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Chatbots: The Next Wave of Construction Automation

Jan. 15, 2020
Pan-Pacific Mechanical is currently exploring process automation, assisted machine learning, computer aided engineering, and most recently, bots.

By Jenn Said

Slow to adapt to change, the construction industry isn’t typically at the forefront of pioneering new technologies. However, that tide appears to be turning. Technologies such as artificial intelligence, augmented reality and blockchain are slowly transforming construction. Increasingly, contractors are using these emerging technologies to save time, bring efficiency to their work and increase collaboration with other project teams.

Pan-Pacific Mechanical, a mechanical design-build subcontractor, is paving the way as an early adopter of emerging technology to work smarter and faster. With two full-time software engineers and plans to hire more, the company’s leaders see value in building a team that can identify opportunities for technology to change their business for the better.

Led by Dustin Fisher, Pan-Pacific is currently exploring process automation, assisted machine learning, computer aided engineering, and most recently, bots. Fisher is a mechanical engineer by trade, but his passion for programming and technology led him to his current role as Pan-Pacific’s lead software engineer. At the time, Pan-Pacific had recently implemented Viewpoint Vista, a fully integrated comprehensive construction accounting suite, to help manage all areas of its business, from the office to the field. Fisher began working closely with the Viewpoint team, became part of the Viewpoint Industry Advisor group and eventually joined a special bot pilot program to develop bot technology alongside the Viewpoint solutions.

It was during one of these Viewpoint Industry Advisor meetings when Viewpoint demonstrated how it was adding bot technologies to automate some of its construction management workflows. Fisher’s interest was piqued. “Viewpoint was doing some really interesting work with bots that I thought could apply to our work at Pan-Pacific,” Fisher said. “Immediately, I started researching and working with the Viewpoint team to learn as much as I could.”

What is a Bot Anyway?

While bots may seem to be something of the future, most people have encountered one at some point. Siri and Alexa are bots powered by artificial intelligence. But what exactly are bots?

In the simplest terms, a bot is a software program designed to automate tasks a human would typically do, such as adding an appointment to their calendar or checking the weather. To sum up the benefits, bots save time. Today, bots are commonly used by retailers for customer service and providing transactional information to consumers, but the possible uses for bots across industries are nearly endless.

Thanks to advances in natural language processing, bots today can identify valuable information from everyday speech. Natural language processing is extremely powerful. Last year, Google released a voice assistant that is indistinguishable from a human. In this video, you can see the bot booking an appointment for a haircut with a real person who had no idea she was speaking with a bot.

“The Google example is impressive and long-term, it’s really the direction we’re moving in,” Fisher said. “We have a vision for our bot to continue evolving and see it becoming the Alexa or Siri for construction.”

The Making of the Bot

Intrigued by bots’ potential, Fisher also had to balance whether developing and implementing a bot would be worth the time investment. Could it really bring value to the company?

With Vista in place, Pan-Pacific could access real-time accounts payable, accounts receivable, general ledger, payroll and cash management information. Fisher knew he could extend the benefits of Vista with a bot that would make that data easily and readily available to teams in the office and in the field. He also wanted to design it to simplify and automate data entry.

The first step was getting buy-in. “A lot of people thought it sounded too good to be true,” Fisher said. “In the last few years, I've done some pretty surprising things people said were impossible, so even with doubt, everyone said if I thought I could make it happen and wanted to invest the time, then I should go for it.” Within three months, Fisher had a working prototype and three months later, launched the bot.

Collaborating with the Viewpoint team, Fisher created a bot that allows employees, from executives to project managers, to quickly and easily access real-time key performance indicators from Vista with a simple voice command. The bot uses natural language processes to determine the intent, the task or action that needs, and the entities, or parameters and keywords needed to complete the task. With a simple phrase, users can access valuable project information such as job costs, budgets and cash flow from their mobile device. For example, end users can simply speak into their mobile devices and say: “Show me the job dashboard for job 3509” or “Show me the cash flow for 3509.” The bot also automates data entry. Project managers or field supervisors can make change orders by simply saying, “Add a change order to 3509.”

Instead of logging in to Vista, clicking on the project management button, finding the job and then clicking on the change order log, Pan-Pacific users are simply telling the bot what they need it to do. “The bot has enhanced our work through less clicking, more information and faster decision making,” Fisher said. “It’s generated a lot of buzz both internally and with customers. When people outside of the company see us use the bot, they’re always curious and ask a lot of questions about how hard it was to build.”

Rolling-out the bot and encouraging employees to use it was easier than expected. “We provided suggestions for the types of commands people could give to the bot and asked everyone to give it a try,” Fisher said. “It’s very easy to use, so as people tried the bot and liked it, they wanted to keep using it. If they didn’t know what to say to the bot, all they had to do was ask it for help.” 

Watch how the Pan-Pacific Bot works.

What Does the Future Hold?

There’s no doubt that the construction industry is in the midst of a significant digital shift, subsequently transforming the way contractors collect, store, analyze and work with their data.

“Projects are becoming larger and more complex, leading contractors to find ways to leverage the mountains of data they collect,” said Matt Harris, chief product and strategy officer for Viewpoint. “With companies like Pan-Pacific finding new and innovative ways to do more with that data and extend their investment in technology, we expect other contractors to want the same results.”

For Fisher, the time is right to invest in technology. “Those who embrace technology are going to outsmart and outwork the competition,” he said. “Our productivity has quadrupled since we rolled out an internal web portal and started using our bot. These technologies aren’t going away and waiting to take advantage of them is only going to put you farther behind.”

Jenn Said is a freelance writer covering the construction industry.

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