Building on the back of technology


26 Jun 2003

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Construction at the sharp end is never going to be an e-business. But this is where the challenge is for the many sets of professional and commercial interests in the construction industry and the technology providers. The 1998 report Rethinking Construction by Sir Paul Egan, commissioned by the UK Government, concluded that as much as 30pc of total construction costs arise from inefficiencies, principally re-working after mistakes and a 10pc wastage rate of materials.

It may be all too banal, but the first major impact of IT across the construction industry was email — as it has been in most sectors — and it is still the principal and the only universal application. At the design end of things, architects and engineers are using extremely smart and sophisticated software. Electronic tendering is common and, in fact, now standard in state projects. Professionals on-site in hard hats are using laptop computers to consult plans and documents and exchange email by mobile phone. At the far end, as buildings are handed over to their owners by the contractors, there is an increasing trend towards generating a final building information model (BIM), a total electronic picture of every aspect of the project from design through construction reports to a database of all materials, components and suppliers. But there are lots of holes in the middle — deep, mucky holes with concrete trucks and reinforced steel and site offices and portaloos and cranes.

These research figures from the UK Government, necessarily estimated, are not particularly surprising to those in the industry. They point to the unique nature of construction, with so many different professions, businesses and trades collaborating on every single project. The projects, in turn, are always one-off, whatever the superficial similarities.

That’s where Irish firm BuildOnline saw a major market opportunity with an online e-commerce, or as it calls itself ‘e-construction’, website dedicated to the construction industry. BuildOnline (www.buildonline.com) is now a European provider of internet-based collaboration software and supplier relationship management tools, with market leadership in the UK and Ireland and a strong presence in France, Germany and other markets.

Aiming to improve the productivity of the international infrastructure, construction and utility industries, BuildOnline now has hundreds of projects working through its system at any one time, according to managing director Ed Crotty. “But even we have to concede that formal collaboration is only one part of the jigsaw. It has proven its value in contributing to greater efficiency — speedy accurate communication, everything recorded and timed and so on — but once things get on-site there are other inefficiencies that inevitably kick in,” Crotty says. The system does provide tools for workflow management throughout a project, notably between the design team, on-site contractors and client.

But Crotty and others acknowledge that IT is making its contribution principally through the extension of the well-developed CAD (computer aided design) end of things complemented by the speed and versatility of internet email for document exchange. Alan Hore of DIT Bolton Street is one of the founding directors of the Construction Information Technology Alliance (CITA), an Irish initiative with 62 industry members from the main government departments involved in construction (Education, Environment and Finance) through the academic institutions to the major construction firms and professional firms and associations.

Aiming ‘to actively encourage the Irish construction sector to take full advantage of current and emerging ICT [information and communications technology’, it acts as a forum for the exchange of information, experience and best practice. CITA is also driving the adoption of collaborative tools through the industry leadership status of its member organisations. An early success is the acceptance of a common Irish convention for a drawing ‘layer/overlay’, which means different professions will be able to work seamlessly on the same CAD files. CITA currently has specialist groups looking at materials procurement, commercial e-tendering, online collaboration and software object technology. “It is all of those areas in the middle of the construction process, from the design stage through to completion and billing, that offer potentially the most return from IT,” says Hore. “Yes, email is the killer application across the industry, but there is enormous potential in systems to assist the on-site construction phase of projects. At the moment they are still almost exclusively paper-based — although the paper is itself mostly PC-generated!”

Possibly the best bird’s eye view of IT in Irish construction is held by Cadcoevolution, a Cork-based distributor of the market leading AutoCAD set of design packages. “At the design end, the industry in Ireland is very progressive and our professional architects and engineers are well up to any international level,” says Seamus Hurley, director of Cadcoevolution. “Think of the major multinationals and what they have built here, from high-tech electronics to pharmachem process plants. Yet there is still an inordinate amount of printed material around in the construction industry.”

This is at least partly because there is a real fear that things will be changed — drawing details, specifications, quantities and so on — between the many parties involved. Revision and change is absolutely part of the process, but unless it is known and flagged in every instance there can be knock-on repercussions — even expensive legal ones. So unalterable paper records and signatures, however scribbled, are still the norm, even though the industry is generally aware of the possibilities offered by online collaboration, digital signatures and so on.

“But the trend is towards e-business solutions across the project teams and through its lifespan,” says Hurley, “and I think a major driver will be the trend in state and private contracts towards more design and build and even design/build/maintain contracts. The clients are looking for fixed prices. The contractors especially can only generate bottom line savings through greater efficiencies. Where the same company is involved all the way, adopting smart collaborative technology becomes much easier and is, in any event, driven by commercial return on investment. A saving of perhaps 1pc of project costs will always be a significant sum of money — even more so if it can be transferred to gross margin.”

Ireland’s largest contractor across all sectors, from civil engineering to industrial and commercial construction, is the 144-year-old group John Sisk & Son. “We have made a major investment in technology in recent years and continue to extend it,” says Joe Gaffney, group head of IT. “There are six permanent regional offices and 15 major project sites all linked on our wide area network. All in all, there are over 300 PCs on that network, of which more than half are now laptops because so many of our senior people are mobile a lot if not most of the time.”

That network is now totally IP-based (internet protocol) with virtual private network technology for those locations and individuals that have dial-up access, including ISDN. Sisk made the decision to entrust its network infrastructure as a managed service to InterFusion Networks so that all of the network and security issues are handled by its control centre while the company IT team concentrates on its applications.

“Email has been the system we could not live without for years,” says Gaffney, “although even today large file sizes are still an issue. But we built the infrastructure because we are investing in a comprehensive construction industry software solution COINS that we have just started to implement. Procurement and purchasing are where we start — followed by accounts, naturally enough. The whole process will take over a year, but where we are looking for the most interesting returns is in the ERP [enterprise resource planning] modules that are construction specific. That whole area between design stage and project completion is where IT and e-business can bring us — and this industry — several giant steps forward.”

By Leslie Faughnan