Innovative use of plant may be the key for piling companies as they attempt to weather the economic downturn, as Margo Cole reports.
The recession is, not surprisingly, making piling and foundations companies think innovatively about how they use their machines.
While work is scarce, the major firms are moving into new or non-traditional areas, and they need kit that can perform, so many are modifying and adapting their equipment.
Adaptability seems to be key. In a climate of unpredictable demand it is becoming increasingly important to maximise the flexibility of equipment by ensuring machines can do more than one thing.
Pennine manufacturing director Chris Gillibrand says: “The market for piling and ground improvement remains extremely competitive, so being able to increase the flexibility of our rigs so that they are capable of implementing multiple techniques reduces the risk of under utilisation and the need for investment in additional fleet for different techniques.”
The firm has recently collaborated with Casagrande to build a specially adapted version of its B170 CFA piling rig for vibropiling methods (see box opposite), and has invested in seven Stratacaster and Terrafirmer rigs that can install both stone columns and concrete columns by either top feed or bottom feed methods.
Meanwhile, Bachy Soletanche is also showing versatility.
“Our mix of work has changed considerably, so we’re always adapting and always involved in research and development,” says the company’s depot and purchasing manager Ian White.
The firm has its own internal R&D team, based both in the UK and in France, home of its parent company, and has a strategy to undertake at least two research projects a year.
According to White, the company has no intention to curtail that commitment in the light of the current tough economic climate.
“It’s something that’s developed over the years and we sit down every quarter to decide what projects to pursue - both operationally and from a plant point of view,” he says. “On the plant side we’re always looking to stay ahead of the market.”
Past research projects have included finding the best way to tackle the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations (PUWER) legislation covering guards on drilling rigs, and an initiative that has led to a clamp-on edge protection system to allow work to be done from the back of a large trailer.
This year’s projects are still under wraps, but White is hopeful that two long-term R&D projects will come to fruition in the next six months.
“We’re hopeful that the market will improve, and we’ve got to be ready,” says White.
“So we can’t forget about investment - it has to be part of the strategy. That’s where a lot of preparatory work can be done that will hold you in good stead for the future.”
The recession is focusing minds on making the best use of existing plant, and White says Bachy is looking at the best way to adapt machines so they can be used for multiple activities, with much research effort going in to the tools that attach to the rigs.
“You can spend a lot of money on a rig, but at the end of the day that rig is only as good as tools on the end of it,” he says. “If you’ve got the money, anybody can buy a piling rig, but it won’t be efficient if you don’t have the right tools.”
The company has a small manufacturing facility at Burscough in Lancashire that manufactures and sells non-mechanical piling equipment - like CFA augers and drilling tools - around the world. “That’s something we’ve pushed and been very successful in,” says White. “We’ve still got a full order book.”
This combination of manufacturing and contracting is also proving successful for Dawson Construction Plant, which manufactures and imports specialist equipment for sale to piling companies, supplies rigs on a plant and labour hire basis, and has its own piling division.
“As an equipment manufacturer we market ourselves and have an in-built ethos of innovation. We’re always trying to do something a bit different,” says Dawson managing director Dave Brown. “We’re finding that people are probably a bit more open to that now. When a market is under pressure it does cause people to challenge the norms.
“People are trying to become more competitive, and innovation is one way to achieve that.”
He has seen an increase in enquiries for specialist equipment from large piling contractors that are now taking on every aspect of a piling or foundations job themselves rather than subbing out some activities to niche contractors.
Another growth area is in projects linked to sustainability, particularly silent piling and removable piles.
“Removal of piles is becoming far more prevalent,” says Brown. “It’s been talked about for a long time but now people are actually doing it. Recently there’s been much more uptake in employing these techniques on contracts.”
Dawson recently supplied Irish contractor Roadbridge with a 1,000t silent pile extractor to take out steel sheet piles originally installed as part of the E660m (£597M) Limerick tunnel project.
The contractor built a cofferdam to enable sections of the 700m-long immersed tube tunnel to be constructed below ground level.
Once the tunnel sections were completed, the cofferdam was no longer needed, and could be dismantled.
Dawson’s extractor was used to remove the 22m long piles, which can no be re-used elsewhere.
The company has also just won a contract to install steel piles for motorway gantries that are designed to be removable and recyclable.
“In the past they would typically have had a concrete foundation solution, but tender documents now are asking for sustainable, recyclable, removable solutions,” says Brown. “Lifecycle cost is coming more to the forefront.”