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Work Site with a View

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The process of building and remodeling retail stores is undergoing a transformation. On-site cameras not only give project managers 24/7 views of works in progress, they can help cut travel costs and raise supervisor productivity by reducing the number of in-person inspection visits.

“The cameras make things easier for project managers and other internal stakeholders,” says John Moebes, director of construction for Crate & Barrel. “Just staying on top of construction mentally is really difficult, especially if one project manager has responsibility for two or more projects.”

Crate & Barrel began employing cameras approximately three years ago and they soon “proved essential,” Moebes says. “They provide a level of confidence, especially as there are time gaps” between site visits.

Construction cameras are “a game changer by providing visibility into the job site,” says Keith Murley, manager of information systems for Schimenti Construction, which counts Kohl’s Department Stores, Starbucks and REI among its retail clients.

Schimenti and Crate & Barrel use cameras from OxBlue, which are larger, sturdier and more durable than the webcams typically used on construction projects, says Chandler McCormack, president of OxBlue. The six-megapixel cameras rely on cellular communications, eliminating the need for wired data transmission and IT expertise at work sites.

More importantly, McCormack says, OxBlue picture transmissions can be accessed by anyone with a desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone. Among the other retailers OxBlue has worked with are Limited Brands, Northern Tool + Equipment, Safeway, Sephora and Walmart.

These images are compelling, Moebes says, because they convey information throughout the organization — to a project manager who can supervise the work without leaving the office, merchandisers staying on top of preparations for the grand opening or C-suite executives keeping in touch with their expanding business.

At Crate & Barrel, just about anyone can access the work site feeds, including subcontractors, architects and materials suppliers. “People look for different reasons — a basic understanding, level of activity, level of completion, how close to opening,” Moebes says.

Avoiding surprises
Schimenti Construction must account for the varying demands of its wide array of clients, which the camera feeds help address.

“We are fortunate to work with some great companies like Kohl’s and Target that really embrace technology, so they appreciate the value of our OxBlue cameras,” Murley says. “As part of our BIM [building information management] process, the cameras will allow us to track our actual schedule against the projected BIM model. The real-time visual access means that we can avoid having anyone — us or the client — reacting to something unexpected on the job site.”

Retailers tell Schimenti what they want to accomplish through the use of construction cameras, Murley says. “We ask what they want to monitor — where they want [the camera] or what perspective they want,” he says. “The big thing with video is to promote transparency between the project manager and the client. You really can’t do a smoke-and-mirrors job when they see exactly what you see.”

Site location usually doesn’t make much difference, he adds. The real challenge comes when the job site is an open field. “Building from the ground up in the open means there is no available place to put the camera,” he says. “You have to stick the camera on a pole, and that pole gets moved around a lot as the job progresses.”

Automatic archival images
Murley says he hasn’t experienced any operational problems with the cameras since Schimenti started using them, but did mention an incident where a power line supplying a camera had been clipped at a work site. “It wasn’t 10 minutes later that OxBlue called to say, ‘Check the power on the camera.’ ... It would have been a lot longer before we noticed that ourselves.”

“I haven’t been disappointed at all” since adopting the cameras in 2010, Moebes says, “particularly because of the customer service. The [video] feeds have been really stable. I’m not sure that we’ve ever had a camera go down.”

Among the other benefits Moebes mentions are the savings from not needing to pay a photographer to take progress pictures. In addition to live feeds, the cameras record archival shots every eight or 10 minutes.

“We build stores rather quickly and the cameras fill the gaps between site visits,” Moebes says. The camera technology also frees project managers from writing reports about such matters as delivery delays or negative weather events.

Reduced dependence on written reports “democratizes the process,” he says, since anyone interested can monitor a project.

And if there are any questions, “You can go back and review how material was unloaded or when a subcontractor put up scaffolds,” Moebes says.

As a result, everyone can see when things are done and how schedules are maintained. “They spend less time putting out fires” when something out of the ordinary occurs, Murley says, and “can actually be proactive and plan ahead with the project. The steady visual element, rather than intermittent site visits every two or three weeks, means information is processed faster in a timely fashion and schedules can be changed accordingly, speeding up or slowing down.”

Greater efficiency
While some retail construction projects may involve the use of webcams installed by IT personnel, the use of construction cameras with live feeds is still the exception rather than the rule, McCormack says. Discussing construction cameras with builders doesn’t so much involve replacing existing systems as it does introducing a new concept for tracking progress.

“What we are doing as an organization is explaining that cameras are more efficient,” McCormack says. “These cameras will make more efficient use of the precious time of their construction experts, plus save the time and cost of travel by providing full-time views.”

Adoptions rates are high — close to 100 percent after cameras have been tested in pilot projects, he adds, estimating that OxBlue’s turnkey system has penetrated only about 10 percent of the marketplace.