Most engineers would jump at the chance to achieve more for no extra effort. The introduction of mobile IT as a site tool may help them do that, discovers Andrew Mylius.
Suppose you were in charge of health and safety on site. You would shout about major dangers and make sure they were removed on the spot.
But how about minor problems? The chances are you would note them down using pen and paper, then type your notes up back at the site office.
The relevant subcontractor would be warned to sort the situation out via an email or hand delivered print-out. Job done.
Or is it?
'On the M6 Toll Road I worked with a guy responsible for health and safety who was going out on site, noting hazards and taking digital photos, but never getting back to the site office until the end of the day, ' says Arup senior project manager and research engineer Sarah Bowden.
'Often it would be so late that he wouldn't write his notes up that day but only the following morning. So instead of getting out on site looking for more hazards, he'd be sat in front of a keyboard. He'd have to print out his report, then give it to those people who could do something about putting the hazard right. It could take two to three days to remove a minor hazard - that's far too long. Alternatively, by the time the report had got to the right person, the hazard would have been spotted and removed by someone else, so the report would be useless.'
Bowden reckons this scenario is played out on construction sites across the country.
Classing herself very much as a practical site engineer, Bowden has in the recent past been closely involved in the adoption and application of collaboration software. It was while seconded to Carillion on the M6 Toll project that she started to look for ways of extending the reach of new IT beyond the site office.
'There's not much IT in the field, yet mobile technology is there and ready for people to use. There are quite a few software solutions and bits of hardware which you can buy off the shelf, which would lend themselves really well to processes in construction, ' she says.
For her health and safety colleague Bowden put together a prototype IT package consisting of a small handheld electronic notepad onto which he could write and download digital pictures, and from which he was able to email other people while on the move.
Spurred on by the enthusiasm shown by colleagues on the M6 Toll, Bowden took on the challenge of giving construction companies some hard evidence that mobile communications technology is useful and costeffective on site.
Too often, bids for new IT systems run aground due to the absence of construction industry case histories. 'The main issues are having no examples - people want to see the technology demonstrated - and there are no costings. Nobody knows where to begin, ' she says.
Bowden teamed up with construction industry research body BSRIA and Loughborough University, both of which had been looking at applications for mobile IT in the building and facilities management sectors, and applied for a research grant from the Department of Trade & Industry. She is now one year into a two year demonstration project, codenamed COMIT - Construction Opportunities for Mobile IT.
With 12 months of field trials already behind it, COMIT is rapidly attracting attention - 50 users and software companies are now involved and a further 230 companies are signed up to receive the COMIT newsletter.
Network Rail is one company to have seen the benefits.
'Four years ago Network Rail's London, North East and East Anglia regions realised they had to start looking at assets, particularly at slopes, which were suffering from the activities of rabbits and badgers, waterlogging, and that kind of thing, ' Bowden tells.
'They sent out geotechnical engineers with a specially designed checklist to examine the line, and instructed them to make a note of condition every 10m. That's one piece of paper for each 10m, up and down, and they soon found they had a room full of paper. The surveys were carried out every winter, so we're talking really huge amounts.'
There was simply not enough back-up resource to process and file the data. 'Information was getting confused, which led to construction teams going out to do work in one place one day and somewhere else another, then having to go back to a site right next to the first a day later. Flaws in the paper system actually had quite a significant cost on site.'
Network Rail rethought the strategy, investing £70,000 in Hewlett Packard pocket PCs running GIS and digital mapping software. Instead of pacing out distances on the line, the new tools' satellite positioning capability gave engineers location readings to pin-point accuracy.
And, with each change of location, the digital track and terrain map automatically updated. On seeing a problem, engineers were now able to tap the relevant grid reference on the PC's touch sensitive screen, pulling up an electronic notepad on which to write up details.
'People were able to record problems and, because information from previous surveys is already in the system, they could also check the year on year progress of old problems, ' Bowden says.
Construction teams can look at a length of line and be sure that all work that needs to be carried out will be detailed - there will be no lost sheets of paper.
And in a way that paper-based systems never allowed, engineers 'see how their ranking of problems compares to the Network Rail average - they can spot differences of opinion very quickly'.
Bowden reports that Network Rail's £70,000 outlay was repaid through improved efficiency in less than a year, and the regions are now looking for other ways of using the system.
Commitment to efficiency
COMIT's remit is to show how diverse the applications of mobile IT are, and demonstration projects now getting under way are widely varied.
Contractor Pearce Group is keeping track of health and safety using a handheld computer, while Taylor Woodrow is carrying out inspection of Shell petrol stations for maintenance purposes.
The resolution of on-site design problems is being done by piling specialist Stent Foundations at Arsenal FC's new Drayton Park ground.
Network Rail is continuing to gather earthworks data electronically, while building services contractor Rosser & Russell is using mobile IT to keep track of time spent on jobs on site.
Construction equipment firm Byzak is using radio frequency identification tags to help it keep track of parts used in maintenance. Project manager Mace and contractor Taylor Woodrow are both undertaking snagging, with a handheld computer and digital pen and paper, respectively. Digital pen and paper consists of a fat biro equipped with a digital camera and paper that has been printed with a pattern of dots that is alike in no two places. This enables the pen to 'see' where on the page it is, and to digitally trace the nib's progress across its surface.
And Arup is contributing results from its experiment in issuing Blackberry mini-computers to its staff. Blackberries are permanently networked handheld devices that enable staff to access email from anywhere.
COMIT is due to wrap up with a final report and a sheaf of handy fact sheets for those who need convincing of the case for mobile IT next July.
INFOPLUS www. comitproject. org. uk