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IT focus; Causeway Technologies competition

Leading Edge Kier Rail was the winner of Causeway Technologies and NCE's competition to find the best use of IT to improve business efficiency. Margo Cole explains why.

Earlier this year, New Civil Engineer and its sister title Construction News launched a competition in conjunction with software house Causeway Technologies with the aim of finding the companies that had made the best use of IT to improve business efficiency.

The awards were also supported by CITE and the Construct IT Centre for Excellence. Last month, the winners were announced at a reception in London and presented with their prizes of software from Causeway Technologies.

The overall winner was Kier Rail, which has developed the Edge, a digital estimating package for use on Railtrack's station regeneration programme. It was intended to speed up the process from assessing work needed at any individual station to getting on to site.

Kier Rail's contract with Railtrack is worth £150M and involves refurbishment and renovatation of 600 stations and 18 depots in the London South area of the rail network. A Government-commissioned condition survey of all the stations, before privatisation, was used as the basis for Kier Rail's contract. However, the survey data may now be out of date, so before any job can start, the contractor has to meet Railtrack officials and the relevant station manager on site to pin down the exact extent of the work.

'Quite early on it became apparent that there was a lot of cost tied up in pre-contract processes, like going to the site, assessing the work and getting the estimate straight,' explains Kier Rail's operations director Jim Thompson. 'It was all taking far too long. I came up with the idea of moving to an electronic process.'

Thompson says it is an idea he has 'carried around for a while', but, until recently, the technology was not available to make it possible. But things have progressed. Kier has now combined digital maps, electronic data capture and schedules of rates in one system that has cut the time between getting the brief and work starting on site from up to five weeks to less than one week.

Now, at that site visit, the Kier Rail engineer will carry a hand held pc loaded with high resolution Ordnance Survey 1:1250 digital maps. As each defect is identified, its location can be marked on the relevant map using an electronic pen, so every patching repair, broken section of canopy, rotten timber or blocked drain is agreed on the spot and recorded. They are also photographed with a digital camera, to be viewed on the screen later.

A description of each defect is entered into the data logger, along with relevant information on how to rectify it. Kier Rail uses two framework contractors for all its station regeneration work, and their schedules of rates are stored on the computer system.

This enables the engineer to produce an accurate estimate almost instantly for every piece of work. Additional screens flag up the health and safety implications and assess risk, so, for example, Kier Rail knows if the work needs to be done under possession. These facilities enable the Kier Rail staff to talk through cost or health and safety issues while still on site with the station and rail managers, cutting out weeks of to-ing and fro-ing while decisions are made.

Kier Rail has invested in rugged laptops to run the system, able to withstand site conditions, with a standard Microsoft Windows Pen Computing interface. The company chose to base EDGE on industry standard software that is compatible with Railtrack's existing systems. The data capture software is supplied by Bentley, and the estimates are based on Microsoft Excel spreadsheets.

'We outsourced the development to a software house and asked them to link the two together,'explains Thompson. 'They took just four weeks.'

'One of the successes is that we have kept it simple. We knew exactly what we wanted, and we didn't let it grow - we didn't put bells and whistles on it.'

The business benefits are already apparent. Kier has dramatically reduced time taken to prepare documents, and is now providing the client with instant prices as well as a reduced pre-contract period. The contractor wins because it is not having to re-enter data at different stages of the process.

As Thompson says: 'It's one of those 'everybody wins' situations'.

His idea has now taken flight within Kier, where it is being used on other rail-related projects and is being developed for use on the company's social housing refurbishment contracts.

The competition's judges from CITE and Construct IT described the EDGE as 'innovative', and awarded Kier Rail the first prize: an engraved trophy and £7,500 of Siteman commercial management software.

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