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Out of paper Engineers on Scotlands largest road contract are combating its complexity with a sophisticated document control system. David Hayward reports from the A74. Photos by Tony Gorzkowski.

Iain McAlister arrives early at his site office beside the A74 near Moffat. As chief engineer for Autolinks contract to upgrade to motorway the last section of Scotlands most important strategic route to England, he has a busy day ahead.

He reads his morning mail and sends off a few letters. He checks the latest news on a stolen site vehicle and finds out how many adders were caught and translocated the previous night as part of the projects environmental programme.

Memos must be written and put on the office notice board before site work beckons. He examines level readings on a site Bailey bridge 10km up the road to check the structure hasnt shifted during night time rain and he monitors the progress of a nearby soil nailing crew.

He notes the condition of roadside verges before visiting the office library to check on a health and safety regulation. And he signs an urgent design certificate before delivering it to his client, the Scottish Office in Edinburgh.

Quite a productive half hour thinks McAlister as he looks up from his computer screen. He makes the second movement of the morning and reaches for virtually the only other thing on his desk, a cup of coffee no paper, no in tray, no mess.

All these desktop operations, and hundreds more, are achieved through what McAlister claims is the most advanced information retrieval and document control software system on any construction site. And it must rank, he says, among the most comprehensive and versatile of any organisation no matter how long established.

The 200,000 computer network offers its site users a suite of over 30 databases. These range from automated workflow of major contract documents including extensive quality control management to storing literally all the sites memos, mail, construction drawings and everyones appointment diaries.

The system is claimed to improve engineers efficiency by over 30%; save at least four jobs and more than half the paperwork of a comparable job. Direct savings equate easily to 400,000 over the 28 month contract. Less quantifiable efficiency gains, such as needless movement between offices, will more than double that figure he says.

But there is more. The 80 onsite personal computer screens connect not just the main contractors compound with its six satellite offices but are also linked to the headquarters of Autolinks own partners, plus consultants, leading subcontractors and even the Scottish Office.

More than 200 key personnel, in 24 locations from Edinburgh to Reading, have real time 24 hour access to virtually every document, drawing, photograph and memo needed to administer the mammoth contract.

The key to success was being able to start with a blank sheet of paper with no head office system to conform to or main board to convince, McAlister recalls. We had the network up and running inside three months and I cant imagine the nightmare we would now be facing without it.

That feared nightmare is the design, build, finance and operation of Scotlands first, and one of the UKs largest, DBFO road contracts (see box page III).

Over 60% of the 28km upgrade involves a new alignment with the rest widening of the existing road. Now a quarter into the 28 month contract, McAlister and his site team face a labyrinth of separate workfronts.

Bulk muckshifting is under way; hillsides are being stabilised; peat topsoil carefully stockpiled for re-use; blacktop laid and several of the 40 structures begun.

The still continuing design process includes a total change of widening technique, with revised alignment for over a third of the route. The overall intention is to save time and money though, at site headquarters, this translates into the major headache of overlapping design and construction.

But our document control system can easily cope because we designed it from scratch rather than adapt an existing program taken from the shelf, says McAlister. The we is a small team of engineers led by McAlisters boss, the JVs managing director Bob Clapperton, an even more fervent advocate of the paperless workflow ethic.

With all the important decisions being taken by engineers in-house, information technology consultant Systems & Networks was brought in to create the software. The only restraint was the budget. But by keeping within the original 200,000 tender estimate, based on a conventional intranet system between site offices covering mainly spread sheets and word processing, McAlister can claim his tailored package has been achieved at no extra cost.

Installed on individual PC hard drives, the system is based on the well established Lotus Notes software. This broad spread communications package features proformas readily adaptable to a range of applications all operating through Windows NT and Windows 95.

Information storage, access and retrieval is provided through a suite of 32 databases which the 100 or so site users access through a central server. Exactly the same databases are available to authorised users in the 24 other linked offices courtesy of the intranet and modem links.

Servers at these remote offices are generally updated every 30 minutes through a dedicated modem line to the site server. So all 200 plus users throughout the UK have access to the same real time databases.

Leading the suite is a range of workflow programs providing an automated, preselected route for action or approval of virtually any contractual operation. Design changes, construction orders, temporary works variations any site problem that would result in the contracts technical or environmental specification not being met can all be entered on the relevant electronic form. Even the projects maze of quality management documentation is fed into the system allowing the progress of any control audit to be checked.

Inputing the data automatically triggers the correct route which each form must follow. This person must respond and electronically sign off the document before forwarding it down the line. The fact that the form passes across the managers own computer screen is proof that only he or she has dealt with it because personal access passwords are genuine secrets known only to the authorised operator. A back up copy of the password is kept for emergency use, locked in a site safe.

But anyone can check progress of a workflow form; quickly identifying delays and bottlenecks.

Both the clients representative, Scott Wilson, and the Scottish Office itself are permanently on line, so design or construction approvals that would otherwise take a week can be processed in hours. Most documents remain electronic throughout their life with just a scattering of main contractual certificates having to eventually emerge as hard copy carrying real signatures.

Alongside the workflow packages sits an equally comprehensive suite of filing and retrieval databases. Most of the sites morning mail is immediately scanned into the system.

Weather reports, an electronic library and everyones diary appointments are never more than a click away. All engineering drawings and site progress photographs can be viewed plus the projects entire contract and specification documents.

Hard copies of drawings are strictly limited with the only exceptions being working copies needed out on site. The office keeps only one copy of the contract itself with its bulky specification annexes.

The main benefits of the system are claimed to be considerably increased efficiency in both distributing information and acting on it. This equates, says McAlister, to two less secretaries and two fewer quality control staff.

But close behind is paper saving. It is claimed that at least half the estimated 1M pieces of paper that such a site would produce annually are no longer needed.

Staff work much better in a neat, tidy environment without masses of paper cluttering up desks, says Clapperton. The physical transfer of documents is cumbersome and unnecessary, especially if providing the means to avoid it costs no more money.

While McAlister is the computer systems controller, his boss is the real driving force. The chief engineer admits to barely touching a computer once he gets home, while his managing director seems seldom without one.

Clappertons office is the perfect example of a paperless future. Vying for space on his large desk alongside three computers PC, laptop and Psion palmtop are a telephone and a copy of the Financial Times; absolutely nothing else. And the newspaper is there only because they give me free tokens for it, he says. I read most of its content on the Internet.

Surprisingly, Clapperton claims not to be anti-paper. Its elimination is just the natural casualty of more efficient workflow.

His staff are encouraged to attend meetings without bringing in notes: a large television doubles as a computer screen to permit mass viewing of reports. He will sign an important document; but someone must bring in the pen.

Otherwise he will not issue or accept anything on paper, says McAlister, recently charged with the task of removing all the sites desktop printers and the sole surviving fax machine.

This cleansing operation is near complete, though last week rumours surfaced of a quantity surveyor hiding the last remaining personal printer. McAlister has yet to find the right moment to share this rumour with his boss.

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