Constructionhub.co.uk was launched two weeks ago at Interbuild to “provide on-line trading and a collaboration platform for the property and construction industries”, according to the information pack. But go to the web site at www.constructionhub.co.uk and what do you find? A chance to register and a promise that more is “coming soon”.
Constructionhub is about the seventh portal to start up this year. The next launch will probably be Jackhamma.com, which is due in the autumn. And that is probably only the start, as there are reputed to be about 170 construction-related portals in the USA that could soon be heading across the Atlantic.
At this early stage, there is little to distinguish between the products. They all offer project management facilities for team collaboration. They all offer on-line trading so that subcontractors and materials can be bought over the Internet. And they all profess to be quicker, cheaper and more efficient than the present paper-based processes. According to the BuildOnline brochure, digital construction can cut build cost by 23% and build time by 15%. But with an ever-increasing number of players and less confidence in the e-commerce sector since e-tailer Boo.com went into liquidation, can all these portals survive?
It is six months since BuildOnline made its debut as arguably the first portal for the UK industry, but, despite a steady influx since of new players, e-trading in construction has been slow to take off. The reality gap between cyberhype and tangible achievement prompted the managing director of one software firm to observe: “There is a lot of virtual waffle at the moment and a lot of these sites don’t seem to do anything.”
The speaker here is Adrian Wild of House Builder XL, who has designs on offering an on-line buying service himself. His views are echoed by at least one of the target users.
“We are not convinced that portals are the right way,” says Vaughan Burnand, procurement director at contractor Shepherd. “The stories are greatly exaggerated. I am signed up to one and it doesn’t do anything yet.”
Is e-trading anti-Egan?
There is also a feeling that some of these portals may be missing the point. Most major contractors have embraced the Egan imperative of working more closely with fewer suppliers, which raises the question of why they would want to use a portal that connects them with myriad specialists. And if you stop going for rounds of golf with your favourite plasterboard manufacturers in favour of impersonal e-mail sessions, you lose the closeness of the relationship. Burnand’s view is that it is wise to sort out the best electronic solution directly with your preferred suppliers. “We are getting an understanding and setting up a protocol between us. We won’t be diving into a portal yet,” he says.
Apart from the procurement side, there are concerns among IT managers that diving into one portal runs too many risks. For a start, there is the risk of picking the wrong one. No contractor would want to be unlucky enough to sign up its project data and procurement programme to the Boo.com of construction sites.
However, it is almost inevitable that, given the current hot competition, there will be casualties. “If you went to your board and said we should back this portal, and six months later it went under, there’d be trouble,” says Mike Manisty, head of information and communications technology at Jarvis.
One group of five contractors is on the point of announcing its answer to the big portal question. Balfour Beatty, Laing, Amec, Kvaerner and Bovis Lend Lease shocked the industry in March by announcing a plan to work together to find an e-commerce solution that will be shared among them. The five are expected to unveil their portal towards the end of June.
This site could hit the existing portals’ business, but it is not all bad news. Both BuildOnline and Buildingwork.com attracted a large number of visitors to their stands at Interbuild. BuildOnline has started an aggressive marketing programme to sign up suppliers to its site. According to Bob Childs, director of Buildingwork.com, BAA and Railtrack are interested in the portal. American venture Cephren has 100 trial users across the USA and Germany. Cephren also has 2 million products registered.
But there are admissions that the way the portal issue has been overblown has not done the market much good. “There is a lot of marketing hype with very little to show, which is confusing the marketplace and raising expectations,” says Richard Proksa, vice-president of Cephren for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Until the current batch of portals can say that electronic trading has helped Joe Bloggs Contracting reduce procurement costs and raise turnover by x% over the past year, it is impossible to judge their mettle. They might not be demonstrating much at the moment, but the race to attract customers is on – and as the first prize is the lion’s share of the UK construction market, there will be none for second place.
Contenders for the portal crown
This American site was launched officially at the beginning of June. There are all the usual facilities – a project management tool, a procurement tool and 2 million products. It has 100 users trialling e-construction in the USA, Germany and the UK. Cephren has 50 million euros of investment and the stakeholders include Bechtel, Goldman Sachs and General Electric Power Systems.
As probably the first e-commerce site to throw its hat into the ring, this site has had a lot of publicity. However, it is still in its infancy in the UK. The firm is in the process of enlisting suppliers for the recently launched SuppliersOnline, which will be a forum for suppliers and buyers to communicate. More than 80% of the Irish suppliers market is already signed up. The portal also has a project collaboration tool, ProjectsOnline, for managing construction projects from design to maintenance, and BuyOnline for buying materials. There is £10.3m of investment in the site.
Yet another portal offering project management and a service for buying supplies and subcontractors on-line. This is in the test stage at the moment before its official launch in the autumn.
This site has evolved from a big shopping spree carried out by entrepreneur Phil Brown. As chief executive of Causeway Technologies, he owns estimating programs such as Esti-Mate, and he bought the Construction Directory of Suppliers and merged with Tradesmanlink.com, which links contractors to available labour. The site offers on-line procurement of subcontractors and materials, project management and a cost management tool.
The latest contender in the battle for construction portal supremacy, this site also offers a platform for on-line trading as well as a project management tool. The promotional brochure claims that the site offers information on news, information, training, education and employment in the sector. The site is independently funded but by who and how much is a mystery.
The Swedes have launched this on-line purchasing point in the UK. Its unique selling point is a reverse auction. A contractor looking for plasterboard, for example, can post its request on the site. The plasterboard manufacturers then have time to submit their price. The bids appear on the screen and the bidders get a chance to adjust their prices if they wish. The purchaser then chooses the bid it wants.
This is a simple procurement tool allowing the contractor, subcontractor and materials supplier to communicate. It is being trialled by, among others, Try and Tilbury Douglas. The system is part of the Ramesys stable of applications, which includes estimating package Esteem. Quote-on-Line will be officially launched towards the summer once the trials are finished.
House Builder XL
The firm behind the estimating and project management tool for the small builder or developer, including the one-man band, is in the throes of developing an on-line ordering system for its clients.