Laser-scanning photogrammetry from helicopters? Video glasses connecting site workers together through the internet? You ain't seen nothing yet …
If someone returned to our industry today after a five-year absence, they could be forgiven for feeling somewhat left behind by the pace of technological change. Many of the tools they would have been using five years ago are now obsolete and others have "morphed" into something entirely different. Is this an exaggeration? Perhaps – but only slightly.

At Amec, we are working with a US university to develop a light, wireless microcomputer that will be attached to the belt of an on-site service worker and connected to mini-monitor eyeglasses. The device will allow the worker to access the internet and share on-site information in seconds. The possibilities for improved speed, safety and client service are enormous. It seems that the future is not what it used to be.

Today, most successful organisations view technology as a key way to differentiate themselves and secure competitive advantage.

At Amec, we have made it a priority to use technologies that can help us generate greater value for our customers. Indeed, we are helping develop these technologies.

Three areas where technology now plays an important role are: design and project management systems; the ways in which we are able to share knowledge; and on-site delivery of client-support services.

Design and project management
The engineer returning from a five-year sabbatical would certainly find that advances in design software have been among the most significant drivers of change for our industry. We commonly use software tools to design projects and help our clients visualise the impact on their facilities. Fairly standard photomontage and CAD software can now be used on a normal laptop; 3D design visualisation and 3D photographic panoramas, which once required specialised high-performance equipment, can now be carried on a notebook computer to provide clients with a clear visual sense of their project during early negotiations.

At Amec, sophisticated process-simulation software enables us to simulate the performance, quality and operability of new or upgraded process plants for clients in sectors such as energy, forestry or mining. And our own web-enabled project-management system allows us to maintain and manage a single source of quality data for some of the most complex projects.

Technology helps us to manage projects more efficiently and to focus, from the earliest stages of our work, on better ways of delivering value to our clients. It is also helping us to design and manage projects in ways that were unimaginable just five years ago. But the modern construction company must do this while serving an increasingly international base of clients.

The possibilities for improved speed, safety and client service are enormous. It seems that the future is not what it used to be

Rapid sharing of knowledge
Another area where technology is crucial is in being able to share knowledge regardless of physical location so that the right people can be given the right tasks at the right time. It is not possible for companies with offices in more than one country to have all the necessary resources in every location. Yet established clients expect to retain access to the people who know them best, wherever they may be located.

The internet, computer networks and interactive design and project management systems are the tools Amec uses to help our people share their knowledge and form virtual teams around the world. For example, web-based collaboration tools will enable our Aberdeen-based offshore service to support Shell's Malampaya offshore production facility in the Philippeans. Similarly, our UK expertise in Rebis plant design software is helping to support projects in two US offices.

Such tools are now widely available and we use many of these excellent products at Amec. But as multi-office collaboration became a more regular part of our business, the benefits of developing customised project web technology became increasingly clear. These systems ensure that we can extend our capabilities further and enhance customer communication without incurring all the costs, wasted time and personal wear and tear of actual travel.

Client-support services
The running of maintenance and operational support services is the third area to benefit from technology. The work we are doing with the US university, mentioned earlier, is an example of how we are looking to the future. Another advance here in the UK has been the development, with clients in the power sector, of laser-scanning photogrammetry from helicopters. This innovation is allowing us to build an advanced database of UK power transmission lines, complete with on-screen links to engineering drawings for use by engineers, maintenance crews and others. Again, technology is not only increasing efficiency, it is building healthy long-term client relationships for the future.

Essential to the use of technology is proper training. The pace of technological change requires companies to spend more time ensuring their employees keep up – technological literacy is now an essential part of any safe, productive workplace.

Companies must make it a priority to apply and develop beneficial technologies. We can all buy the next software package off the shelf, but the real benefit comes from taking an active and innovative role in developing technologies that can meet specific business objectives.