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The View | Procurement, but better

On taking office as President of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) Sir John Armitt commented that the “application of knowledge to different problems in different ways; innovating on the last solution, is the bread and butter of an engineer’s working day.”

Nathan Baker

Nathan Baker

Nathan Baker, ICE director of engineering knowledge

This strikes an important note about an engineer’s ability to solve problems – and not just the technical ones on site or in the design office.

Infrastructure and construction companies can waste an inordinate amount of money, time and materials on poor procurement. Many clients do it well – I’m thinking Crossrail, the 2012 Olympic Games – but it only takes one weak link in a supply chain to drag a project one step further back from delivery.

Good procurement is difficult – the construction industry works on the basis of tight profit margins, increasing the aversion to risk and pegs companies to the status quo. Fragmented supply chains tend to encumber many of the UK’s procurement processes, slowing the delivery of projects and programmes. Confrontational relationships borne of simple miscommunication or the mismanagement of expectations between parties, including the clients, contractor, QS and consultant, can erode trust needed for good business. Taken together these concerns increase overall costs and, at times, produce disagreements that can be settled only in a court of law.

Problems like a lack of standardisation undermine the market and industry growth, and public projects, which make up almost 40% of the industry’s workload, are especially poor in terms of consistent procurement practices. It is therefore vital for the health and future of the UK’s construction industry that built environment professionals start adopting a smarter, faster, more collaborative and less wasteful approach to managing the infrastructure procurement process.

As chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA), Armitt oversaw the procurement of over £6bn of contracts, which included sustainability, health, and safety as key factors that were addressed from the outset. The ODA delivered one of the most successful construction projects ever conceived – to budget and on time. We need to learn from successful projects such as these to reap the benefits of a consistent approach to contracts.

Sharing knowledge sits at the heart of what ICE does, so we’ve developed a programme of events, workshops, training days, case studies and best practice guides to help civil engineers, construction and built environment professionals get ahead on procurement. The ICE will be showcasing the experience of major clients including Crossrail 2, Highways England and HS2 at the ICE procurement and the supply chain conference.

Collectively, our industry can create a working environment that encourages innovation, and make engineering about optimism and discovery. Sharing knowledge, collaboration, bringing the supply chain together, refining products and contracts, and using expert services will help iron out the wrinkles across the built environment. All the resources can be found on the ICE’s procurement portal: www.ice.org.uk/procurement.

  • Nathan Baker is ICE director of engineering knowledge

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