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A task of Olympian proportions

AGENDA Viewpoint

Let the Olympics take a lesson from the retail sector, writes Matt Nichols

IT'S HOW supermarkets keep their shelves stocked with fresh food and how car makers ensure their production lines keep moving. Smart logistics is the science of getting materials to the right place at the right time and is the key to easing the toughest challenge the construction industry has ever faced - delivering the 2012 Olympic Games.

The Olympics will be a huge advertisement for London and an opportunity to showcase the UK's construction expertise. The prospects are huge, but so too are the potential pitfalls. Britain needs to be prepared as the Lea Valley is transformed into the biggest building site the country has ever seen.

In order to overcome these challenges a radical approach to logistics must be considered.

This solution must help overcome inefficient product movements, while getting the right products to the right place on time.

It's about time construction learned a thing or two from the big retailers. Companies can cut 20 per cent off their material and labour costs by using smart logistics techniques, which have been embedded in the retail industry for decades. Supermarket-style consolidation centres can reduce travelling times and transportation inefficiencies. Materials are logged, stored for brief periods and repackaged for delivery to the point of use. Contractors can therefore have the confidence that the right materials are readily available, keeping the construction process moving.

A centralised consolidation centre could reduce carbon emissions and remove the struggle into security-sensitive sites by ensuring that suppliers only have to deliver to one out-of-town site. Lorries are then filled and dispatched to appropriate locations. Why make 20 journeys into each site, when one lorry could deliver all the goods required?

Such consolidation centres can also deliver significant on-site benefits. Not only would they cut down on potentially dangerous on-site traffic but, if managed properly, contractors could have far greater confidence in the availability of materials and therefore a more productive workforce. Ensuring slick delivery, the centres can also help projects to be built faster, safer, cheaper and in more a sustainable way.

The challenging nature of the Olympic sites could make consolidation invaluable. Hemmed by the M25, the project will be subject to limitations on noise, traffic and night movement and, unless planned effectively, getting goods on and off-site will be a logistical nightmare. These issues will be made more complicated by the need to deliver goods in a way that is environmentally sound and considerate to the local population.

Endless lines of part-loaded construction lorries present a major problem for the traffic-clogged streets of south London, which will bear the brunt of any inefficiency. Local people obviously have to use these roads and live alongside them, so it will not be acceptable to add any more traffic than necessary.

In addition, the Olympic site will inevitably become increasingly secure to prevent any terrorist threats.

Checkpoints at the perimeter are a real possibility and logistics will need to be planned with precision.

With the 2012 Games on the horizon, the industry cannot fall into the black hole of other landmark projects that have tumbled over budget and deadline.

By investing in consolidation centres, the Olympics could create benefits beyond buildings alone - namely a change in our culture.

Matt Nichols is business development director at Wolseley UK