Infrastructure in 2014: Timely solutions with a light touch
Innovative products developed by the supply chain have a lot to offer the industry in its quest to reduce costs and improve safety and efficiency.
The drive for cost and efficiency improvements throughout the construction industry has never been stronger, with major clients all attempting to drive unnecessary cost out of the design and construction process. Traditionally, this has often resulted in the supply chain being squeezed and margins cut to the bone, but the real answer may lie, instead, in looking to that supply chain to provide the innovative new products and techniques that will make construction processes quicker, safer and more cost effective.
Suppliers have been trying to demonstrate the value of their innovative products for years - from automated machine control on excavators to plastic scaffold tubes - but the industry is often reluctant to try anything new. Mabey’s new head of innovation Siân James, who describes herself as “an outsider coming into the industry”, says construction is not very innovative compared with other sectors, but understands some of the reasons for this.
“It is interesting just how conservative the industry is, but I can also understand why - because of the safety constraints and requirements of the industry,” she says.
“Because people’s lives are at risk in some cases, you tend to go with what you know absolutely works.”
James joined Mabey earlier this year from Mitie, with the task of leading innovation across the entire Mabey group, including the heavy fabrication side of the business and Mabey Hire, which specialises in supplying support and propping equipment. She has previously worked for Dyson and Xerox.
“From my experience of what works in other industries, I would say there are three elements to innovation: the introduction of brand new products; innovating existing designs; and developing new ways of doing things,” she explains. “However, the key thing that should always lead it is problem solving.
“I am sure there are plenty of unsolved problems within the industry, or problems that have rather poor solutions at the moment. Sometimes it’s not a very sophisticated problem, but you can make a big difference when you put a creative solution against it.”
“I’ve been talking a lot with the teams here around what are the big challenges our customers face and struggle with, and a lot of it is about speed and safety,” she adds.
Mabey Hire managing director Mark Rooney says that speed is definitely at the top of the priority list among his clients: “Time saving on site is the main issue - it comes down to how much money we can save them by saving their time.”
He cites examples of two products in Mabey Hire’s fleet that both speed up the work and improve safety: the Extractor Plus trench sheet extractor and the Q-Kap universal trench sheet driving tool, which was designed by a plant owner-operator and fits directly to the quick hitch of a standard excavator.
These examples relate directly to problems being encountered on site and the desire to do them more safely and efficiently. “One thing we can do is to look at existing solutions, and say how do we do these better - for example making them lighter, easier to use, easier to fit or easier to transport,” says James. “If things can be fixed together more easily - or are easier to lift and manoeuvre - then activities on site can be done more rapidly and safely. Construction sites are really short on space, and you are often lifting really heavy pieces of equipment around.”
Rooney agrees that innovation does not always mean bringing brand new products to the market. In some instances it is a case of bringing together existing technologies and expertise in an innovative way to solve a specific problem. Mabey Hire recently launched an instrumentation division that combines the firm’s traditional structural support capability with structural monitoring.
“Because we already do structural support - propping and jacking - we can do the monitoring in conjunction with that and offer the whole package,” says Rooney. “We are able to give the client peace of mind.”
The company has used the monitoring alongside propping on some major structures, including the Gravelly Hill interchange - otherwise known as Spaghetti Junction - and Junction 9 of the M27. It is currently being used in Canning Town where excavation is going on beneath a road structure.
“We are using established technologies, but the innovation is in the way we combine them to provide the right solution - it’s in the application of the equipment,” says Rooney.
A further way of innovating is to introduce products into the UK market that are already established in other territories. Mabey Hire, for example, has brought in an aluminium trench support box from Australia that is just as strong as traditional steel trench boxes but just a quarter of the weight.
“They’ve offered a real selling advantage over steel in the Australian market,” says Rooney. “We have used them over here on a couple of jobs where accessibility is a problem and it is only possible to use a small excavator.
“It is a premium product, but there are significant benefits in terms of time saving, and as you can use a much smaller excavator you can save money.”
“We are using established technologies, but the innovation is in the way we combine them to provide the right solution”
Mark Rooney, Mabey Hire
If one aspect of innovation is, as James says “finding new ways of doing things”, then this relates to communication as much as it does to products and equipment. Rooney points out that, increasingly, activities on site are being carried out by people who are not specialists, and who may not have English as their first language. In response to this, he says Mabey is finding ways to make formwork erection easier to understand, including providing installation information as YouTube videos or animations that can be watched on mobiles or tablet computers.
“You have to make it absolutely as easy as possible,” he says. “If it’s difficult, people just won’t do it.”
At the same time, however, the firm is also trying to improve the skills of the workforce through accredited training, something that is being demanded by major clients, some of which will only appoint contractors that can demonstrate the competence of their workforce.
This is evidence that clients’ requirements do filter down through the supply chain, and James is optimistic it is a two-way street, with clients being open to learning more from suppliers. The industry is fragmented, she says, “but that doesn’t prevent you from developing relationships further up the supply chain. It all gets back to problem solving, and if we can demonstrate that we have a solution to a genuine problem, then I think they will listen”.
Instruments and products
Park Gate interchange at Junction 9 of the M27 was built in 1976, but now carries far more traffic that was originally envisaged.
The interchange consists of two bridges, both of which have twin span, simply supported, pre-stressed, inverted M-beam decks with in situ concrete deck slabs and three intermediate diaphragms, all supported by reinforced concrete central leaf piers and abutments.
Chloride ingress on both bridges has led to the central piers being damaged, and these are now being replaced. While the piers are being demolished and new piers constructed, the deck is being supported by Mabey MAT 125 props.
The company has also installed a bespoke real time monitoring system that measures movement within the structure while the work is underway and provides a warning if the movement exceeds pre-set limits.Last year Mabey Hire launched its 7t trench sheet extractor, designed in collaboration with Black & Veatch. The extractor is fitted with a secondary safety device that is independent of the main attachment point, so it will not fall if it is attached incorrectly.