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How can IT work for the industry?

Why don’t construction firms get more from technology – whether to run projects, collaborate between firms, manage offsite builds or make their workforce more mobile? CN and Oracle brought together a group of industry experts to debate the issues

The table agrees construction could do better at using technology, but it has come a long way in a short time.

Issues of concern include whether or not the industry knows how to use technology to its best effect and factors such as the different demands clients have on uptake, how difficult it is to get frontline staff to use new technologies and the effects of industry fragmentation

Martin Rogers, chief executive, Edmund Nuttall Over the last five to 10 years the industry has moved forward.

If you look at one element you might say it's slow, but if you look at it overall, I'd say it's moved on dramatically.

One good example is in sustainability, where suppliers and product manufacturers have made great steps forward in bringing new products and technology into the forefront.

Stephen Wells, business development director, Costain Group We have come a long way. We've got a business collaborator system which is a victim of its own success. We rightly led all our customers and supply chain to input into it and the number of upgrades we've had is almost -exponential.

Just looking at the business collaborator alone, we've massively used that technology. We probably didn't know at the beginning how far we could take it.

We're engineers - we're not technologists or academics or people who derive technology.

Colin Waugh, director of strategy and business development, Clancy We're slightly different to most of the people here because half our business is repair and maintenance, that's where we have a high volume of work for quite small value. If you haven't got a good IT system for planning and recording that work we could lose out.

The other point I'd make is that it's fine for clients to talk about IT but all clients are different. We have to operate for London Underground in one way, Thames Water in another, other utility companies other ways - we run so many IT systems.

Richard Vining, director of defence and accommodation, Bovis Lend Lease Also, even within a single customer - something like the Ministry of Defence - it has a lot of different people who want something slightly different. Trying to make the technology all things to all people can be quite challenging at times.

The other thing that we probably spend most of our time doing is convincing our people to actually use the technology.

We're great at innovating and great at producing, but then when we try to get it working at grass roots level we find it can be difficult. You go right across the spectrum from people who like the old pad and pencil to those that like the technology.

Rob Owen, group director, Mace One of the things that we looked at when we first did a survey of all the different systems two years ago was to go down to grass roots level and say, "Right if you are a cost manager or a construction manager what will help you do your job better?

"We're not just going to land you with a whole new bag of tricks and say, 'There is a new tool, it's great, it's been designed by the boffins, go and use it.' If you do that the first thing they will do is say, "Oh my God."

Nigel Fraser, head of manufacturing strategy, BAA It's surprising how many things that are happening in other areas aren't happening in UK construction very effectively.

And it's largely due to this diverse, relatively unconnected supply chain and the risk aversion within projects.

The two combined can make it quite difficult to really exploit these technologies, particularly when everybody is operating on slightly different computer platforms and the interoperability between them is limited.

Rennie Chadwick, innovation director, Taylor Woodrow It's difficult to be absolutely black and white on this because there is a huge spectrum of per-formance across the construction sector. At our best we can be absolutely fantastic but our best doesn't stretch very far across that spectrum.

The variety of company sizes and the business models that go with that has a big drive on where the investment gets made and who specialises in what.

Martin Bailey, director of innovation, NG Bailey What I am heartened about is that in the last three years we have taken ourselves forward. In the last year people are now talking about innovation and it's different levels of innovation.

There's a wider discussion and people are starting to engage with it. Importantly, technology is a massive tool that we need to use to up the profile of our industry so that we attract a lot of young people into it.

The industry attendees ask why it is so hard to get IT companies to improve how different technologies – particularly collaboration tools – work on different platforms. Oracle argues that providers are working to combat this by setting up ‘middleware’

Martin Rogers One of the big advances has been in collaboration tools over the last two to three years. The disappointment there is that we are making advances but even after five to six years we haven't got a common platform. I donÕt think the IT industry has helped one iota.

Nigel Fraser The other thing is that the project management community hasn't really grasped the potential of collaboration tools because there are still a lot of people who see it as an overhead, rather than a means of unlocking productivity.

Stephen Wells Yes. Four years ago myself and our systems director bought a load of 3D/5D modelling stuff and we started to -pilot it on one of our key jobs. We almost enforced it on our project management teams.

A year and half later, they were singing its praises - it reduced an awful lot of clashes and it reduced tension on delivering projects.

If we had a common platform it would be more readily useable throughout the business - people would take it as part of their toolkit for project management.

