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Full rig out

In the first of two contributions from Expanded Piling focusing on plant, Martin Blower calls for closer co-operation between piling rig manufacturers and those who use them.

Is the UK ground engineering industry getting a fair deal from piling rig suppliers? No, is the simple answer.

Given the current healthy and sustained construction workload, specialised plant is in short supply. And for rig manufacturers it is a sellers' market, with contractors having to accept what is on offer – one-size-fits-all, off-the-shelf products. The days of customer focus seem to have vanished.

This take it or leave it approach is complicated by a welcome, if controversial, move to amalgamate two European design codes for piling and drill rigs into one common standard, which could force contractors into using plant not best suited for the task.

Project start dates could be delayed, with programme delivery and outturn costs threatened. Action is needed now by both sides to prevent these fears becoming reality.

I have been around long enough to have grown up through the booming 1960s, the depressed 1970s, the Yuppie 1980s and into the age of New Labour – in short from The Beatles to The Arctic Monkeys.

In this relatively short time fashions have come, gone and come back around. The consumer now has an unparalleled level of choice, diversity and sophistication in all areas of life – from the colour of an iPod to the schooling of children.However, if you want to buy piling or drill rigs this happy state does not apply.

The UK market for drill rigs of all types represents only 5% of the annual world manufactured output, and the construction industry is busy everywhere. Manufacturers, it seems, are not really committed to customer focus – and if you were in their shoes would you?

And we now face local UK legislative differences in rig design that are over and above general worldwide market requirements. All this is bound to make a client with a project feeling slightly uneasy.

There is a move to amalgamate the two European Committee for Standardization design safety codes for piling (BS EN996) and drill rigs (BS EN791). Both sides see the need to revise and improve these standards, but for different reasons.

Manufacturers are keen to remove technical anomalies between the standards, such as bearing pressures, stability angles and factors of safety. Rig users are keen to have a strong voice in the preparation of the new standard, something they did not have previously.

When these two standards were drafted, most piling rigs were mechanically operated. Now, nearly all are hydraulic dedicated machines. This new common standard is crucial because to sell a machine into Europe manufacturers have to comply with it to get a European Conformity (CE) mark.

A key area of friction between manufacturers and users working in the UK market is the additional need to comply with local health and safety regulations, for example, the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998, and the Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations 1998. Most manufacturers want only to comply with the CE regulations.

Beyond this there is the sticky area of operator training and assessment of competence. Put simply, the accepted level of provision of operator instruction and assessment is inadequate. Generally there is reluctance on the manufacturers' part to take ownership for these matters. Would this be acceptable if you were buying a new car? Why then is it acceptable when purchasing a £500,000 piling rig?

Individual user companies have exerted pressure to obtain better solutions. But would it not be more constructive if the industry recognised these problems and responded wholeheartedly in a unified way without waiting for a successful prosecution to force us to improve?

Why should we be interested in this? Despite it being such a buoyant construction market, there remains a limited number of premier league piling rig manufacturers.

Rigs are now sold first come, first served and off the shelf, with extended periods between order and delivery.

Projects are increasingly complex with new developments proposed on brownfield, often previously piled, sites. Operations such as pile extraction, concrete coring and deep obstruction removal are increasingly common. With such complexity, piling rigs are required to work closer to their performance limits. Add to this compliance with UK safety legislation and it is essential that all stakeholders recognise the likely scarcity of suitable piling rigs.

Unless these issues of supply, compliance and project complexity are adequately factored in by all of us, delays and cost rises seem inevitable.

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