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Blue sky thinking

Maintenance - Somerset is the first county in the UK to benefit from a £1M satellite-based revolution in highways maintenance. Mark Hansford reports.

Simon White is a man in control. As manager of Somerset's new Service Management Centre he knows at a glance exactly where the county's army of highways inspectors and maintenance gangs are and what they are doing.

The Service Management Centre, also known as mission control, represents a £1M investment by Somerset's highways maintenance provider Atkins (see box) that could transform the face of highways maintenance throughout the UK. Somerset County Council portfolio holder for transport Tony Shire describes the new system as 'truly groundbreaking'. The central control centre is linked to every inspector and every maintenance crew via satellite tracking, PDAs and in-cab computers.

This guarantees that the nearest correctly qualified crews are sent, along with the right materials, to every job, potentially saving the county hundreds of thousands of pounds every year in wasted man-hours.

Since the centre opened in November productivity has already increased by 12% - and the system at present is only being used for emergency call-outs. Accidents, frequently caused by crews tackling jobs with the wrong skills, are down a massive 65%.

The idea is the brainchild of Atkins project director John Burr and stemmed from a conversation between Burr and Atkins chief executive Keith Clarke 18 months ago. 'He was asking me how much highway management has moved on in the last few years, ' explains Burr.

'I said that there had been no step change and he asked me to think up an idea.

'I did and Keith duly agreed to fund it, ' he says. 'In fact, this initiative is entirely funded by Atkins and yet all the benefits go to Somerset it is not a great business case.' Burr's brainwave actually came from the grassroots. 'I asked the operatives, who are the ones that really matter, 'What stops you from being efficient and working eight hours a day?' 'They were a great bunch of people to ask, because they don't stand on ceremony, and they reeled off a huge list.

That's where it started.' Burr whittled the list down to six key objectives: to improve health and safety management;to increase efficiency, productivity, added value and auditability; and to provide a unique selling point for Atkins.

The system is beautiful in its simplicity. An inspector goes out to do an inspection - either routine or as an emergency call out - finds the defect and immediately taps into his PDA what the defect is, the risk, the location, the repair needed and the priority.

The defect is immediately zapped to County Hall where it is automatically entered into Somerset County Council's Confirm asset recording system.

Simultaneously it arrives at mission control in Atkins' Taunton office where the controller - an engineer with real, onsite experience - looks at the priority and the available resource.

Every defect is displayed on a giant screen, colour coded according to priority. Since November, 1,722 category one defects have entered and left the system. Every crew has a GPS tracker so the control room knows exactly where everyone is. The system tells the controller what they are doing and, vitally for health and safety, what their skills, qualifications and competencies are.

'We will not send a gang to a site that is not competent to do the job, ' says Burr.

Having chosen the best gang, the controller sends an electronic work order which includes an assessment of the site risks and an exact location. The order immediately arrives on the gang's in-cab computer, where they must accept the order (which is immediately recorded back at mission control) and read the risk assessment.

The exact location automatically enters itself into the vehicle's satellite navigation system to ensure the crew chooses the quickest and safest route to site. And the vehicle's computer reports traffic sensitivities on the route, while GPS is used to track its speed to ensure the driver does not exceed the speed limit.

Once the gang arrives on site and completes the job this is punched into the in-cab computer and the records are immediately updated.

No time is wasted, and it is on to the next job. Significantly, there was immediate buy in from the crews.

'Effectively we are putting a spy in the cab and there was a real concern that the gangs would not like it. So what we have done with every single gang is shown them what we will do with it and how they will spend less time doing paperwork and more time doing what it is they do - work on the highway, ' he says.

The big increase in efficiency comes from having central control. Previously six operational depots around the county controlled emergency response. 'We were sending lorries 20 miles (32km) to patch a pothole when we may have had one controlled by a different depot just three miles away.' The fringe benefits are significant too, explains project manager Alan McKechnie.

'The system tracks where an inspector has been, which has already been used to defend claims for damage.' This winter 78% of claims for chipped paintwork caused by lorries have been defeated before court because the system can prove exactly where and when the fleet was at all times.

All in all Atkins hopes to have produced £300,000 in real savings by the end of the system's first year of operation, and this is with it operating only for reactive maintenance.

The plan for the future is to schedule all maintenance using the system.

The control room does not operate round the clock, as the number of emergency call-outs at night does not justify the cost of keeping an engineer in the room all night. But from January all callouts will go via Atkins' national control centre in Worcester to ensure all the health and safety checks are correctly performed.

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