Imagine project data, emails and the company file server at your fingertips, whether on site or on the move. Then again, why waste time imagining: wireless technology is here and it’s about to do to data exchange what the mobile did to voice communication.
For a project manager, Ian Lyons has a very flashy laptop. In its sleek black case, the Toshiba looks as if it would be more at home in a Soho advertising agency than a dusty site office behind the Royal London Hospital in London’s East End. But this isn’t favouritism or oneupmanship: his Laing O’Rourke colleagues in the portable office have similar machines.

Small stickers on the laptop’s casing read “Centrino”, chip maker Intel’s built-in wireless technology for laptops. Centrino has made wireless communication a practical proposition for the industry, and Laing O’Rourke is trying it out at the site of a pathology laboratory at the Royal London. If it lives up to its promise, it will be rolled out company-wide.

For an industry so dependent on swapping drawings and specifications, wireless technology could have the same

impact on data exchange as the mobile phone did on voice communications. Sam Simons, Laing O’Rourke’s director of strategy, says: “On a building site, you’re in a data dead zone. This technology allows you to have

live information at your fingertips. Keeping data live and up to date is becoming more and more critical. We see this as very powerful, and enabling faster completion times.”

Laing O’Rourke’s company-wide wireless strategy will equip many of its 4000 staff with wireless-enabled laptops or personal digital assistants, and transfer the lessons from the Royal London to other projects.

Lyons has already converted to the technology. “We can access information on the server or the company intranet from anywhere in the office. It’s open-plan, but if you need to be alone there is a room downstairs we use. With this it’s easy.”

The first advantage is evident right from the start of the project. “When we come to site, we usually have to install Category 5 data cabling throughout the offices,” Lyons says. “Frequently our offices move within the site boundary, and this makes it much easier. Before, you had to rewire from scratch; there was a cost to this, and you were not connected to the network for what could be a day or a week.”

As the Royal London progresses, the wireless link will be extended to cover the whole site. For instance, piling workers can be equipped with wireless-enabled PDAs so they can call up the next set of piling co-ordinates without having to walk back to the site office. When the building is finished, snagging lists can be checked off on PDAs as the work is done, and the main database instantly updated, instead of laboriously keying in the data back at the office afterwards.

  Part of the strategy is to make it simpler for roving site managers to hook up to the system when they visit Laing O’Rourke’s head office at Dartford, Kent, which is wireless-enabled.

Lyons has just returned from two days in Dartford. “With this it’s great, I just turn the laptop on and it works. I can collect my emails from anywhere in the office.”

Wireless communications will have even bigger benefits on large sites. Laing O’Rourke is responsible for the substructures and other work at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 and is proposing the use of wireless technology to client BAA.

“The T5 site is enormous,” says Cedric Carr, Laing O’Rourke’s head of building services. “The guys normally have to get into a van and drive to get back to the office. Our people have a plan for the day’s work: if something goes wrong and they need information they could lose two hours driving back to the office and finding that information. This cuts down that grey time and improves business efficiency.”

The sheer size of the project demands a new approach. Laing O’Rourke plans to dot “information centres” around the site: these are self-contained buildings that can be moved around as work progresses and are connected to the main database with a wireless link. Each will have an A0-size touch-sensitive screen for displaying drawings. Users will be able to zoom in on details and even draw on the screens.

This is only the beginning. Laing O’Rourke is experimenting with RFID chips: tiny wireless devices that can be embedded in products and hold an entire specification. The chip can be read by a wireless PDA, and at the press of a button a user can access all the details of every product in a room. Some versions are rewriteable, so facilities managers can download information about a product, service it and then add the new details to the chip. In fact, Lyons’ laptop is beginning to look a little dated …

Working with wireless technology

WiFi, short for Wireless Fidelity, is a dedicated set of radio frequencies enabling electronic devices such as computers to connect to a public or private network.

Laing O’Rourke has set up its own WiFi network and installed 16 transmitters to cover its head office at Dartford. There is currently just one transmitter in the site office at the Royal London Hospital, although more will be needed to cover the whole site as work progresses. The system uses standard, off-the-shelf equipment.

Recently, the technology has become much cheaper, and the launch of Intel’s Centrino technology for laptops was a “significant step forward”, according to Sam Simons, Laing O’Rourke’s director of strategy. Centrino is WiFi enabled, and makes much more efficient use of battery power.

“This has made a big change,” says Simons. “You can get a day’s use out of one charge in normal operation.” This is double the typical battery life of earlier laptops.

However, one potential downside is preserving data security. Theoretically, anyone with a WiFi-enabled device can hack into a private network, as radio signals do not respect site boundaries.

Ben Mackay, Laing O’Rourke’s technical services manager who is responsible for implementing the system, explains that the company has devoted considerable time and resources to sorting out security issues. “There are systems in place to prevent just anyone tapping in, since each machine identifies itself to the network. This is one of the things we tested and tested before rolling it out.”

Mackay says the Royal London Hospital pilot project has been invaluable. “We have learned a lot here about the type of kit we need. From now on it will become part of what we offer every site.”