Australia is fertile territory for mobile construction technology businesses. APE Mobile is a Perth, WA-based start-up automating contractors’ paperwork requirements.
It’s a familiar story. Experienced construction professional wants to use a mobile device; tests some examples and finds none of them do what he thinks is necessary; decides to develop his own mobile software instead.
Matt Edwards, a former Siemens Building Technologies executive with experience in the UK and Europe before moving to Australia, established a construction business consultancy called Applied Project Experience in Melbourne in 2009, and then moved to Perth. Following the launch of the Apple iPad tablet, he then began looking at the use of mobile technology to support construction business processes and developed a prototype application, called APE Mobile.
While his initial effort was, on his own admission, “a bit flaky”, he was encouraged enough to bring in a specialist software developer, David Hayward (founder and developer of ER Mapper, later ERDAS), and in November 2013, the first production release of APE Mobile’s Paperless Site app for contractors was launched. Contractor reaction to the Software-as-a-Service app was immediately positive, and the company quickly signed up several well-known international and Australian client businesses, including RioTinto, Colas and Monadelphous, plus a host of small- and medium-sized contractor businesses (see Tasman Civil case study).
“Not a collaboration tool”
“APE Mobile is not a collaboration tool, at least not like Aconex,” Matt says. “It’s a tool for individual contractors to help them manage their own documents and processes across their project portfolio”. The application is broadly divided into five areas:
- Memos – includes RFIs, site instruction, records of conversations, and captured responses
- Forms – for internal paperwork
- Actions – for defects, Non-Conformance Reports, etc
- Drawings & Docs – includes annotation tools
- Reports – for punchlists, custom reports, exports.
Adopting a single tenancy approach (creating dedicated storage spaces for each customer), APE Mobile hosts the application and collated information in a secure data centre so that the contractors don’t need to worry about data management; instead, their users can focus on using the mobile application to manage typical site information needs, including safety reporting, site diaries, etc, accessing and annotating drawings and other documents as necessary. The web-based back-end of the application can also be accessed by office-based users from laptops or desktops for administration purposes, and has most of the functions of the iPad app (“the office user can fill in and send forms; you can even start them on the iPad, save as draft, and complete them on the web, or vice versa”).
The mobile app is currently only available for Apple iOS device users (Matt says they have yet to lose a sale because the app isn’t available on, say, Android or Windows), and has been designed to work even when there is no internet connectivity. All the information a user needs can be synchronised to the device, and either updated in the background where 3G signals are available, or synchronised once connectivity is regained (“useful when you are working on a remote mining project beyond the range of mobile devices”).
APE Mobile has been designed to be simple and intuitive to use. It includes form-builder tools so that familiar, previously paper-based processes are faithfully replicated online (“users are essentially doing their own paperwork, only more efficiently because of the automated data entry, drop-down menus, pick-lists, etc”), and is extensively configurable to suit different organisations’ needs without customisation of the core code. An open API enables easy data exchange with back-office business systems, ranging from ERP to Excel spreadsheets, while notifications to external users can be sent via email.
APE Mobile has extended beyond its Western Australia heartland and through recommendation and word-of-mouth has secured adoption by firms on the east coast of Australia. Encouraged by this, Matt is looking at funding options to expand the reach of the business, including taking it into new international markets, perhaps through partnerships with resellers or vendors of complementary technologies (and Matt includes SaaS collaboration platforms in this category). A free trial is available, with individual users supported from $65 per month, plus standard monthly storage allowances based on 10, 25 or 50 users (dubbed Gibbon, Chimp and Gorilla); enterprise deals (surely, King Kong!) can also be negotiated.
The appetite for mobile-centric construction applications is clearly international. As I mentioned last week following my brief look at Basestone 2.0, there is a lot of development activity in the mobile arena – from BIM authoring software vendors, established SaaS players, long-time mobile specialists, plus startups. APE Mobile clearly fits into the latter category, alongside startups in the US, UK and mainland Europe, but – unlike most of these – it isn’t trying to compete with the collaboration vendors. Instead, Matt sees APE Mobile as complementing existing solutions, which may be a better recipe for survival.
Choice of device/operating system will also be a factor in the business’s future. The iPad may dominate site use among APE Mobile’s current Australian customers, but it may well be a different picture if/when APE ventures into, say, south-east Asia where Android use in construction is more widespread.