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Interview of the month

A major report commissioned by Taylor Made Computer Solutions has been conducted to identify the catalysts for change and how owner-managers are approaching IT issues.

In the interview with Taylor Made Computer Solutions & Thomasons, the directors reveal what they perceive to be the issues if IT is to deliver key objectives.

Companies are realising that IT is now driving transformation, re-shaping our marketplace and the way we do business.

The challenges and how they can be addressed are revealed in our interview with Thomasons, as well as the opportunities that emerge with a Strategic approach to IT.

Nick Russell

Director
Nick is a Director of Thomasons, a 100-strong organisation of consulting engineers specialising in civil and structural engineering, glass engineering and building surveying.

Nick is a Chartered Engineer and a Fellow of both the Institutions of Structural and Civil Engineers as well as a Fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers. His 37 years’ experience of structural and civil engineering spans many sectors, including commercial, retail, industrial, education, residential and major losses.

Nick has extensive industry interests and a long association with the University of Surrey. He is a Visiting Professor at the University and Chair of the Joint Board of Moderators who accredit Civil Engineering degrees both in the UK and overseas. In 2014 he was International President of the Institution of Structural Engineers and travelled widely meeting students around the globe.

Over the past 25 years Nick has investigated failures in engineering structures both in the UK and overseas, and in 2016 and 2017 he was voted Civil and Structural Engineer Expert of the Year.

Interview

Over-reliance on computers can lead to problems that wouldn’t happen otherwise, opines Nick Russell, director of independent, multi-disciplinary civil and structural engineering practice Thomasons.

Though engineers need computers to manipulate the numbers involved in complex building projects, this can stifle creativity. We need to combine that with technical acumen and common sense too, he says.

“I spend a lot of time explaining to people that computers can’t think for you; they can only tell you things based on what you put in. We should use computers to validate what we think the answers should be, but we shouldn’t let the computer tell us what to do. You should rely to a certain extent on instinct and experience for direction. If something looks wrong, it probably is.”

The key, he believes, is to “use the best parts of technology to the best effect and not let it grind you down.” Which it can. One of his frustrations is upgrades. “Windows 10,” he recalls, “ gave us things we had to get used to but at the end of the day did exactly what we had before – and we had to pay for that.”

On the other hand, IT enables the company to process large amounts of data to allow it to take appropriate decisions.

“It takes out repetitive actions and allows our people to do far more interesting and creative things,” says Russell. For example, documents can be scanned, recognised, and filed in the correct place by the system.

IT also enables procurement pricing to be done more accurately on the firm’s projects, which range from private homes and housing developments to retail parks, town centre regenerations and major hospital redevelopments. That enables the cost of certain items to be changed and for the effect on the overall pricing to be easily seen.

“It takes the drudgery out, and gives you the opportunity to think about things rather than spending all your time writing out numbers,” comments Russell. “The same with budgets. We can immediately see the effect if something in particular happens.

“We are involved frequently on schemes which require changes to site levels for example, and we have a program to work out the details of the most cost-effective way to remove the earth and put it somewhere else. We used to use a lot of complicated calculations but now we can do it almost at the touch of a button and arrive at a far more accurate answer.”

IT also frees up engineers to focus on the more complex parts of projects. “Specialist subcontractors often carry out engineering on projects and IT enables us to integrate their details with our own,” Russell explains. “For example, a fabricator can design a steel-framed industrial type building, and that makes sense in that they’re doing it all day, every day, and can detail it to best suit the resources that they have. The electronic model however can be transferred to our own system and integrate with the parts of the project that we are working on.”

The big plus of IT in this context is that it gives people time to innovate and research better ways of doing “the stuff that good engineers do”.

Up-grading computer aided design and building information modelling [BIM] to 3D was expensive but necessary, muses Russell. “The logic is that you have to give clients what they want, to achieve their aspirations. You can’t go to the client and say ‘here is a picture of the building’.

“They now quite rightly expect to see an electronic model that can be viewed from every angle and know what it will look like from the inside. We have to know much more about the work of the client, too. We are not just engineers. With our major retail clients for example, we even know what their trading patterns are, which stores are busiest at what times of the year.”

The company is now looking at virtual reality, which will allow the client to put on a pair of goggles and ‘walk’ through a building. Russell observes: “For architects, VR is a must have, but for us it’s a nice to have. It’s a way off yet, a lot of work has to be done, but we will have some version of it. For now, it’s better to have a computer generated model that’s accurate than a glitzy system that isn’t.”

Established in 1947, Thomasons always invested heavily in IT. “We were one of the first firms to invest in a fax machine,” Russell recalls. “When I bought my first computer I thought a 160k hard drive would last for ever. We’ve also aspired to buy the best infrastructure available at the time, to ensure the best connectivity. Two years ago, we bought 100Mb cables that were not even standard yet.
Now they are!”

But they don’t try to be too ahead of the curve. “We are happy to consider ideas presented by staff who have the vision to do something differently. There is a huge energy that is driven by our younger staff members and graduates. But many things that we have considered, for example Apps, are only of use if there is a client requirement or if it is useful to the profession as a whole.

“There’s no point being too far in front of the curve as you can make expensive mistakes. We need to stand a little bit back but be alive to the things that IT can do.

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