The Friday interview: Sinead Branagh, ZuTec

5 Dec 2003

A familiar sight in urban Ireland is that of a builder in a hardhat chatting merrily away on his mobile phone. If young Irish workflow technology firm ZuTec has its way, that builder in a year’s time might just as likely be seen tapping away on a personal digital assistant (PDA) to check an architect’s drawings, a maintenance manual or instantly ordering fresh building materials through an extranet.

Very much in the spirit of “build it and they will come” ZuTec was established in 1999 by environmental engineer Brian McGuire to address the issues of managing the documentation required in building design, erection and maintenance. Based on first-hand experience of the difficulty of maintaining the ever-growing paper mountain in a building environment, ZuTec was established to find a digital solution. Its overriding concern was to develop a product that could reduce the complexity of document management by maintaining a single centrally filed source, capable of access from any location, whilst at the same time, was protected from loss or damage.

The result is ZuTec’s flagship product, the Digital Facilities Guide, an online browser-accessed project tool for new building developments and existing building maintenance. It digitises operations and maintenance manuals, essential for handover of the new building and for the ongoing maintenance of the structures. The Digital Facilities Guide simplifies the task of handover for contractors and for all their subcontractors. It saves time and money in the short term through the reduced process of collating documentation. It saves time and money in the middle-to-long term through access to the right documentation at the touch of a button.

In the four years of its existence ZuTec has evolved to become a global technology player, with offices in Dublin, London, Singapore, Mexico City, Boston, Sydney, New York and Brussels. As well as the Digital Facilities Guide, ZuTec’s technology incorporates workflow systems for the construction and maintenance sector.

According to ZuTec sales and marketing manager Sinead Branagh (pictured), this technology is on the cusp of evolving to become a mobile solution whereby construction site workers can access maintenance information and order materials on PDAs. Prior to joining ZuTec, Branagh worked with Integrated Facilities Solutions, the consultancy and research unit of Dublin Institute of Technology.

“Basically up until now, facilities management has been primarily a paper-based business,” Branagh explains. “When a construction firm handed over the documentation, drawings and records of a finished building, often it could add up to 50 box files of paper. If you wanted to find information quickly it wasn’t easy. We decided to use technology, in a particular an internet-based approach. Our technology allows an engineer or architect to access the information using a password and search through the files for plans on a read-only basis. They simply type in what they are looking for and have it quick and easy.”

A traditional sector, the construction industry appears to be a tough nut to crack in terms of switching to internet-based technologies. But according to Branagh that is changing. “The industry has been slow to begin with. But we are starting to chip away in terms of digitising the maintenance records and have won some big international projects in Ireland and now we have offices in the States and UK. The take up of new technologies in the construction business in the States is quicker, while in Ireland there is still a little inertia. A massive overhaul in the industry began with the arrival of AutoCAD to speed up and improve design and generally it has swept through the industry.”

But how close are we getting to the point where this technology will be used on the building site? “It’s not something we are seeing in Ireland, but there are a number of applications for that. We are looking at putting digital maintenance onto a personal digital assistant (PDA) so that construction engineers on-site can find the exact information they are looking for. Also the scheduling of maintenance of buildings is very important and we are looking at putting all of this onto a PDA. This is happening internationally but we have yet to see it in Ireland. The industry will adopt it once they see it working.

“I think what’s going to revolutionise the future of construction will be the advent of the automated building. This will include things like smart homes and smart buildings, whereby residents can remotely access their heating systems over the internet or on a phone or PDA to turn the heating on or off. Likewise remote access to security systems for home users and commercial users will be a big factor in the future. [Another is] centrally managed buildings. If the doorbell rings and you’re not there, it phones your mobile or sends a message,” she says.

“We are looking at this whole area and hope to have an automated building guide released quite soon. It will function as a secure portal where people can log in and automate their buildings in terms of security, heating and facilities. Sitting at work, an engineer or a home or building owner only has to type in a user name and password that would log them into a remote site for interrogating buildings, to do such things as monitoring energy usage and waste.”

Branagh is confident that such tools will become the killer app in the construction business. “We are seeing the internet being used in a clever fashion by the construction industry and that’s going to continue. As a result of the dotcom bubble, people have tended shied away from the internet, but as a medium of delivering business benefit it is still a very clever medium.

“At present the business world is not really using the internet to their full advantage, but I believe that’s going to change,” Branagh concludes.

By John Kennedy