Computers exist in large part to accomplish what the human brain cannot. Our memory is fickle. Our processing speed is limited. For years, the writing has been on the wall: Computers help us reach beyond our own capacity, and they can help us build better.

PCL first incorporated digital software into its project management processes in the early 1990s, bringing efficiency to simple takeoff and progress database functions. Personal computers were proliferating throughout many industries, largely to streamline these basic operational functions. It was then that PCL began thinking in earnest about how it organizes and systematizes not only project data but also all the insight and experience that had brought the company success for decades.

“We had built up a century of institutional knowledge that had been passed through people, and on paper that lived in file cabinets,” says Aaron Erickson, construction service manager. “We looked at the world changing and started asking how we could bring that knowledge to the forefront so it could help us work smarter with our clients.”

Over the next three decades, a constant stream of technological advancements pushed the industry forward. The internet, email, computer-aided design, cloud computing and touch screens overtook pen, paper and the post office as the primary tools of the trade. As PCL’s industrial portfolio grew, so too did its digital toolset. PCL began developing custom software solutions that would engineer efficiencies into its processes. 

Before long, PCL’s arsenal of project management and controls applications grew to encompass the complete life cycle of a project, from budgeting and material controls to quality assurance and supply chain management — each reflecting pieces of that time-tested institutional knowledge and repeatedly refined processes and best practices.

Today, PCL uses nearly three dozen proprietary applications on its industrial projects. Since 2013, this all-encompassing suite of programs has been formally enveloped under a single, interconnected framework now called Baseplate.

Today, Baseplate is the go-to informational hub for an industrial project at PCL. All facets of project data flow through Baseplate’s interconnected applications to provide efficiencies for costing, scheduling and quality while providing controlled, reliable and insightful reporting.

Baseplate’s flexibility is perhaps its greatest asset. Depending on the size of the project or the client’s unique needs, it can be scaled up or down to deliver the right level of insight and information to project teams and clients as needed. Baseplate’s 35 applications are divided among eight domains:

  • Document control

  • Estimating and cost control 

  • Health, safety and environment

  • Labor management

  • Supply chain

  • Work packaging and planning 

  • Quality

  • Completions and turnover

Data is shared across Baseplate’s applications and domains, eliminating multiple entry points and keeping information consistent as a single source of project knowledge. For example, within the Estimating and Cost Control domain, Baseplate extracts information contained within a piping isometric, then use proprietary algorithms to classify piping components and perform labor takeoffs automatically, resulting in significant takeoff speed and accuracy improvements over traditional methods. Data can be extracted from various popular modeling applications and formats early in the design process to generate front-end technical queries that draw clarifications before construction begins, rather than during execution. 

Elsewhere, the Document Control domain manages document data and metadata to instantaneously push information throughout Baseplate and to personnel who need to be informed of new or revised documents and holds. All engineering and technical information required for a project is stored in this domain, which works closely with work packaging and planning, completion and turnover, and quality domains to create a unified reference point easily accessible to a variety of project roles.

“It’s important for users to be able to edit and save a centralized document in real time, as if they were working with it from their hard drive,” says Erickson. “With tens of thousands of drawings per project, and with dozens of people working on these drawings, we’ve sped up that process, reduced lag and significantly reduced document duplication.”

As technology continues its eternal evolution and as PCL integrates Baseplate into each new industrial project, PCL continues to collect data and engineer new systems and structures that take advantage of common processes and properties between applications. Baseplate’s universality and interconnectivity has positioned it as a kind of periodic table of construction elements — a synthesized source of truth for all project information.

We are currently living through what many refer to as the fourth Industrial Revolution. The first Industrial Revolution was about mechanization. The second, electrification and mass production. The third brought us into a much more familiar present — one that thrives on digitization and automation. But the world continues to change rapidly, and the fourth Industrial Revolution promises a future in which ubiquitous connectivity, holistic thinking and highly refined systems will vastly expand the limits of our brainpower, both human and artificial. 

In recent years, the engineers and developers behind Baseplate have focused their efforts on extending access to Baseplate so it can be used just as effectively in the field as it is used on PCL’s office desktops. This is no small feat, given that many of today’s construction applications are optimized for desktop computers and big screens. But, with the near ubiquity of powerful mobile phones and tablets and ever-greater access to high-speed internet, Baseplate has found itself increasingly comfortable sitting in one’s pocket or tucked under their arm as they, for example, go on a tour of their latest industrial project.

“It shouldn’t matter if you’re in the office, on an airplane or out on the job site,” Erickson says. “If you’re part of a project, you should have access to information and interaction with that information at your fingertips.”

In late 2022, PCL celebrated the formal launch of Baseplate 2.0, signaling a more holistic approach to project management and the start of a new chapter in how the company relates to its industrial projects and clients. With 2.0, many core applications are now web-based and feature responsive design, significantly improved file storage, and customized permissions and notifications to ensure the right information ends up in the right hands.

For the construction industry, the great promise of the so-called fourth Industrial Revolution is not so much in the increased automation, or the potential of augmented reality, or even the vast amounts of data it can now collect and analyze to make more informed and accurate decisions. It’s that the industry may have finally reached a point where its concurrent processes of discovery, learning and productivity have achieved such symmetry that building better is not only possible but inevitable. 
It may have taken PCL more than a century to get here, but in Erickson’s eyes, the company’s past is going to be every bit as critical to its success as the improvements it makes moving forward.

“Every project is different, but at this point we’ve seen nearly everything,” Erickson says. “We’ve completed hundreds of industrial projects and they have all given us valuable insight that we can apply to any project that follows them. 

“It has given us the confidence to look ahead toward challenges that we aren’t even aware of and know that we have the tools to overcome them.”