After a frustrating 2003, could 2004 be the year collaborative technology in the construction industry finally takes off? Mark Hansford reports.
One of the most frustrating inefficiencies for contractors moving to a new project is the learning curve associated with adjusting to the latest client's project software.
But in 2002, Barbour Index forecast that the percentage of new projects using collaboration would double to 20% in 2003, with 55% of teams on projects worth £5M or more using extranets to run their jobs.
This was a bold projection, up on 35% in 2002 and just 25% the year before that. And the software firms providing the technology believed the hype.
'The market has settled down and people are asking not 'Should I be using this?' but 'Who should I work with?', ' BuildOnline managing director Mark Oliver told NCE in December 2002 (NCE 5 December 2002).
'It's a bit like the early days of CAD, where each consultant had their own CAD software.
But they have all now moved to industry standard software, and the same will happen with project collaboration, ' Oliver predicted. The move to industry standard software may have happened, but the bold take-up certainly did not.
This year's prediction is rather more cautious, with 20% still the target for UK construction as a whole and 40% the target for the higher value (over £10M) jobs.
'The roll out became frustrated by clients mandating towards specific tools, ' says Causeway Technologies chief executive Phil Brown. 'This presented contractors and consultants with a huge learning curve each time they started a new project. It was creating fragmentation, not collaboration.'
But two recent developments may have changed this.
First, clients began to relinquish control over choice of tool to contractors. 'They began to realise that if their specified tool failed it could cause the project to come in late and they could be liable, ' says Brown.
'At the same time contractors realised that clients were leading them by the nose.
'Now, contractors are saying most resources are under our control and we want to take back the management of them.'
This change in attitude from the end user was followed by a significant attitude change in the software providers with the launch in December 2003 of the Network for Construction Collaboration Technology Providers (NCCTP). This aims to promote the effective use of online technology to support collaborative working by increasing interoperability between systems.
Pretty much all the major players are signed up: 4 Projects, BIW Technologies, BuildOnline, Cadweb, Causeway Technologies and Sarcophagus as founder members; Business Collaborator is a recent addition. It is managed by research body CIRIA. Together they are helping manage UK construction projects worth around £35bn.
All members of the network conform to the NCCTP standard.
Designed by Causeway, the standard is an application that will extract the contents of an entire project from any NCCTP member's database as XML and archive the corresponding files so they can be readily brought into another system using an import application (see box).
In simple terms it means that any contractor, consultant or client familiar with one system can use and communicate with any other - the learning curve has been stripped away.
The effect is significant.
Contractors can now commit to a tool and work with it, safe in the knowledge that they will not have to change as soon as the next big project comes along.
Contractor HBG has been one of the first firms to seize this advantage. Working with Causeway it now has 1,000 licences internally and a further 6,000 for its supply chain. With Causeway these 7,000 users form one giant knowledgesharing database.
'The tool indexes every word - from notes on drawings to emails - and then works a bit like Google, ' says Brown. 'So you can easily build up communities of practice.' For example, if any one of HBG's 7,000 users needs information on cofferdams, with one search the entire firm's knowledge and experience is there to draw on.
The NCCTP standard is the network's first project. All members conform to it. But why does the industry need it?
At present each extranet provider stores and accesses project data through its own relational database structure.
Although there are similarities between the systems they are essentially incompatible. While it is possible to extract data out of any NCCTP member's system, any subsequent attempt to import that data into another's system would be like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
Huge amounts of manipulation would be required to get the data into an importable format, even assuming that the party doing the import knows how data from one system maps onto its own.
So how does it work?
Technical representatives of the member companies of the NCCTP have agreed an XML schema that describes the fundamental elements and properties that are common to collaborative extranets XML (Extensible Markup Language) schemes express shared vocabularies and allow machines to carry out rules made by people.
They provide a means for defining the structure, content, and semantics of the data stored in XML documents .
Each company can then export its project data as XML and transform it into the agreed data structure using an export application Another company can then take that data, translate it as necessary and import it into its system using an import application The important difference is that each company only needs to understand its own data structure and how it maps onto the XML schema, as opposed to any number of others' systems.
Opened earlier this year, the £485M M6 Toll is the UK's first toll-based motorway. With revenues for operator Midland Expressway Ltd (MEL) entirely dependent on toll money, pressure was on for construction to be completed within time and cost. Design and build joint venture consortium CAMBBA (Carillion, Alfred McAlpine, Balfour Beatty and Amec) turned to Causeway. The system was used for basic collaboration - an online document repository making for timely and accurate document management.
White City wonder
The £700M White City development in West London is fully benefiting from project collaboration. Developer Chelsfield was keen to use a web collaboration tool and Business Collaborator was chosen, mainly because of the company's financial stability and the software's audit trail and customisation. With Business Collaborator, printing and postal costs have been cut by 10%. By completion in 2006 the tool will have been used by over 600 engineers and approximately 2M documents stored.