Being the first to introduce new technology is always a risky business. But around the country contractors have been testing hand-held devices that reduce paperwork.
They are already reaping the benefits. Alasdair Reisner and Emma Crates report
INTELLIGENT MOBILE OFFICE
Problem: One of the main issues with setting up site is the long time it takes in order to get the site office connected up to the phone network. It can take even longer to get a decent internet connection. 'It can take six to eight weeks to get a service to site, during which you have no non-voice communications, ' says Neill Pawsey, IT manager at Jackson Civil Engineering.
What: An all-in-one mobile off ice system that sits in a standard computer rack and connects to the internet via mobile data cards. As a result off ice internet connections can be established from the moment the team arrives on site.
Who: Jackson Civil Engineering was involved in the first phase of this project. The firm used the system on four previous projects and it is currently in use on its bypass project at Papworth in Cambridgeshire and at its British Sugar site in Wissington in Norfolk.
Shepherd is also now trialling the system.
Benefits: The IMO unit used by Jackson helped the firm to increase product ivity. There is also a cost saving compared with installing a phone line, the firm reckons. On a four-month project the tangible saving is estimated to be around £400. But there are many more savings that are difficult to measure. Couriers are no longer needed to deliver large documents, for example. 'On smaller projects it might otherwise have not been worth putting a line in. A device like this is a boon, ' says Mr Pawsey.
MOBILE PHONE TIMESHEETS
Problem: For many contractors the cost of setting up a system that measures when workers clock in and out of sites, particularly small sites or those that are only in place for short periods of time, can be prohibitive, so a more cost-effective solution is needed.
What: Software firm Kailaz has produced a simple application called MobiBiz that can be downloaded to any mobile phone. When workers arrive on site they use their phone to sign in with their presence and time of arrival confirmed by the position of their mobile. The system can also recognise when a worker does over t ime or can be used to register his reasons if he is late.
Where: The project is still in development but Kailaz hope to have a system up and running with firms including Balfour Beatty and NG Bailey by the end of the month.
Benefits: 'The employer doesn't need to do anything.
The back end is just a hosted server that the employer can log on to via the internet and get all the data about who is on site. Its about getting better accountability for workers, ' says Kailaz chief Sandeep Jain.
Problem: Hand-arm vibration syndrome is becoming an increasingly important issue in the construction industry with workers using hand tools having to The site of the future Instant communication with no paperwork. It sounds like a dream, but could it become reality for contractors? Sarah Bowden of Arup imagines a day in the life of a building site in the future JOE, a foreman for contractor BuildIT, enters the site at 8 am. He is automatically registered and receives confirmation of his tasks for the day. He looks them up on his SmartPhone.
The first is to supervise the excavation of a manhole.
Downloading the map, method statement, permit to dig and risk assessment, he heads out to meet the subcontractor gang from DrainIT. They have also been not if ied of their tasks on their phones.
Joe unfolds his e-paper to view the location map; this automatically orientates to where he is standing, showing where the buried services are.
He notes that there is an electricity cable close to the location and checks that this has been picked up on the excavator's system. Joe asks the gang to confirm that they are happy with the method statement. They select Y on their phones.
But then Joe receives an alert advising him that one of the gang has not had a safety induction.
He calls the health and safety officer who provides the induction using video-conference phone facilities.
The excavation begins. The operator has received location information to ensure the hole is dug to the correct dimensions.
The gang leader sends a message on his phone to signify completion. This alerts the site engineer to inspect the excavation. He downloads the final dimensions from the excavator to ensure these are correct and then heads out to make his checks.
Joe also receives an alert, and looks up the materials that are required to complete the job. All of the materials are in the stores except for the step-irons.
He sees that although they ran out yesterday, the supplier was automatically alerted and new deliveries are expected that afternoon.
Meanwhile, the health and safety officer notices that the excavation has not been fenced off. She types 'excavation' into her phone and draws up a menu of applicable hazards.
She selects the hazard type, confirming that she is standing next to it. The phone sends a message to the foreman in charge of that area.
As the subcontractors walk across the site their phones start to siren and a message appears notifying them that they have entered a danger zone where crane operations are going on.
The crane operator receives an alert to halt work immediately.
Joe meets the gang at the excavation and once the excavation has been fenced off, he responds to the hazard alert by entering Y on his SmartPhone.
Meanwhile the BuildIT planner notes that the subcontractor is consistently ahead of schedule and readjusts the project est imated f inish t ime accordingly. This informat ion can be used on the next project BuildIT undertakes.
Five o'clock is fast approaching and Joe's SmartPhone is still operating on full power thanks to his solar panel jacket. He receives an alert to let him know that the step-irons have arrived, this was triggered when the delivery van pulled through the gates.
Checking the programme, he decides that this work can be left until tomorrow. The prospect of having to type up paperwork is a distant memory.
SALFORD University is part of a Europewide consortium, led by the Danish Technology Institute, which has been researching the use of radio frequency identification tags and their potential in the construction sector.
RFID has been effective in other sectors including retail, libraries, healthcare, and food quality control and sourcing.
The tags can either be passive - the type that will set off a sensor if they are taken out of shops - or active - transmitting information.
'The simplest applicat ions are used for identification, ' says Carl Abbott, senior research fellow and manager of Salford Centre of Research and Innovation.
'They can be attached to pallets and are a quick way of identifying deliveries.'
But RFID tags can also be used for facilities management. PDAs used to scan barcodes on equipment that requires regular checks, such as boilers, can also be used to access service records, which can be updated on the spot. The tags could also be used to keep track of plant hire equipment.
'There is no shor tage of applicat ions, ' says Mr Abbott. 'The question is, where will the technology take off best? At present there are only isolated examples of RFID being applied in construction.'
Bovis was an early pioneer, trialling the use of tags for the use of plant maintenance.
Arnlea Systems is currently conducting a trial with Amec on RFID-enabled rental plant equipment tracking systems, so that sites can keep track of where the equipment is. Meanwhile, utilities company Hydra is t r ialling the use of tags on pipeline joints to get early warning of water leaks.
Mr Abbott says there is absolutely no doubt of the benef its of RFID tags. The technology is proven, 'The harder problem is changing how we work.'
In the future, he adds, more research needs to be done on the kind of intelligence that can be added to the tags. Using them as sensors could lead to applications such as checking stress on bridges.
'But in the short term, ' adds Mr Abbott, 'we need to examine the take-up issues.
Despite what would seem to be obvious benef its, people seem slow to adopt them.'