Picture a site where materials are delivered moments before use, in exactly the right order, and where everything fits into place in terms of space and time. Andy Pearson examines how a new three-step software system could help make this vision a reality
Imagine running a construction site like a car production line. A convoy of trucks arrive at prescribed intervals throughout the day: the trucks have been packed so that materials will be unloaded in the order in which they are needed, then delivered straight to the workface minutes before being used. And the teams employed to install these materials spend all their time doing just that – working on the installation, not moving piles of materials around the site to create space for other trades to work.

This is the vision that logistics giant Exel has for construction. The company recently took over automobile logistics expert FX Coughlin and now it is using Coughlin's supply-chain management skills to help it become the leading logistics company in construction.

But the problem faced by Exel in its assault on construction is that, unlike the automobile industry, construction projects are not planned in sufficient detail before building starts on site. Contractors are unable to define precisely, in advance, what materials are needed, the precise location of their installation, and the time the installer will require them. And without this information, Exel is unable to guarantee the "just-in-time" delivery system for contractors that it operates for major car manufacturers.

All this is about to change, however. FX Coughlin, working in partnership with software developer Start-global, has launched a software package called Start that will change the way construction defines its material requirements and with it, the way projects are planned.

The package will enable the delivery and installation of every construction element of a building to be programmed accurately. More importantly, it will also allow the main contractor, construction manager or client to introduce a collaborative planning system to optimise the use of space, time and resources on site, in order to define the most efficient construction programme.

The software has been developed from a program pioneered on MidCity Place, London, for developer Stanhope and construction manager Bovis Lend Lease. Start managing director Mike Holley and Huw Jones, managing director of Start-global, were both involved in producing the program, initially by adapting software already used in the car industry. This early version was one reason the MidCity Place scheme improved labour productivity by 10%. Once the scheme had been completed, Holley and Jones collaborated to incorporate the lessons learned at MidCity into the new Start software package.

The program comprises three basic modules: Startsite, Startnet and Startplan, which are combined to produce the planning system. The first step for a contractor to create an efficient site is to generate a three-dimensional visualisation of the project directly from the architect's drawing using the Startsite module. On to this visualisation, the contractor then adds the site's surrounding infrastructure, including access roads, proposed hoist and crane positions and circulation routes to and around the building to allow material movement to be planned.

Next, the contractor gets each of the specialist trade contractors to define the scope of their work on the project in the Startnet module. Startnet is a web-based workflow package that uses prompts to get the specialist to define precisely the tasks they will be performing. For each task, the program asks for information on the duration, in days and hours, the number of men and materials needed to complete the task and the material-handling and storage requirements.

To allow work to proceed in a logical order, the specialist also defines the priority of each task. So, for example, the concrete flooring contractor will prioritise its work to follow the steel-decking contractor, which, likewise, will follow the steel frame contractor. This is the only data input required for the program to run.

Having entered the data, the specialist then returns to the three-dimensional visual to define the area in which each task will take place. Although the order, location and duration of each task is defined by the specialist, the start date is not – this is added later by the contractor's planning manager. Once the specialist has entered the details of its package, the information is forwarded to the contractor's package manager for approval. If accepted, the package is integrated into the total works programme along with all the other specialist packages.

Finally, when all packages have been defined, the contractor, using the Startplan module, sequences each task. "This is the same as in a car factory, where a decision is made on how to achieve the most efficient assembly programme for all the components that make up a car," explains Jones.

Once the construction process has been optimised, the contractor specifies the start date and time for each task and forwards this information to the trade contractor for approval. And once a start date has been specified for a package, it can be plotted on the 3D visualisation to allow an hour-by-hour construction sequence for the building to be created.

It is at this point in project planning that the system starts to have real benefits for the logistics company and for the project's materials suppliers. This is because the program produces a schedule of materials, it defines their location on site and specifies the time and date they are required. By giving materials suppliers access to the system, the information can be scheduled into their production schedules.

Exel can then take over responsibility for the supply chain by controlling the materials from the supplier's factory door to the point of construction. In due course, the company is looking to do with construction what it already manages for car production. It orders and schedules materials, arranges their transport, tracks the material, and designs packaging to optimise space and handling. The company also manages the inventory and delivers components minutes before they are required.

This will enable contractors to programme their work on site efficiently and at the same time allow Exel to "take over responsibility for the just-in-time delivery of components," says Holley.

The program's benefits are not confined to pre-construction planning. Once work starts on site, a specialist's progress can be monitored against the agreed programme. If, at any stage, work starts or finishes late, the program flashes up a warning to the project manager. "It gets people to talk to each other by allowing them to see the impact of their setback on the other trades," says Jones. It also allows contingency measures to be put in place to keep the construction programme on schedule.

Access to the system is sold on a project-by-project basis. It is only four weeks since the software's launch, and already two contractors have signed up to the scheme. Holley says BAA is very interested because it would fit well with its framework contractors.

It is early days for Exel, but if enough projects sign up, it will not be long before the company's trucks are ferrying materials to and from construction sites, just as they do for car production lines. So, if the construction of Heathrow's Terminal 5 goes unusually smoothly, it may well be worth asking how it planned its project - you'll probably already know the answer.