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Smooth operators

Mobile IT - IT that can be used at the rough end of construction is delivering surprise benefits to contractors, discovers Andrew Mylius.

A close look at a gang of workers digging up the road may reveal something unusual about their equipment. There is a chance that, alongside the pneumatic drill, picks, shovels and roller, the roadworks crew will be sporting a chunky handheld computer.

'McNicholas has 35 gangs equipped with mobile IT. The aim is to get all 500 gangs equipped, which will take a couple of years, ' says the contractor 's IT manager Boyd Neal. McNicholas has been one of a handful of firms exploring the business impact of spreading the IT revolution from the office onto the construction site.

After year long trials Neal and McNicholas' bosses calculate that the cost of equipping each foreman with a mobile monitor linked via mobile phone technology to company HQ is well worth paying.

'If it costs you £2,000 to put a device out on site but you are going to save £10,000 there's no problem [justifying the investment], ' Neal says. Savings come from being able to give gangs clear instructions, maps and service information remotely, saving on travelling time to and from the office en route to a job.

'And there are other savings, ' adds Neal: any information generated on site is put directly into the field computer and logged automatically with linked machines in the office, 'so you're saving on admin'.

McNicholas is already finding that its adoption of mobile IT is arousing interest among clients, reports Neal. 'Clients like it, as it enables integration. We are trying to integrate better with our clients anyway and this just helps.' Mobile IT is already fairly standard kit in many areas of the UK economy. Supermarket supply chains and transport logistics depend on it. In principle it is simple, using mobile phone networks to put office based computers in constant touch with battery-powered devices that can be taken 'anywhere with a one bar phone signal', explains Chris Buist, chief executive of Flying Spark, a company that provides the software that enables communication between remote and office based computers.

Job-relevant information can be put into a machine at either end - office or site - and it will be immediately shunted off to all other users, he says.

Buist goes on: 'Our communications software sits between the operating system and the applications you want to use - email, document sharing, spreadsheets, Word documents, a bespoke quality assurance application. . . whatever it may be.

The system can support many applications and many devices at once - there can be unlimited users.' Handheld computers have been used out on site for some time, he notes, but typically must be docked in a cradle back at the office to transfer information to a computer network. 'With proper mobile IT, information is exchanged in real time, all the time. As soon as data's entered back in the office it's put out there to all other devices. There's automatic updating.' Applications for mobile IT include reporting on job progress, quality assurance, health and safety, and maintenance reports. 'It also lends itself to problem resolution, ' Buist notes. 'You're able to get information back to site so problems can be sorted out more quickly.' Alfred McAlpine business improvement manager Stuart Young says that in his company the introduction of mobile IT is leading a shift in the way work is specified 'from procedure driven to process driven. Procedures are prescriptive - what, when, where, how, ' he elucidates.

'Process is output-oriented and you find the right inputs.' Alfred McAlpine is using mobile IT for health and safety audits using an off the shelf application.

Giving workers the opportunity to show their own initiative in the way work is tackled has already improved morale in Alfred McAlpine's and McNicholas' workforces, and it is buoyed further by saving them time previously spent travelling or filing reports. Improved morale generates better productivity, Young notes.

The introduction of self certification, particularly in the civils sector of the construction market, makes wider adoption of mobile IT obvious, since it is well adapted to auditing operations, Young believes. Neal adds that further logic for adoption of mobile IT comes in the form of statutory requirements such as the working time directive, which demands that hours worked are recorded, and the new Highways Act, which requires contractors to log the GPS co-ordinates of holes they dig in roads.

'Clients are starting to say this information is critical. They'll get to stage where if you don't have mobile IT you don't come to the party, ' Neal says.

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