Ian Chavasse, construction industry lead, Oracle The issue of siloed technologies is something we're very aware of.

In other industries, there's an element of standardisation that they have grown up with and imposed, supported by the world of IT. That's one of the things we are looking for in construction.

There are other ways, you mentioned collaboration, where we could support initiatives because of the might of Oracle. But we recognise that the world is never going to be Oracle end to end, nor should it be.

So how the industry can look at standardisation around inter-operability, around collaboration and other things, we would be interested, we would certainly invest but again that initiative has to come out of the industry.

Nigel Fraser It comes down to this fragmentation again. There are, for example, a fairly small number of players in CAD software and their involvement in construction is only part of their CAD portfolio. There seems to be a vested interest in their trying to maintain their differences.

There doesn't seem to be a collective client-base of theirs demanding it. The construction clients aren't the people buying the CAD systems - but we're the ones that can benefit from it being more joined up.

But as the architects are separate from the engineers and separate from the people that are doing the structural steel work, production design and so on, we don't seem to have anyway of creating that collective pull for interoperability standards.

Martin Rogers It's very easy to have a collaboration tool where everyone gets all the information but then everyone's meant to go and look for it.

You don't control the way in which that information is fed out, who it's relevant to and that sort of thing. That's why I think there's been a lot of difficulties in some of the areas, even when it has been set up with a level of collaboration at day one.

Richard Vining I have a slightly different perspective in terms of who's responsible, if one accepts that it is a very diverse industry with a lot of people using a lot of systems on a lot of different platforms.

You can look at it the other way and say what is a common platform that has a language that all those different systems can talk in - and interpret it back when you're designing?

There are different programmes that won't talk to each other, but there are ways where you can get them to build the same thing and interact with each other. To me that is the direction one should go in, to create something that will allow everything else to talk to it.

Steve Duff, consultant, Oracle Two years ago all the conversations were pretty much down to applications - what would the application deliver?

But we've noticed, certainly in the last 18 months, people saying, "You've got core applications that deliver a degree of functionality, it's about the architecture of making these additional applications and different vendors and different suppliers talk together."

Richard Vining And is there a common language that suppliers can use that you can innovate in your own right but have a common platform that everybody uses?

Ian Chavasse As an industry we are getting there because it was never all going to be Oracle or SAP. All the vendors are having to develop a common core of technologies, something called 'middleware', to allow all these applications to talk.

The reality is it's probably about five years away before this matures but there will be a way that applications can talk to each other, whether thatÕs an estimating package, a financials package or CAD.

There is a common theme that certainly the big vendors are signing up for and certainly Oracle is fully committed to this thing because we know the world is not going to be all ours. Our survival depends on how all these bits fit together so we have to support open standards.

The group identify some key areas they’d like help on in terms of technology: managing the whole-life cycle of a building; better technology to make the most of manufacturing processes; measuring carbon; mobile technologies; and virtual construction

Rob Owen One of the areas we're looking at is improving the transition between build and operation and maintenance. You've had five years on a major project - that's design, integration and design improvement and design information - then it gets put in a box, given to somebody as a client and you say, "There you go, there's your building, there's your operating manuals now come up with another system".

I think it's not just linking it through with the whole life thing, it's linking through also top to bottom.

We're very good at thinking just in our strata, but there is a whole supply chain there, there is a whole design team there, they're all part of the process. We have a habit of thinking about them as an -afterthought. We've got to bring them into it.

Rennie Chadwick Well, I think the whole energy agenda is going to drive some disruptive change in the way that we do things rather than just enabling us to carry on incrementally improving things in our own little bits.

There's a little gap that's been left in the argument so far. I think the technology for design for manufacturing assembly is going to be a key aspect to enabling us to do the whole thing better.

That means off-site and on-site. When we design things with CAD, those things that should be manufactured offsite can be readily manufactured off-site and then can be readily assembled onsite when we get to that stage of the process. Rather than it being an ad hoc kind of approach part way through the project development cycle.

So technology enables us to do that, to build it almost back to front.

Martin Rogers I think there's a really key point that is being raised here. This industry is so driven by costs. It's always been one of the biggest barriers we've faced.

With all our customers it's one-off projects, it's about cost and it's always a very short-term view. The greater we can get the integration, and the longer-term aspects of energy and FM and all those things that come from that side of the industry, driven back down the chain into the way we look and think about projects, the more focus there will be on value.

