensuring that the logistical hurdles that exist in the construction industry are gracefully overcome (Casonato & Trinkner 2002, p.1).

In any organization, having all the vital information located in a centralized database with search functionality can be not only convenient but also effective. This is also true for construction firms and there exist applications for searchable databases of contractors, materials and prices. These applications help the project manager to find the closest suppliers for the relevant material as well as look up the names of their business contractors. This software not only makes the manager more efficient in his work but also reduces costs that would have been incurred in phone bills and the time spent as personnel try to trace crucial information that is decentralized.

Mobile online project collaboration and print management solutions are some of the software classes that are tailor made for the construction industry (Kjeldskov 2002). This software helps users manage, distribute and share project related documents from a centralized location. A site manager using this application can effectively manage the use of material and labour personnel on site by logging into the network and using the project collaboration tool. Printing of blueprints and site plans can also be done.

Bill of materials management systems is an effective application for the staff on site (Casonato & Trinkner 2002). By use of this application, on site project progress reporting can be done in a timely fashion therefore keeping the various stakeholders informed as to progress made on the ground. In addition to this, the consumption of material on site can be closely monitored enabling the detection of reduction of order therefore necessitating reorders or even loss of material. This mobile system can also greatly reduce the paperwork that would otherwise have been generated and avoid transcribing errors as the data is keyed into a computer.

In the construction field, managers may be found on site or in their offices. When they are on the project site, there may be errors or defects located on the site. A leading magazine in construction technology, CITA, suggests that with the launch of a mobile application such as the BuildOnline, mobile data capture can ensure better defect management (CITA 2005, p.1). By use of such an application, managers can automatically capture and log all defects on site and subsequently post the same to a centralized database. This information can be accessed by the relevant personnel e.g. contractors and supplies thus leading to timely interventions.

PDA’s are prevalent in the construction industry as a result of their reduced size and usability. By use of these devices, staff can input data and later update the common database. Software vendors such as Buildscape provide applications that can be used for ordering materials as well as synchronizing the supplies list so as to create a large list on a mobile computing device (Best & De Valence 2002). Synchronization Software enables the users to cache data on their respective devices and also transmit data to the company database at some later time. While this is not a real-time wireless implementation, it may be necessary when the user is out of range of the WLAN. This can be a functional solution when the data in question is not time-critical and a delay does not lead to repercussions for the organization.

Implementation issues

The ideal deployment for a construction set is the use of Access points which will be positioned such that the workers who need network connectivity are in the hotspot. This raises a number of issues. One of the issues is that of configuring a laptop or a similar device to enable it to access the resources available in the network as well as communicate with others. Wi-Fi Alliance (2004, p.11) asserts that the configuration of most wireless client software to be connected to a WLAN is not trivial and users will need considerable knowledge to accomplish this without the use of outside help. While this may not be an issue for a large organization that has an IT department and numerous resources at its disposal, it may prove to be an issue for small firms that cannot accommodate IT personnel to provide user support to their staff.

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WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) can be used to provide security for the WLAN. This is a wireless encryption standard that provides wireless LAN users with a high level of assurance that their data transmitted over the radio link will remain protected through encryption and authentication (Wi-Fi Alliance 2004, p.11). While it has been acknowledged that encryption is not an airtight form of security as it still has various vulnerabilities, encrypting of communication will protect the users from opportunistic intruders as well as protect any vital information since a hacker will have to sieve through a substantial amount of data for his trouble. However, for organizations whose data is of a highly confident nature and the compromising of the same would lead to dire consequences, extra measures have to be implemented to secure the network.

Radio Frequency Interference is an issue that must be addressed when dealing with wireless communication. At any given time, varying amounts of radio interference exist around us. Most WLANs make use of the IEEE 802.11b standard that uses an unlicensed radio spectrum. As such, this channel is shared by other consumer devices such as baby monitors and cordless phones. Owing to the fact that most construction industries work in residential areas, the WLAN is bound to experience some interference from consumer devices. This issue can be overcome by the IT personnel conducting a scan of the area before setting up the network so as to tell if there are any potential problems in existence (Otani 2002, p.14). If too much interference is detected, using of products that operate at a different frequency may help minimize the interference thus increasing the performance ability of the WLAN set up.

Advantages of Mobile Connectivity

We live in an age where speed and accuracy are the defining marks of success. Computers have been hailed all over the world for enhancing this two attributes. In the construction industry, the utilization of mobile communication would lead to an increase in the efficiency of staff as they utilize B2E applications to perform computations in a timely fashion. The availability of a centralized database would also result in data consistence therefore eliminating the problems that arise as a result of data inconsistency caused by delayed updates.

