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Worth the wait, CMU project management tool gains ground

Worth the wait, CMU project
management tool gains ground

by JONATHAN BARNES, for BuiltWorlds | Aug 27, 2015

For decades, Pittsburgh's renowned Carnegie Mellon University been a hotbed of computational expertise. Now an innovation created there more than a decade ago is helping to change job site management on projects across the U.S., and an even broader impact is still expected. 


In 2003, students and professors from CMU’s civil engineering program collaborated to design a project management tool that, 12 years later, is finally gaining in popularity. Called FASTTAC, it is based on the research of students trying to figure out how to get superintendents out of the field office and into the field.

FASTTAC founder Steeb

FASTTAC founder Steeb

  Pres. Emeritus Cohon

  Pres. Emeritus Cohon

The software was developed through CMU with the help of several industry pros, including civil engineer Ray Steeb, founder and CEO of FASTTAC. A former VP and general manager of Turner Construction's Pittsburgh office, Steeb was leaving Turner in late 2002 when he found himself talking to then-CMU President Jared L. Cohon about how to use technology to improve productivity in construction. A professor of both civil and environmental engineering, Cohon saw Steeb as a potential university asset, and asked him to put his decades of industry experience to use for CMU.

“I need somebody like you who understands the business world, to help us gauge the commercial viability of what we invent,” Cohon said at the time. “Let’s do a research project by CMU students to develop a tool to help project superintendents.”

   Dean Jim Garrett

   Dean Jim Garrett

Steeb accepted the proposal and helped to launch the research in 2003. That year, civil engineering students from Prof. Arthur Westerberg’s class began shadowing project superintendents to determine how technology might improve their work. After field work collecting such data, the students took the information back to Westerberg and engineering Prof. Jim Garrett. From that information, a project management software package was developed, culminating in 2005 as a workable tool.

Working with Steeb, Garrett (now Dean of Engineering) and CMU student Doug Holder developed a concept for navigating through drawings in a way that is consistent with how construction personnel would want to view them. “On-site, the user of a set of drawings wants to be able to move through a stack of drawings and view each at the same 2D location on each floor,” Garrett explained. “We built a working prototype of this interface to demonstrate the concept.”

Next, the software was sent to Steeb’s alma mater, Penn State University, where the tool was tweaked and beta-tested from 2005-2006. FASTTAC was originally introduced to its beta customers in the Spring of 2007 and had its first full release in May of 2008. That fall, however, Wall Street's epic nosedive stopped FASSTAC's rollout in its tracks. 

“The industry was ready for the move to digital drawings in 2008," recalls Steeb. "[But] the economy took a turn for the worse and was derailed by the Great Recession. We had about $1 million worth of new orders cancelled by the end of 2008.”

It took almost seven years for those customers to come back. "We did not get back to real 2007 dollars until 2015, and that is still only a projection!" notes Steeb. "The AEC industry typically does not reinvest in itself, nor invest in technology, unless it is at the top of a cycle.”

Once back in that position, FASTTAC started to gain some traction. But even in good times, the AEC industry is notoriously slow to adopt new technology. Many laggards have yet to adopt the first generation of technology, adds Steeb. These factors, coupled with the fact that the industry spends a minimal amount on IT, has held back the widespread adoption of many new tools. According to JBKnowledge’s 2014 Construction Technology Report, more than 30% of firms surveyed said their 2014 IT budget as a percentage of 2013 corporate revenue was less than 1%.

swimming upstream

So those are the market currents FASTTAC has been swimming against. How has it overcome them?

Unlike other project management tools, FASTTAC was ahead of its time in being designed to be an application for PCs, as well as an app for mobile devices, explains Steeb. So the software was created to be failsafe, in that a file really cannot be erased or deleted. Because a primary goal of the tool’s inventors was to manage risk, no file can be permanently erased. “What do you do to manage risk?" he asks. "You document. You document. You document."

Get outta that trailer!

Get outta that trailer!

Another built-in advantage with FASTTAC comes from the fact that it was also designed to be used by multiple companies without confusion. Many existing tools work best for a single company, but run into problems when teams try to collaborate on a project. With those tools, “other than administrators, there’s really no control or idea of who did a particular markup," says Steeb. 

“Our system takes the gray out of discovery," he adds. "We’re holding everybody accountable, when other [PM] tools are not."

With FASTTAC, all the plans are visible to all of the team, and the authors of markups are clearly identified

With FASTTAC, all the plans are visible to all of the team, and the authors of markups are clearly identified

But as the research shows, most decision-makers in construction are still spending much too little on technology, and not nearly enough to truly reduce risks associated with projects. They still have to be convinced that by spending a comparatively small amount of money, AEC firms can save large sums. “I’m telling people they can cut their costs in half, and no one could believe it,” he said. 

Each project now is yielding more evidence that can be presented to those disbelieving clients.

So, the tide is slowly changing in the industry. Still, some "advances" have actually slowed things down. Partly because of the now-widespread use of computers, our industry is actually less efficient than it was 20 years ago, claims Steeb. Why? Ironically, because many tasks previously handled by secretaries now can be done by project superintendents and other professionals in the field. They convince themselves that they are saving time by not having to wait on someone else.


Ironically, Many tasks previously handled by secretaries now can be done in the field. They convince themselves that they are saving time, but they are actually reducing efficiency.


That hurdle will be cleared, though. Reducing risk is another matter. 

Much of that battle is won or lost in how information is transferred. The key is to get the correct info into the right hands at the proper time. Steeb cites one BIM study that 30% of construction costs are wasted because information is not where it needs to be, when it needs to be there.

“For this industry to become truly less risky, [drawings] have to be able to be seen by the lowest common denominator,” Steeb says, adding that information must be transmitted all the way down to the sub-foreman level. “If you can get it to that level, you have a system that works from top to bottom. For a system to work, it has to prevent mistakes from happening from the very beginning.”

Based in Pittsburgh, the author is a freelance correspondent who writes about construction technology for BuiltWorlds. He has also been a contributor to ENR magazine, Reuters and other news publications. (Full disclosure: Barnes is also a graduate of Carnegie Mellon.)

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