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Driving change

Plant hire firms can help the roads industry align itself to a new era of improved quality, privatisation and whole life costing. Margo Cole reports

The UK construction equipment industry has a unique structure, based around a plant hire industry that supplies around 80% of the machines used on construction sites. Opinions vary as to whether this dominance by hire firms is advantageous to UK construction or not.

Certainly most contractors prefer not to carry the overhead of massive plant fleets, but at the same time, some feel this additional layer between manufacturers and contractors acts as a barrier to the adoption of innovative technologies.

David Hargreaves, managing director of one of the UK’s top heavy equipment hire firms, Clee Hill, accepts both views, but believes the rental sector has a role to play in improving efficiency within the civil engineering industry. “We would like to work more closely with contractors to come up with solutions, rather than our role being just to deliver a machine on time that’s reliable,” he says.

“In the current climate, where lot of people are cutting back, we can offer more of a service to our customers beyond just supplying a machine.”

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Clee Hill specialises in compaction equipment for earthworks and paving, and Hargreaves has had enough experience of the roads industry during his 23 years with the firm to conclude that the whole sector could be working together more closely and lobbying government with a consistent industrywide approach.

“Surely it’s better to build something that’s going to last into the future,” he says, adding that he thinks the government has “no option but to privatise roads” if the UK’s infrastructure is to be brought up to an acceptable standard.

Hargreaves says examples such as Amey’s BirminghamPFI contract and the Highways Agency’s Managing Area Contractor (MAC) arrangements give the industry the opportunity to invest in technologies that will enable it to produce roads that will last for 25 years - and he thinks plant hire firms can play a role in that.

“Some of our customers are at the forefront of technology, and are driving manufacturers and us to come up with solutions that will help the industry convince government that we can do more for less,” he says, adding that “others need education as to what’s out there”.

“I think at the moment there’s an opportunity,” he continues.” I think we should be leading, and for that I have to take some commercial risk.”

Hargreaves believes there are many machine control and automation technologies that could be incorporated into construction plant to improve efficiency, safety and productivity, but acknowledges that, in a conservative industry, a “softly, softly” approach is needed.

“In the current climate, where lot of people are cutting back, we can offer more of a service to our customers beyond just supplying a machine”

“I’ve seen a lot of technology proposals over the years, and a lot have fizzled out,” he says, adding: “I think the mistake that has been made to date is that technology that’s in Europe is just sent across the water and given to us. Because we’re behind a lot of parts of the world, there is hesitancy. A lot of it is very good and very sophisticated, but it is a step too far.”

Clee Hill’s strategy to provide technology that is appropriate and acceptable to its customers includes a recent agreement with construction equipment automation and control firm Moba to act as UK dealer for its Material Compaction Assistant (MCA) system.

The MCA system for vibratory rollers and deadweight rollers counts the number of passes, which are identified by a GPS positioning system, and shows compaction progress on a display in the machine’s cab, as well as recording asphalt temperature at the time of rolling.

“A lot of information that’s stored by contractors at the moment is manually recorded and paper-based,” says Hargreaves. “Clients are looking for the comfort that what they have been asked to do has been done. This gives them what they are asking for and no more.”

Hargreaves hopes Clee Hill’s contracting customers will quickly realise the benefits of the Moba system, and it will give them the confidence to embrace technology and automation on a wider scale. “It’s not where we want to finish,” he says, “but it’s a starting point, and we can build on it from there.”

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