That's when the industry starts to change and that's where we start to get integrations as well.

Stephen Wells With regard to the carbon debate, we're all trying to give value to our customers.

Carbon is such a big subject, how do we understand it? And in trying to look at the carbon answer for our customers we're actually grappling with how do you measure it, how do you quantify it? There's so many different carbon calculators, where do you start?

And is one discredited by another? Because we don't want to end up saying, "My carbon calculator is better than yours."

I think we're trying hard, but if there's any technology that can help us through that, please send it to us.

Colin Waugh We have a big labour force of 1,300 people - of which 800 are fairly mobile and go to three or four workplaces in a day - so our big drive is on mobile technology.

We've brought in a system where each team has camera phones and we fire off six photos of every job we do.

It saves supervisors running around with drawings, going out and looking at work. People sitting in the office can actually view it.

What we need is another system, which we're working on, where all the data on these jobs gets handled electronically. There's too much paper flying around.

Nigel Fraser In terms of virtual construction, should the product of a construction project be the building, the physical asset, or should it be both a physical and virtual version of it?

During the life of the project through to the use of the building and decommissioning, the virtual version model is great for getting user requirement buttoned down, but equally the management of security systems.

We spend a lot of money surveying sites before we start building on them, if we actually had reliable models of what we owned we could probably save a lot of money before we kick the projects off.

Ian Chavasse One of the reasons we are happy to have this debate is to understand where some of the hot spots are and where there is an area people feel needs more input from Oracle and the rest of the IT industry.

I think the thing that really intrigues us is whole life cycle management. We work in another industry where everything is high-tech, where people build stuff and they have to maintain it for a large period. We've got tools which will do that which have been around for a number of years.

What we're looking for is partners who want to spend some time with us to take some of these tools and jointly take them forward.

To wrap up, the table talks about who should take the lead on improving uptake of technology. It’s generally agreed that it must be a group effort including the IT industry, Government, clients – but also the construction industry as a whole

Martin Rogers We need greater assistance from the IT industry. Moving forward I'm delighted to hear there's something going on in terms of 'middleware' but five years seems too long. Anybody who can deliver something in two years will get some real support.

Richard Vining In many respects, it should be the IT industry, but there's another part of me that says what is the entity that can control what influences all of this? Who are the people who commission and operate buildings?

But you don't necessarily get clients who do that - you get property traders and landlords, so even then it's split.

Rob Owen I did a bit of research before I came. In 2006, in terms of expenditure on construction, the top 10 clients generally contributed about 50 per cent. So can the Construction Client Group drive this forward?

Martin Bailey The people responsible for the built environment need to take a lead. I think with the energy agenda coming up, particularly if you look at existing buildings as well, which is 99 per cent of our building stock, it's how are we going to get that building environment all the more effective.

Rob Owen What I've been doing over the last two years is looking outside the UK industry.

In Holland and Belgium they've set up a platform called PSIPouw. It is driven by the government, but 65 to 70 per cent funded by the construction industry to drive technology forward.

They do it from the top, making the contractors come on board. If we're looking to improve UK industry is worth looking at?

America has got a similar kind of thing so do we look at other people or do we sit here and re-invent the wheels or challenge something else?

Rennie Chadwick There are things that can be done through changes to building regulations. But going back to implementation - in all of our experience, if you have people involved in developing the changes then they will adopt and implement it.

That's why I think the big drive for change is probably the people sat round the table here. We've got to lead the people in our businesses to do things differently.

Stephen Wells I think there's a lot in that. We targeted the nuclear fraternity about five years ago on decommissioning and we took oil and gas modular build offsite.

We did an executive board meeting at Sellafield recently - and it was interesting to see the time lapse DVD of a modular build of a major installation at Sellafield.

It convinced Sellafield Limited that you could land a whole load of offshore-fabricated, highly complex nuclear decommissioning units, in 15-30 units, and get these huge mechanical bogey-type systems to trundle along to the site from the beach and fabricate and bolt it all together.

Martin Bailey If we start acting and show where good practice has happened, let's not talk about where things go wrong, make sure that when good practice has happened we go and spread the word and give people the confidence.

So let's not say what we're doing is a load of rubbish. Let's look at what we're doing well. It's a gradual thing because no one likes it when someone comes in and says, "Your industry is a load of rubbish." We've got to build on the strengths that we have and try and get a positive image out there.

For more on the Dutch platform PSIBouw see