Smart Devices for Smart Design, Part I: the Case for Technology in the Field

editBy Ben Prehoda

Wouldn’t it be cool if…

…you were an experienced engineer or designer conducting a field investigation and the only thing you had to bring with you was one smart device?

I recently spent a number of days verifying electrical as-builts for a hospital near Tacoma, WA. After the third day of flipping between drawings separated out first by building, then by floor, then by system (power, lighting, and communication), I got extremely tired of folding sheets, finding flat stable surfaces that would make decent places to write down my comments, and…oh yeah! Flipping between a hospital campus worth of electrical drawings!

I had an internal “come-to-Jesus” moment and tried to come up with a better way to go about things the next time I am charged with a similar task. The solution seemed simple enough: incorporate the use of my iPad and iPhone into my design production.

Like many emerging designers and engineers, my entire upbringing has occurred in the age of technology, where the phone rules all and the tablet lays waste to paper and pen (or pencil, I’m not here to discriminate). Anything to do with technology I am all for (seriously though, pens are better). After all, it’s supposed to make our lives better, right? My father has many sayings, but the one that seems to resonate with me the most in this instance is “work smarter, not harder.” These “smart” devices have the potential to help us do just that.

I teamed up with my colleague Andy Brown (@Abrown_WH), designer extraordinaire, to further explore the idea of smart devices in the field. In our many cross-cubicle conversations, I came to realize that this was a topic he had been trying to breach for a while and had started doing some research of his own. The more we talked it seemed that five things were clear: the use of smart devices in the field could be more efficient and more accurate than hand written notes and markups, and the technology is, by design, easily accessible, widely collaborative, and highly sustainable. With the rapid enhancements being made in hardware and operating software, these smart devices will only keep getting better. Then there’s the expanding world of engineering-related apps, such as Autodesk 360 mobile, ETAP mobile, and even code books like NEC/NFPA; it’s a growing market, and the apps themselves are becoming more intuitive, useful, and powerful with each update.

But Ben, I’m still stuck in the Stone Age and I’d rather carry all of my drawings and pencils with me!” This is still just fine. As far as I can see, this method isn’t going to be obsolete any time soon, and there are still important hurdles to consider before moving to an electronic-only form of production, such as:

  • Hardware limitations: “A man is only as good as the tools he is given.” (Someone said that; if not I will take the credit). Your Windows Surface or Apple iPad needs to be able to have the processing power and design capabilities to be able to make on-the-go changes. Without these basics, you’re just carrying around a fancy brick.
  • Connectivity limitations: Your tablet or device needs to have access to a network, whether that is cellular and/or Wi-Fi. For field use, I highly recommend both because you will be covered most of the time by one or the other.
  • User-interface capabilities: This is pretty straightforward. The device has to be easy to use, or the benefits of efficiency and accessibility go out the window. It must be able to start up immediately (or start up quickly, if not already on), not freeze up, and the apps must be easy to navigate and useful for the variety of circumstances you’ll encounter.

As with all innovation, everyone’s comfort and confidence levels with new methods will be different. The relationship between engineering production and technology has always been evolving and this is one of the next steps. Personally, I think it’s pretty cool.

Stay tuned for more from Andy and me about smart devices in the field! We’ll be taking a comparative look at different types of devices that can be most useful, as well as sharing a list of our favorite engineering apps.

Follow Ben on Twitter @BPrehoda_WH

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  1. Jeff Yirak
    Posted May 15, 2014 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    I’m comfortable using a laptop in the field, but then I run into issues with version control. Do you have any recommendations for that?

    • Ben Prehoda
      Posted May 16, 2014 at 7:47 am | Permalink

      What do you mean by version control? Opening up an older version of a program? The interface of the program is limited or different by using the laptop versus the desktop?

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