by Sarah Putt

NZ construction firm tames data storage use

Aug 16, 2020
Collaboration Software Enterprise Applications Enterprise Storage

Southbase Construction is optimising and securing the way multiple sites store and transfer large volumes of massive files by unifying collaboration and storage tools.rn

Construction worker and blue sky    147256163
Credit: Thinkstock

As the IT toolkit expands, so too does the requirement to cope with ever-increasing amounts of data. This is especially true in the construction sector, where keeping track of multi-year projects can result in massive data files — and that’s just electronic versions of site plans, let alone new tech that improves the client experience.

When Lem Prestage took on the role of IT Manager at Southbase Construction more than two years ago he discovered business practices that included site plans being printed on a regular basis, VPNs used to transfer files, and a whole bunch of “free” accounts for storing data files. The business, which was founded in 2013 and now has four offices throughout New Zealand, builds commercial, industrial and multi-residential developments.

“Everybody was using remote desktops or VPNs to get onto the central drives and then we were sharing through free services such as Dropbox, Google docs and WeTransfer,” he says.

So much was wrong with this scenario — the clunky and time-consuming collaboration, the unsustainable practice of printing large project plans, the potential security issues, and the user-fatigue that results in having to remember multiple passwords.

Use of common tools optimises storage

Prestage’s solution was to begin a 12-month project to migrate all of the company’s data to Dropbox’s enterprise solution. He started with the estimating and tendering teams because they had already begun using Dropbox’s collaboration tools.

Once the pilot team were fully set up, and after seeking their feedback in order to improve the migration process, Prestage set about tackling each project site. There are 15 spread across the country from Queenstown to Auckland. Projects range from relocatable buildings on schools that take up to six weeks to complete, to large buildings on university campuses (it is currently building a new hostel for the University of Canterbury) that can take up to three years. The value of each project also varies — from $5 million to $100 million.

“The beauty of it was that we could take these free Dropbox accounts and just mop them up and secure the data, so we now know exactly who is looking at what and when. Adding that sign-on security with two-factor authentication has just increased our security awareness across the business,” Prestage says.

“If anyone wants to make a Dropbox account now it’s got to come through us [the IT team], so we’ve got that security guaranteed,” he says.

For Southbase Construction employees, the move to Dropbox has meant that collaborative tools are easier to use, and version control doesn’t become unwieldly because there is now “one source of truth.”

 Dropbox cuts down on paper documents

As project manager Chad Robinson points out: “The efficiency on site is huge, we’re able to do multiple facets of the job all at once, through a tablet or mobile device. I won’t have to spend a day going backwards and forwards with different paper documents and managing versions.”

Having a truly mobile workforce also means that if COVID-19 restrictions are imposed when there is an outbreak of the virus, operations can continue. “If you’re not working from the worksite, you’re working from home, so it’s nice and easy,” Prestage says.

He is now in the process of deploying Dropbox’s digital signature solution HelloSign, adopting a similar approach by starting with the HR department and, once they are successfully onboarded, rolling it out companywide.

The company is also investing in deploying large monitors and TVs to all its construction sites so that project managers can bring up on the screens the site plans using their iPads. “Instead of using [printed] plans we can display the plans on big screens, and they can collaborate with clients and contractors,” he says.

Digital displays saves printing costs

The project manager can zoom in on a particular part of the plan during a discussion, make an annotation that all parties agree with, and have that captured in the document. This saves on printing costs, which can quickly become an expensive item on a project’s balance sheet. One site spent $10,000 in just six months on printing plans, while another was able to go nine months without printing a single A1 plan.

Using technology to improve the client’s experience is also top of mind. Prestage says time-lapse cameras around the site are not only there for security, but also for quality assurance.

The company also has two virtual reality rooms in Christchurch and Auckland, where clients can experience a 3D model of the design. “We can walk clients through [the design] and look for any potential clashes, for example if two pipes are at different angles we can make sure they are not going through each other,” he says.

Then there is the deployment of drone technology at the design phase to highlight potential issues, as Prestage explains.

“We’ve started working with drone technology to create maps and 3D renderings of the greenfield and surroundings and then put the model onto the physical location so we can see how the building is going to actually look in place. To see where there are shadowing issues, or sun going in so the need for automatic blinds.”

Prestage says deploying new technology is more effective because of the ability to easily share files that are “quite significant in size”.

In the current environment, “instantaneous communication” between everyone in the business — from site to head office — is essential. “That way our Chief Executive and Board of Directors are informed about any upcoming risks or issues and we can stay ahead of the curve,” says Prestage.