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Building links on the superhighway

Anybody in the construction industry who uses a computer would do well to visit Construct IT, the construction computing exhibition, which takes place in London next week. Over the next five pages we examine some of the IT issues affecting the industry and preview some of the new systems which will be on display

Does the Internet send a technophobic shiver down your spine? Like it or not, its here to stay, so how can you make the most of it? Margo Cole reports

FIVE years ago the Internet was strictly for the experts. Its complex network system and the need for specialist hardware made it the preserve of computer buffs.

But now things have changed dramatically. The Internet is now part of everyday life for a lot of people many of them in the construction industry.

Construction firms already use the Internet as a way of communicating, both internally and with clients around the world. They use e-mail to send messages instead of using the phone.

Project management firm Bovis has 4,000 staff in 30 countries. Says director Peter Morris: We are split into three divisions Europe, the United States and the Asia Pacific region so we need to put a lot of effort into thinking as a global company. And because we are spanning all 24 hours in time zones, learning to communicate across a network is very important for us.

Dr Morris believes the technology is now in place to do that efficiently, through video-conferencing, CD-Rom, e-mail and the Internet.

The Internet is only one of the communication media and technologies available to us, he says. Its an over-used word because its sexy, but basically it is just a way of communicating on telephone lines for the cost of a local call.

The firm is about to establish its presence on the Internet by setting up a web site for use by its employees. It will be closed to outsiders, but Bovis staff will be able to communicate cheaply with each other, and get access to bulletin boards, databases and memos, as well as sending project information.

But Dr Morris is wary of using the Internet to send anything sensitive even using a supposedly secure web site or dedicated network. Security on the Internet is supposed to be guaranteed by fire walls dedicated security servers which act as a screen between internal networks and the rest of the Internet. Brian Aldred, networks project manager at consultant W S Atkins, says: A fire wall is like a wall in the computer network which stops outsiders getting in but lets us get out. They are supposed to be 100 per cent secure, but its like any wall: if you miss a brick out, someone can get in.

Atkins is another multi-national company which uses the Internet for internal communications. It has a private e-mail service but also makes wider use of the Internet by scouring the various web site home pages for information.

We use it to search for new clients and for building teams, explains Mr Aldred. If we are looking for expertise in a certain area, we can deal directly with individuals without having to meet. Its like direct marketing, but on a world-wide basis.

Staff also trawl the Internet for research information, although some of it has to be treated with caution, as there are no safeguards on who posts information.

But the system has proved invaluable for problem-solving. W S Atkins recently had computer difficulties which stumped the firms which supplied the equipment. By sending an e-mail out onto the open access bulletin board, the firm got a reply overnight from a computer expert who solved the problem.

W S Atkins engineers have access to the Internet on their desks, and many also have it at home, which increases flexibility, according to Mr Aldred.

'It means they don't have to be at the office to work,' he explains. From that point of view the Internet is another tool to help people work anywhere, which is helping to break down communications barriers.

But Mr Aldred believes the Internet is at a crossroads. If you compare the Internet with a road map, its all A-roads and B-roads, he says. We dont have any motorways yet but, when we do, things will work a lot faster, and well have a lot more possibilities, such as video and virtual reality. But motorways take money to build, and someones got to pay for it.

Internet users usually pay a fixed monthly fee to a service provider for the access and are then charged at a local call rate for the time they spend connected to it. Most information on the Internet is free and consists mainly of promotional material and academic research. But the amount of commercially useful information available is likely to increase once organisations have worked out how to make money out of it.

Rob Howard, director of the Construction Industry Computing Association (CICA), says: The mechanisms for charging for access will improve as more commercial networks come along which allow you to pay for access to restricted areas.

The CICA launched a home page last year which provides a good starting point for accessing construction data. The page is updated every month to advertise events and to tell users what other construction services are available on the Internet.

Weve got about 40 or 50 references on our page, and our approach is to keep our ears to the ground to keep track of what is there, explains Mr Howard. We often get messages from people telling us about other pages, and Im sure this is only the tip of the iceberg.

The CICA has alerted all its members to its home page, but does not intend using it to replace mail shots just yet. Last year only one quarter of the associations members admitted to having an e-mail address. But this may be because they dont want to be flooded with unwanted messages.

W. S. Atkins is investigating the idea of having a home page on the Internet to advertise the firms activities but is nervous about the amount of interest it might generate.

We are conscious that if we start advertising, we could get 1,000 enquiries, and then have to work out how to deal with them, says Mr Aldred.

But some UK construction firms have already taken the plunge, and many more are about to launch their own home pages. Wimpey already has a presence, as do HBG group companies Edmund Nuttall, Kyle Stewart and GA. Later this year Costain, Amec, Bovis and Trafalgar House Construction will all make their presence felt.

Costains IT project coordinator, Nici Bouchier, has been working on the firms home page for the last two months, and putting it through internal trials before a decision is made by the board. She says it is vital to link the page into other related pages. For example, if Costain is mentioned in a related database or directory, the name will be highlighted and a link established so that, when the user clicks on to the word, the home page will automatically be displayed. That way users can get access to Costain information without knowing they had to look up Costain in the first place, which should catch more browsers.

Most service providers offer a facility which counts the number of times the page is accessed, giving a good indication of how successful it is as a marketing tool.

At the moment, much of the information on the Internet comes from America and that goes for construction information as well. But there are definitely some useful things to be found. Many UK research bodies have material available through it including the Buildings Research Establishment and several universities.

Trawling for information can be quite a slow process, and the system is by no means perfect. But it is not difficult, and can be rewarding. And once a few more companies get their information up there, it may well become a cheap and cost-effective way of collecting and transmitting information throughout the construction industry.

Its like direct marketing but on a world-wide basis

Brian Aldred, W S Atkins