E-commerce solutions could transform the way the construction industry does business – if only we could understand what they all do. Here we look at the six main types of site on offer.
To many in the construction industry the subject of e-commerce is shrouded in thick mist. Grandiose claims are made for e-business solutions, but can they really transform everyday business dealings, saving everyone concerned a small fortune?

Davis Langdon & Everest has been trying to separate fact from fiction and here takes look at different types of technology providers, the specific services on offer and the advantages – and disadvantages – of e-business solutions.

Two principal areas of business activity stand to benefit: business process – the sharing and management of information through the supply chain – and business transactions – the buying and selling of products and services. Six elements of varying complexity are on offer under the e-business banner:

  • Construction project portals: These are a type of one-stop shop providing an integrated e-business package under one roof. They cover everything from industry news and information to the buying and selling of products and services using the internet. Examples of such sites are Asite and Buildingwork.

  • Information sites: These are electronic replicas of their paper-based weekly cousins, offering news and reports on subscription. Over time, daily news pages and email updates from suppliers such as Building and the Financial Times will be tailored to business and individual user interests.

  • Project collaboration extranets: These enable construction teams to communicate and share information. Drawings, specifications, meeting minutes and instructions can be viewed, exchanged and commented upon. A technique called "redlining" allows users to annotate (in different shapes, colours and fonts) electronic photocopies of electronic files, whether CAD drawings, text files or photographs. Security is provided using firewall technology and password control. All activity on the extranet site is recorded to provide an audit trail, although the legal admissibility of this information has yet to be established in court.

  • Knowledge and advice sites: An electronic half-way house between professional consultancy and information publications. For example, Groundbreaker provides a subscription service with information on issues such as site finding, capital allowance and approximate office fit-out costs. Consultants provide initial information, and subscribers can seek further advice via email or telephone.

  • Exchanges: These are e-commerce sites where goods or services can be bought. Potential customers can view commodity products and services, supplier price lists and availability. They then order online from suppliers, who approve or decline an order. Upon delivery, the supplier submits an invoice, which is paid either online, by electronic transfer of funds, or by cheque. Asite is developing and piloting these technologies at project level through electronic catalogues, with a portfolio of products and manufacturers. TravisPerkins and Buildercenter offer electronic catalogues of components from manufacturers.

  • Project tender and auction sites: These allow a construction team to communicate tender information to those on a shortlist. They can then return electronic forms of tender. Some suppliers go a stage further by offering an auction facility. Buildingwork and BuildonLine provide technology that allows construction teams, including quantity surveyors, construction managers and contractors, to tender over the internet rather than using software installed on their PCs. Freemarkets and EU-Supply offer technology and procurement consultancy to worldwide and European audiences respectively, covering everything from sanitary fittings to steelwork.

    Who will benefit from these sites?
    Project teams should benefit immensely from project extranets. Designers, quantity surveyors, contractors and subcontractors are able to view, review and redline comments on updated information as soon as it is available online. Project managers are able to monitor the production of information and responses to information requests via the project diary, task lists or performance reports. The information is accessible 24 hours a day and the knowledge base is constantly updated so all members of the team are aware of changes. This should help make decision-making faster and more efficient. An audit trail is maintained so that "who did what and when" can be monitored. The single electronic environment could create a project standard for all documentation in place of the paper chase that exists now.

    The supply chain as a whole could benefit from collaboration and tender extranets. Clients can obtain improved project transparency when all activity is recorded electronically, providing an audit trail. Contractors will be able to reduce tender administration costs. The cost of materials could come down as manufacturers and suppliers are able to view project demand using online procurement and delivery programmes, potentially allowing better use of resources.

    Do they have any disadvantages?
    There is a downside to this brave new world of electronic collaboration. There will be short-term costs before the long-term benefits can be realised. For example, additional telephone capacity will be required to allow on-demand access to project extranets. Training will also be needed in order to extract the maximum benefit from the investment, as is the case with most software applications. User protocols and implementation plans will be necessary to administer and manage information and because of the large number of extranet suppliers, users are likely to be exposed to different suppliers on different projects. Consequently, they will require training or retraining in the use of different technology; a similar situation, say, to using Excel or Lotus spreadsheets.

    In addition, when designers stop posting hard copies of drawings, non-design consultants and suppliers will have to print out their own copies. These additional printing and administration costs may outweigh any reduced design costs.

    High-speed internet access is also expensive and as a result extranets have become associated with slow upload and download times, particularly when users access project information at remote third-party locations.

    Are companies using the sites?
    The e-business market has been in a constant state of flux since last year and further consolidation is likely as collaboration and tender extranet technologies converge. Because of the lack of an agreed and adopted construction industry technology standard, potential users have been slow in adopting the new technology. Remember those early adopters of video technology in the 1980s who were left with redundant Betamax video machines when the inferior VHS standard won the day? Many people are choosing to wait and see what happens, which ultimately could prove the biggest barrier to take-up.