Adoption of wireless technology by an organization will give it a competitive advantage and this is most desirable since stiff competition is constant realities as firms all aim for the same lucrative projects. A firm that has its staff employing the use of wireless technology will overcome the inefficiencies inherent in an industry that has traditionally been highly manual. The software development industry is constantly coming up with new applications that can enable the collaboration of contractors, suppliers and other key components in the construction industry in real time therefore transforming the manner in which a firm performs its business therefore making it effective.

Construction activities are mainly tied around resource allocation and management. This resource may be in the form of human labour or material. By use of the PDA’s, managers can remotely track time critical data such as the amount of labour hours that are inputted into a project and the project cost. This enables the project managers to detect any anomalies or deviations from the schedule and hence take early corrective measures which may salvage the project before too much damage is done.

Another advantage that stems from the use of mobile communication technology is the elimination of gaps in time and space. Man et al (2009 p.178) illustrate that by implementing a mobile application system to a farming management system, users can directly input date with the wireless mobile device for job scheduling. Additionally, the mobile system eliminated the duplicity of work in the construction industry by automatically generating reports on the central system.

Disadvantages of Mobile Connectivity

In the construction industry, demand for information is influenced by the size and the complexity of a task (Deibert, Hemmer & Heinzl, 2009, p.3). This implies that as the complexity and size of a projected decrease, so does the informational need and subsequently the need for a wireless solution to support the same. It is therefore evident that mobile communication implementations can only be justified if the scope of construction is big enough. Most small construction ventures can therefore not cost-efficiently reap the benefits of this technology.

While wireless networks are seen as the answer to the communication problems associated with field operations, setting up the infrastructure necessary to support a WLAN configuration may be a costly affair for a short term project. While WLANs are ideal for campuses and hospitals which are of a fairly static nature, construction sites are a temporary affair and the company will have to move on to a new project once they have completed the project at hand.

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Some of the demerits that arise from the use of mobile technologies in construction are similar to those that are associated with the networked computing resources as a whole. As a result of the data being centrally located, the risk to the company is increased since should the database be compromised; an intruder will have access to all the data of the company. This is as opposed to a decentralized system whereby each device stands alone and a compromise on one device may not be as damaging to the organization. In addition to this, the access points act as a bottleneck which may result in the reduction in the speed of transmission as all the data must pass through the same point.

Conclusion

Wireless LAN implementations in the construction industry may be the key to reinventing the construction industry therefore making it more effective by changing the mode in which activities are carried out. This paper set out to illustrate that the implementation of mobile communication technology can be achieved. To this end, a detailed discussion as to the various hardware and software requirements for a mobile infrastructure implementation has been given. A list of the hardware devices necessary and the software applications that are provided by vendors have been given. The implementation of this communication network is not without its limitations as has been highlighted in this paper. The relative merits and demerits that the construction industry may reap from embracing mobile technology have also been detailed.

While it can be observed that the relative benefits of a wireless WLAN far outweigh the costs, one should not forget that the inherent demerits of a WLAN if not properly handled may lead to negative outcomes for the organization. It should also be borne in mind that mobile computing technology is constantly evolving and as such, the construction industry should keep abreast with the ongoing changes so as to ensure that they make the most of the information technology field.

References

Best R, & De Valence G, 2002, Design and construction: building in value, Butterworth-Heinemann.

Casonato R & Trinkner R, 2002, A U.S. View of Mobile Construction Industry Applications. Gartner Research.

Deibert S, Hemmer E & Heinzl A, 2009, Mobile Technology in the Construction Industry – the Impact on Business Processes in Job Production, Web.

Kjeldskov J, 2002, Just-In-Place Information for Mobile Device Interfaces. In: Proceedings of Mobile HCI 2

Luff C & Heath, 1998, Mobility in Collaboration. Proceedings of CSCW 98, Seattle, Washington, USA, ACM.

Malone S, 2004, Case Study: A Path towards a Secure, Multi-role Wireless LAN in a Higher Education Environment, SANS Institute.

Martinez M & Scherer R, 2006, eWork and eBusiness in architecture, engineering and construction: proceedings of the 6th European Conference on Product and Process Modelling, Valencia, Spain, Taylor & Francis.

Man et. al 2009, NangKOM: Development of a Web Based Job Scheduling Tools for “Nangka” On Mobile Using Wi-Fi Technology, Journal of Basic and Applied Sciences Vol.1.

Michael E, 2005, Developing mobile technology for construction site, Sydney University of Technology.

Otani H, 2002, Lets Set Up A Community WLAN.

Wi-Fi Alliance, 2004, WPA Deployement Guidelines for Public Access Wi-Fi Networks. Wi-Fi alliance.

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