Five decades since the Federation of Piling Specialists was conceived, the industry has advanced, but chairman Jim De Waele tells Claire Symes the drive to improve standards remains.
When times are tough, many companies look at ways of reducing outgoings but one area that Federation of Piling Specialists (FPS) chairman Jim De Waele believes shouldn’t fall victim to cost cutting is improving standards.
He is not alone in this belief and this widespread desire to prove capabilities is helping to increase membership of the FPS even during these difficult economic times.
“The FPS was set up in 1964 to drive up standards in the industry and that is still its raison d’etre today,” says De Waele. “The only real difference is that the FPS now represents a much wider industry than before.”
The FPS was formed by four or five piling companies at a time when rotary techniques were coming into use and cranemounted and hydraulic equipment was beginning to be used.
It was also a period when piling became a specialist sub-contract industry as main contractors recognised the challenges of delivering ground engineering solutions and moved away from offering them as part of general construction operations.
“Forty-eight years after the FPS was set up, our members do more than just piling - they are geotechnical specialists,” says De Waele.
Today the FPS has 18 members, with recent recruits reflecting the wider representation of the organisation. “The most recent members to join were Ritchies, Central Piling, Martello and Bauer,” says De Waele. “We need to make sure clients understand that we are a broad church and also encourage other companies to join.”
“Forty-eight years after the FPS was set up, our members do more than just piling - they are geotechnical specialists”
Some of the recent recruits were motivated to go through the auditing process to become part of the federation because their customers were asking if they were members.
“The independent auditing process that all new members go through is also repeated every three years for existing members,” explains De Waele. “The aim is to maintain standards and provide members with a benchmark of where they are in relation to their peers. The results are not published but companies get their own ranking details.
“As well as ensuring standards, the audit helps to give members some value in the form of ideas for improvement with reference to other members. For example, the audit might suggest that other companies that scored more highly in training schemes have introduced certain initiatives but without detailing the company names.
“The audit can also include topics of interest and last year it was revised to include a sustainability score. This first audit will provide a benchmark, which we hope to see built on in future audits.” De Waele, who is also managing director of Keller UK, took over the post of FPS chairman from Bachy Soletanche managing director Martin Pratt in March.
It is a one -year tenure but most chairmen have held the post for two years to ensure that plans can be developed and delivered effectively.
The organisation is led by an executive committee with four specialist committees focused on the key areas of plant, safety training, commercial and technical matters.
Alongside De Waele on the executive committee is former chairman Pratt and future chairmen Cementation Skanska managing director Martin Pedley and Expanded Piling managing director Martin Blower.
Blower will take over from De Waele as the next chairman. The executive committee also represents the federation on other industry bodies, including Ground Forum; it supports development of professional standards, such as RoGEP; and also lobbies for improvements including changes to the funding for MScs.
“Improving plant standards has always been an important part of the FPS’s work,” says De Waele. “Our plant committee, which is led by Bachy Soletanche plant director John Tucker, works closely with the manufacturers and legislators to ensure new legislation is workable, but our main drive is for FPS members to be safe rather than meet the minimum standards set by legislation.”
De Waele points to the work done on rig guarding in the UK, which has been standard here for some time even though legislation affecting the rest of Europe has not yet come into force.
“The committee looks at factors affecting the operation of plant, such as extraction of casing, and issues guidance for the whole industry on best practice,” he says. Chairman-in-waiting Blower heads up the safety training committee.
Here again the FPS takes a proactive role in running training courses as well as providing advice on training standards. According to De Waele, the committee tries
to engage with the Health & Safety Executive to ensure its efforts stay ahead of the minimum standards.
One of the most recent initiatives to come out of the safety training committee’s work is development of the FPS’s apprentice training scheme. “There are six apprentices on the programme this year and we are expecting eight to join the scheme’s second year,” says De Waele.
“All FPS members contribute by putting apprentices forward or by creating training opportunities to ensure the trainees have a wide understanding of the ground engineering sector.”
“The market is still subdued - Crossrail has come at the right time for the industry, but I hope more widespread recovery will come at the end of Crossrail”
The training safety committee also provides direct input to the piling supervisors course, which is compliant with the Site Supervisors Safety Training Scheme.
The FPS commercial committee is led by Cementation’s John Burridge. It looks at fair payment and bond issues, as well as addressing the need to publicise the work of the federation.
“Contract terms are usually 30 days but I know that Keller’s payment profile is generally 60 to 70 days, which can impact on cash flow for many companies despite having a good business,” says De Waele.
The technical committee is headed up by Balfour Beatty Ground Engineering’s Mark Pennington and takes a lead on design issues affecting the industry. The group has worked on both TC288 and EC7 and has reviewed these documents and issues guidance notes on the application of these standards.
De Waele points to the position paper on pile design using EC7 as an example of the committee’s work. “The committee also liaises with our industry’s European counterparts to look at how they approach the same codes and look at what can be learned from other national interpretations,” says De Waele.
Looking ahead to the next 12 months, De Waele says that the FPS will be working to ensure the wider scope of the organisation is understood, as well as working on guidance for Eurocodes, grouting, anchors and micropiles.
“Input from the ground engineering sectors is fundamental to ensure we are making the most of the committee,” adds De Waele.
While improving standards in the ground engineering sector is a cornerstone of the FPS’s work, the federation also takes a keen interest in market conditions.
When it comes to considering the state of the UK market, De Waele believes it will be interesting to see how it develops after Crossrail. “Most of the major work for Crossrail has been awarded and is either in progress, or even completed,” he says.
“The FPS tracks order take, and the volume of sales we have seen over the last 12 months has grown, mostly driven by Crossrail and London Underground assets work. If you strip these out, then the market is still subdued - Crossrail has come at the right time for the industry but I hope more widespread recovery will come at the end of Crossrail.
“But we need to adjust - this is the new norm and the buffer that we’d grown used to has gone. In the past if a company lost a contract, it wasn’t a significant problem as there were plenty of others out there. That is not the case anymore.
“The effort to win work is at an all-time high,” he says. “The time to convert a quote into a contract is also longer and is partly the effect of the drive for earlier contractor involvement, although funding is keeping some projects on the drawing board for longer too.”
Officially De Waele may only have another six months to serve as FPS president but he hopes to be elected for a second year, by which point he also hopes that the market will have gone through the necessary adjustments to cope with this new norm.