Computer scientists have been promising 'intelligent' software for many years, but so far there has been little to show for it in the civil engineering sector.
However, things are changing, as Southern Water is demonstrating by testing a facility called Brainware which uses artificial intelligence within an electronic document management (EDM) system.
Brainware, which comes from German developer SER, is being used by Southern Water predominantly as an asset management tool. By logging all its asset information, Southern Water can create an up to date archive of all its installations and equipment - the key documents being the health and safety files resulting from working to the CDM regulations, and operation and maintenance manuals.
'People don't realise that these things can get very big, ' says Martin Brazier, Southern Water's operational systems manager.
'A health and safety file can easily run to 60 or 70 lever arch files.'
There are up to four copies of each of the 450 files, and they have to be moved around the company's offices and sites to ensure the right people have access to them when they need it. As a result, says Brazier, there is always a van on the road somewhere taking files from one location to another.
Putting information on a centralised system accessible by everyone saves time, money and paper, ensuring that the most up to date versions are in use.
Southern Water has installed Brainware on its intranet - making the electronic information available to almost everyone.
'The important thing for us is the way the information is organised, ' explains Brazier.
'It has to be flexible enough for people to approach a piece of information from many angles.
The thing we were trying to achieve was to have the information available across the business and the boundaries of the business so that, for example, people in the process group can see documents generated by the asset maintenance and performance group.'
Everyone from financial directors through to field staff can get at the data. 'There are no secrets, ' says Brazier.
'With just a few exceptions everybody can see everything, and that's the idea.'
Now, if someone is generating a new document, for example a specification or design, they can look up existing examples before they start and find out all the relevant information, rather than starting from scratch each time.
'There are two main questions people ask, ' says Brazier. 'Has anyone done it before? And what information is out there about it?
Before, people might have made a couple of phone calls and then gone back and collected the information again.'
Two main drivers prompted the introduction of the EDM system: the impending redundancy of an old drawing management system, and a total reorganisation of the company's structure.
Brazier, an engineer rather than an IT expert, worked closely with each group within the company to ensure it would get the best out of the document archive. As a result each team puts all the information it needs on the system, but it is stored in a way that makes it available to everyone.
After rolling out the asset management archive to Southern Water's 2,000 employees, Brazier started looking at how it could be made more sophisticated. 'SER came to us with Brainware and asked if we'd play with it and see what we thought, ' he explains.
He found three potential uses, the first as an intelligent search engine, prompting the user with a set of boxes to tick enabling it to work out exactly what piece of information is needed.
'It's quite spooky stuff, ' says Brazier. 'It doesn't look for words, it looks at the context and understands what the document is.'
Traditional search engines ask you for a key word, but typing a word like 'pump' into an archive of this size would result in thousands of matches which the user would have to work through and eliminate. Brainware learns what each document is, and asks questions of the user to establish which documents are required. The more information that is stored on the system, the better it learns.
Brazier has identified a second use of Brainware that could eliminate a major bottleneck in the system - the process of registering information. 'At the moment registration is very slow and introduces the possibility of human errors, ' he says.
Operators have to key or scan in each document and then fill in an electronic form giving details of what the document is. Brazier hopes the software will learn to recognise documents and speed up the registration process by automatically filling out the forms that send it to the right folder within the database.
'The operators will just be able to hit a button and then get on with something more productive, ' he says. 'I'm trying to remove the dross from their working lives and make their lives better. The aim isn't to save money - although it does. The driver for me is to free up very intelligent peoples' time so that they can do more interesting work and develop the system further.'
The third potential use for Brainware still needs some development, but could also cut down dramatically on wasted time. 'It would be useful if, when people are writing something - like a pump specification - it prompted them by looking at the ones that have already been done, ' explains Brazier.
He is keen to make the most of the software, and says: 'The beauty of Brainware is that you don't have to invest time in helping it to learn. We have to register the things on there anyway, so it may as well be learning.'
SER is using Southern Water's data to further refine Brainware, which will be incorporated into the next version of its EDM software.
The introduction of the asset management system has helped the company reorganisation, but Brazier says: 'The cultural issues are the hardest ones to solve. We've been lucky insofar as we haven't been introducing this system into an established human organisation.
'It's been part of the 'way ahead' which was a complete rethink of the way we work. It flipped the whole organisation on its head.'
The asset management group came out of that exercise.
'Because the barriers came down as part of the cultural process of organisational change we've been able to capitalise on it, ' says Brazier. 'The main ethos of the new system is that everything is open to everybody.'
He says the EDM archive will help improve the process by which assets are commissioned, built and then operated. 'At the moment the use of electronic document management starts at the design phase, ' explains Brazier.
'With the new set-up the work definition team will start the whole construction cycle off, but they will be dipping into the EDM archive before that. We've got this body of information, and we want to make sure we make the most of it throughout an asset's lifecycle.'
Ideally, every new project's EDM system will link into the main archive, but with contractual information kept separate from the central database.
Brazier is excited by the potential both the EDM archive and the Brainware element can offer Southern Water.
'The reorganisation gave us a superb opportunity to do this, but it's not a static entity, it's dynamic. It will always be moving. People are just getting their heads round the fact that things are always going to change.'
He adds: 'Software moves at a faster pace than anything else, so this is a very quickly changing part of the business and this department is right in the middle of it. But I think people are now excited rather than scared!'