The black art of logistics used to be organised by a whiteboard and a magic marker. Now software is being developed that can ensure the most complex jobs are run with optimal efficiency.
Every day, 300 lorries arrive at Canary Wharf. They are loaded with enormous steel sections, delicate electronics, cladding and floor tiles, ductwork, plasterboard, mirrors, paint, light fittings and they come along a single snaking road to a site surrounded on three sides by water, where 12 buildings are being erected.

Space here is so tight that there is nowhere to park a truck or store its load; each delivery is immediately directed to its prearranged date with one of 33 tower cranes or 44 hoist cars, unloaded on the spot and sent away to allow the next in. One load at the wrong time can snarl up the whole site – and if the wind speed exceeds 38 mph, the cranes stop working and the whole lot has to be rescheduled …

Running this site using the traditional marker pen and whiteboard would be, to say the least, impractical. Canary Wharf therefore sought a digital solution. It asked a consultancy called the Logistics Business to develop a software package that would mesh deliveries with crane and hoist slots. "On a high-rise project, your most valuable asset is your hoist and crane," says Douglas Blackstock, senior logistics manager for Canary Wharf Contractors. "Everything is governed by that hoist and crane, so you have to schedule it efficiently."

The consultant came up with Zone Manager, the first delivery scheduling software specific to the construction industry. It was developed from a package called Dock Manager, which was used by food company Quaker Oats to manage the loading and unloading of vehicles at docks – another logistic process with strict space and time constraints.

How the program works
The company's site is divided into 12 zones for the 12 buildings. Every crane and hoist in each zone is entered into the system and the day is divided into potential unloading slots. The trade contractor books a slot. Next, it schedules its delivery to coincide with it. Vehicles arrive just before the scheduled time and are directed to a holding area.

At the allotted time, the vehicle is directed to its crane or hoist. Drivers who turn up unannounced or at the wrong time get short shrift. "The daily supervisor gets a list of all deliveries for each site," says Blackstock. "If a delivery turns up at the wrong time, it gets turned away."

The program has recently been adopted by Bovis Lend Lease, Wates and logistics specialist Wilson James. Wilson James replaced whiteboards with the software late last year on the Paternoster Square office development in the City of London. "It's not rocket science in IT terms, but it's incredibly useful," says Gary Sullivan, a director of Wilson James. "At Paternoster Square we use it like an airport departure screen – we can see where the materials are in real time, which is proving a great benefit to the trade contractors. They can view it on a screen and see where their materials are without having to ring us up or send someone down to check."

Ian Lister, senior manager at Wilson James, says the program has other useful features, too. "You can see if suppliers are consistently late or using more resource than scheduled," he says.

He is quick to point out that any firms behind with their deliveries are not formally penalised, but at least they can be identified and a quiet word exchanged.

The software's functionality includes being able to check how efficiently a crane or hoist is being used so unnecessary plant can be culled, and money saved. And maintenance can be planned and deliveries scheduled months in advance – with the old method of using a whiteboard, you are lucky if you can plan a few days ahead. This is particularly handy if deliveries big enough to necessitate road closures are planned.

Sullivan sees the software bringing even bigger benefits in the future. "The first step is to improve the on-site handling of materials," he says. "The next step is to integrate all the trade contractors and their suppliers so they can organise their own scheduling."

Sullivan plans that for the next Wilson James project, all the computers will be networked and connected to the internet so that trade contractors can choose slots and upload them onto the web, where suppliers and hauliers can see the scheduling information. On the project after that, he hopes the suppliers and hauliers will be able to book their own delivery slots over the internet. And on the one after that …

Deliveries in, rubbish out

BRE has produced software to identify waste streams on site so that recycling polices can be implemented. It has developed two simple programs that can be used over the internet. SmartStart quantifies 12 different types of waste material, and SmartWaste takes this a step further by identifying where on the site the material originates. Armed with this information, contractors can take steps either to cut down waste generation in the first instance or initiate a recycling strategy. “SmartStart gives us very clear and concise details as to what’s produced on site,” says Dave Bulman, a director at logistics and support services company Alandale Logistics. Site managers assess waste streams using a logging-in sheet by estimating the amount of each type of waste in skips and wheelie bins that would be leaving the site anyway. This information is uploaded onto password-protected software on BRE’s website. The result is a graphical representation of waste streams that can be compared with the industry average, enabling companies to benchmark their waste production. Alandale is implementing SmartStart as a free service on all projects where it is responsible for waste management. They will produce a monthly report showing how much of each type of waste is produced and make recommendations for either reducing waste production or increasing recycling. The more sophisticated program, SmartWaste, requires more investment in training and someone to spend several hours a day logging in waste production and its origin into a personal digital assistant. However, the greater level of detail enables companies to take more targeted action. There is also an area on the website for storing site photographs – so if, for example, trade contractors leave rubbish lying around, the logistics company can charge them for removing it and use the photographs as evidence. Alandale used SmartWaste at developer Stanhope’s Chiswick Park business park in west London. It found that packaging made up 34% of all waste produced, and much of this was due to overpackaged ceiling tiles. Each tile was individually wrapped, placed into a box, and loaded onto a pallet. Alandale cut this waste in half simply by telling the manufacturer to put the tiles straight onto the pallet and shrink-wrap them in plastic for protection.