The managers of IT systems across the construction industry met at the Construction Industry Computing Association conference to discuss their successes – and outline a vision for the future.
“The next decade is when it’s all going to happen,” says Richard Saxon. “We are all going to be rich,” he adds, smiling broadly. The second comment is a flip remark. The first is serious. Building Design Partnership’s chairman is convinced that the next 10 years will see a revolution in the construction industry’s use of IT.

Saxon was speaking at the Construction Industry Computing Association’s annual convention at Downing College, Cambridge, at the end of last month. Delegates came from all walks of the construction sector and included major clients such as Severn Trent Water and London Underground, as well as IT managers from Jarvis, Bovis and Laing.

In his opening address, Saxon referred to the latest fashion in procurement – prime contracting – as an area that would benefit from greater use of IT systems. Prime contracting relies heavily on sophisticated supply chains working in harmony. One of the ways they can do this is by exploiting document management systems, the Internet

and extranets to ease communication on projects and create an audit trail. E-commerce will also offer major advances in the management of supply chains.

Process simplification

Saxon is not an IT specialist but backs its use as an opportunity to simplify processes. He has even pressed the government to demand that document management systems be used on all government projects. So far, the idea has not been adopted, but if the government were to take the initiative, this would ease the introduction of a standard in the industry.

But it is not only communications that can be improved by technology. Saxon believes that there is enormous potential for creating building prototypes before work starts on site.

“Simulation and visualisation of proposals could avoid clients moving into a building and saying, ‘It’s very nice but not what I expected,’” he told the convention. But he concedes that technology for simulating buildings before a spade hits the ground still has some way to go.

Simulation and visualisation of proposals could avoid firms moving into a building and saying “It is very nice but not what I expected”

Richard Saxon, BDP

A move into a new age of technological advancements in construction was also hailed by other speakers at the convention. Dave Field, knowledge manager at LU, admitted the enormous task faced by the organisation in garnering its own assets and creating a useful database that allows authorised users access to information. This is a particularly acute issue now that the Underground faces partial privatisation.

Cost savings

The use of IT as a means of controlling assets, whether these are offices or sewage treatment works, was highlighted by Jim Bostock of Severn Trent Water. The utility’s head of asset management aims to complete every aspect of the firm’s £28bn operational asset base by 2001, and in doing so to increase the firm’s efficiency. With a capital expenditure programme of £500m a year, the potential for savings is enormous.

To harness asset information in a useful format, Bostock began by building a simple database. Once the inventory was complete, he added performance data for components.

This means that all capital expenditure is connected to operational expenditure, making it easy to compare capital costs and running costs. “We wouldn’t survive without it now,” he says.

The construction sector is definitely becoming more IT-friendly. Massive firms such as Severn Trent Water and Amey see the potential of using IT systems to improve their operations. BDP’s Saxon is right when he says that the next 10 years will prove the benefits of IT.

Integrating a company’s systems

When John Berney became information systems director at Amey a year ago, he was faced with a difficult job, as he explained to delegates at the Construction Industry Computing Association’s conference. Amey, newly labelled a support services company, is split into three divisions – infrastructure maintenance, support services and construction – and Berney had to unite them under one IT system. “My job is to develop and deliver an information system strategy to carry forward into the next millennium,” he said nonchalantly. In his own way he is trying to impose order on a notoriously fragmented industry, and to impose it using IT in a sector that is traditionally suspicious of anything that costs money. Too many systems When Berney began his quest for order he discovered that, like a number of construction outfits, Amey had different systems for different functions. Estimating was carried out by one type of software, planning by another and accounts by yet another, while purchasing had its own special application. This encouraged the development of discrete islands of information within the company, reflecting the culture in the industry as a whole. Information within the firm was not being harnessed effectively. “The biggest issue is that we need one version of the truth. We need to put data in once and handle it once,” said Berney. He explained how he set about streamlining the IT infrastructure. The first stage was to bring in standard hardware and software systems. The next was to integrate the internal systems. This was not easy. At the outset, Berney wasn’t even sure there was a software firm that could come up with the goods. “We started with a business strategy and came up with lengthy requirements,” he said. Whittling down the list A list of software providers was drawn up and whittled down to a shortlist. Late last year, Berney invited the shortlisted firms to tender and carried out an in-depth review of two of these firms. Berney fixed on a partnership between systems supplier SAP and document management software supplier SER. SAP implements the systems and SER provides the document management application. Amey has spent in initial £333 000 on SER software, which will include licences and services for more than 1300 document users. The firm will first use the system for quality and safety manuals and for managing technical drawings and asset registers. The whole installation will be completed by the middle of next year.