Integrating Construction Processes with Morpheus' Frameworks AECbytes Feature (March 14, 2019)
While BIM (Building Information Modeling) has been receiving the lion’s share of attention in AEC technology for several years now, it is far from being a panacea to all the problems plaguing the AEC industry—for the simple reason that there are so many aspects to AEC that do not involve BIM at all. This is especially true for the construction side of AEC—the process of actually managing the construction of a building once it has been designed, and of managing the business of a construction company that is involved in several such building projects, calls for an entirely different set of tools and technologies. Just as building design involves different disciplines and applications that need to be integrated to improve efficiency and quality, in the same way, integration is critical to construction firms to bring together the different processes and applications they use to better manage the multiple projects they are working on.
This integration, however, is still mostly aspirational. While the different applications used by construction firms—for example, Procore, Primavera, Prolog, Cosential, Spectrum, JD Edwards, etc.—have all made great strides individually and are very sophisticated, they do not communicate with each other. Just as in design, there are “silos” in construction as well, and data is typically tossed over from one silo to another, either by manually entering it multiple times in different systems or through importing and exporting it in the form of Excel files. Needless to say, not only is this slow, inefficient, and tedious, but chances of human error are much higher. The situation is only compounded for larger and more complex projects, which are becoming increasingly common.
In the absence of “open standards” to facilitate interoperability between the different applications used by construction firms for project management, ERP (enterprise resource planning), and CRM (customer relationship management), the only solution is middleware that is specifically developed for this integration. This article explores one such integration solution, Frameworks, to see how it works and how it has been implemented by one of its users, Adolfson & Peterson Construction
Overview of Frameworks
Frameworks is developed by Morpheus Technology Group, a company that was started by construction industry professionals who had first-hand experience of the difficulties faced by construction firms in integrating the different processes required to successfully manage construction projects. They harnessed their extensive knowledge of these processes and the common applications used by construction firms to develop a middleware solution that can automatically exchange data between them. The company was started close to 18 years ago, and one its earliest clients was DASNY (Dormitory Authority of the State of New York), which used Morpheus to integrate several of the applications it was using for its construction work including JD Edwards and Primavera, along with several in-house applications.
How It Works
The way by which Frameworks integrates multiple applications is by providing an “adapter” for each application that plugs into it and can extract the required data from it. To date, Frameworks has over 15 adapters for most of the industry-leading applications used by construction firms (see Figure 1). This means that the implementation of Frameworks will be different in different firms, as it will be based on the specific applications they are using. Morpheus can also develop custom adapters for the in-house applications developed within a firm. Not only is it continuing to develop additional adapters for other applications, it is also constantly updating its existing adapters to keep them in sync with the updated versions of the supported applications to ensure that they continue to work seamlessly.
Frameworks is a middleware application, and it is installed on an integration server as part of the IT infrastructure of a firm. While the initial installation and setup is done by Morpheus, the application calls for an “integration owner” within the firm who will continue to maintain it, monitor its use, debug any issues, and deploy new adapters for applications that are added to the firm’s toolset. Frameworks is, as such, invisible to the users of the construction applications, which is as it should be, as they need to be focused on the business processes enabled by these applications rather than on how the data is flowing between them. The integration owner, on the other hand, works closely with Frameworks, monitoring the types of data exchanges, their frequency, any integration errors, and additional integration information, a summary of which is conveniently captured in the application’s overview dashboard shown in Figure 2.
The Frameworks Dashboard
Each one of the boxes in the dashboard shown in Figure 2 are designed to assist the integration owner in the health of the integration environment. The upper left box lists the last 25 integrations that ran. If any of these has a red flag, it means that the integration process needs to be looked at. The upper middle box has a graph that lets the integration owner know the number of integrations that are running at different times of the day, enabling them to adjust the integration schedules to avoid busy times that can overload the server. The box on the upper right is designed to indicate, in the last 24 hours, how busy the integration engine was overall; an engine with a high utilization would be an indicator to add another engine. The graph on the lower left compares the durations for different integrations, enabling those with extra-long durations to be easily identified and split out into multiple routines to shorten them. And finally, the graph on the lower right shows how many errors are occurring with a specific integration. A high level of errors may indicate the need to adjust a business process or provide more training to people using the applications being integrated.
It is important to note that an error in the integration may not be an error in the Frameworks adapter or its configuration. For example, Frameworks may want to stop a record from integrating when a validation is not passed. This is flagged as an error because the record was stopped, but the integration did exactly what it was designed to do. A sample use case is when integrating sub-contracts from project management to accounting—the record must not be integrated if the vendor doesn't have insurance. A high error count here could mean that something needs to be re-examined with how insurances are treated for sub-contractors.
Implementation at Adolfson & Peterson Construction
Since Frameworks is a middleware application, the best way to understand it is to explore how it is being used in practice, in an actual construction firm. I was able to talk with Kevin Lind, the Frameworks “integration owner” at one of Morpheus’ key clients, Adolfson & Peterson Construction (AP), which has been using Frameworks since 2015. Ranked among the top 50 construction managers and general contractors in the US, AP works on a wide variety of different types of building projects and brought in Frameworks to integrate cost records between its project management and project controls software, Trimble Prolog Converge, and its general ledger software, Dexter Chaney Spectrum (Figure 3).
The decision to go with Frameworks was based on multiple factors. First, the integration was identified as being critical to eliminate dual data entry, streamline processes, and improve accuracy—it was a business imperative. Once the need had been identified, the option to build the integration in-house, as some companies might be inclined to do, was not even considered by AP, as the firm did not want to be in the software development business—it was a construction company. But companies developing the required middleware were few and far between, and Morpheus rose to the top of the list right away because it was rooted in the construction industry and understood the lingo as well as the processes. Frameworks could be configured to AP’s exact requirements (Figure 4), it was easy to use and customizable, and it was also extendable to their future needs. For example, AP has started using Cosential for CRM, and Frameworks has an adapter for that, allowing AP to now tie its three main business units together—project management, ERP and CRM—and have seamless movement of data across them.
Some additional aspects of their implementation of Morpheus’ Frameworks that AP greatly appreciates is they have been able to take ownership of their integration. The staff has been trained to work with it and can maintain, modify, and even build new integrations themselves without the firm needing to spend additional consulting fees to do this. AP sees Frameworks as not just a single point-to-point integration but an integration platform with a network of adapters that enables them to bring other core business applications easily into the integration whenever they expand. The platform comes with upgrades and support that ensure dependability—all adapters continue to be maintained after the initial installation and are updated with the ongoing changes in the core products. The interface of Frameworks is clear and easy to use, and once it has been properly set up, it can, by and large, be forgotten—it has many self-heal routines and built-in rule modules that allow the integrations to move through on a transactional level by themselves. There is no need to monitor a queue or error log every day. The firm turned Frameworks on in March 2015 and are now four years in with no major problems to the platform.
Just as with design applications, “out of the box” integration is a myth for construction applications. In fact, it is even more difficult in the absence of any kind of open standards to make them interoperable and enable construction processes to work together and transfer data back and forth. Duplicating the same data in multiple applications and being forced to enter it manually is not only slow, time-consuming, and error-prone, but also highly tedious and enervating. We are fortunate to have solutions like Frameworks to address this need, and they are doubly effective when they are developed by construction industry professionals, like those from Morpheus, who understand the domain, the terminology, the processes, as well as the challenges.
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