Extra service

By Murray Pollok17 March 2008

Throughout the construction industry, there is a commitment to enhancing service and efficiencies, reducing costs and administration and eliminating wastage as measured against Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

Construction companies are therefore selecting suppliers based on their ability to provide KPI information on every aspect of their service, from deliveries, collections, response times and query resolution to health and safety practices and training regimes.

Andy Allott, finance director at Holroyd Construction, a leading contractor based at Wetherby in West Yorkshire, UK, says: “We believe there is much more than just price governing our relationship with suppliers. We are looking for added value partnerships with companies who are prepared to work closely with us to meet our requirements. This was the basis of our decision, six years ago, to appoint A-Plant as preferred supplier for hire equipment used on our sites.”

A-Plant recognised that the key to meeting the prerequisites laid down by Holroyd Construction was the provision of fully integrated on-line services through the Extranet accessed via the A-Plant website (www.aplant.com).

Many of A-Plant's customers are already utilising the reporting capabilities available through the Extranet. They can obtain consolidated information for all transactions with customers, regardless of what equipment was hired and which A-Plant location was involved, presenting the information by operating region and by postcode for particular sites. The ability to offer weekly plant reports and consolidated invoices meets industry standards adopted by contractors for management reporting.

A key aspect for contractors is that the management information is ‘real time' data, encompassing transaction reports from every one of the 200-plus A-Plant depots. This information is vital in the fast moving construction industry, where close monitoring of plant requirements and expenditure is standard practice.

Holroyd Construction wanted to extend this capability and has worked closely with A-Plant to develop a comprehensive on-line ordering system for hire equipment. The company runs between 15 and 20 sites at any one time and site managers stipulate the equipment they need for each site and order the relevant equipment via simple drop-down lists accessed via the A-Plant Extranet.

Andy Allott explains: “We have found the on-line ordering facility to be an excellent time-saving tool. The integrated solution offered by the A-Plant Extranet is simple to use and provides us with great benefits and points the way forward for construction companies like ourselves. It also sets the standard for the professionalism we expect of plant hire companies.”

e-mail alert

To help ensure accuracy when a customer places an order, A-Plant sends an e-mail alert in reply, confirming the order and that the details are correct. Andy Wortley, director of operational applications at A-Plant, says: “Accuracy is a key advantage of the integrated system – the customer inputs exactly what they want and is sent an e-mail confirmation. This saves time and ensures that disputes are kept to a minimum during the lifetime of the contract.”

Another check is provided by the handheld PDA's used by A-Plant delivery drivers. To confirm that the appropriate equipment has been delivered to the right site, site personnel are required to sign on the pad of the PDA. The signature and acceptance form are immediately downloaded onto the Extranet and are available to view on-line.

Andy Wortley adds: “The Extranet can log any contract that has been delivered using the PDAs, showing the time the equipment was delivered, as well as the signature captured by the driver. We believe we are the first in the industry to offer total integration of PDAs into its back office systems.”

Using the Extranet, customers can view statements, sales invoices and produce a range of reports indicating, for example, the customer site each piece of A-Plant equipment is at and which A-Plant depot it was hired from. A live hire report can be instantly produced, which details the range of equipment on hire, who it was hired by, when it was hired and the rate.

“An important feature is that we have not had to purchase or develop our own software for this purpose. The A-Plant Extranet generates a list of all the plant at all of our different sites, so we know exactly where all of our hire equipment should be located,” says Andy Allott.

Logging equipment

He adds: “The data on the Extranet logs the type of equipment we are hiring and for how long. We set reminders on the orders to ensure that we are not holding onto equipment longer than is necessary. It allows our senior management to check what is being kept on a site before they visit and ensure that equipment should be off-hired when certain parts of the projects have been finished. We can also use the list to do physical checks whenever we like.”

The A-Plant Extranet has created two more industry firsts. As well as being able to query orders and invoices, customers can, for the first time, make account payments on-line. The system also allows customers to raise any invoice query on-line, automatically updating the credit services systems at A-Plant and ensuring quicker action and resolution of queries. Customers can view existing invoice queries which they have registered and see their status within A-Plant.

Holroyd Construction has to date made little use of the query service, but acknowledges that it will be used in future to log problems such as speed of delivery and quality of equipment.

Holroyd's Andy Allott concludes: “The A-Plant Extranet meets many of our requirements for hiring plant and equipment. Some of our site managers were sceptical when we changed to a preferred supplier arrangement. But the Extranet has been a real plus for us, I don't think anyone would want to return to the old situation where the site managers had the time-consuming job of ringing round a number of suppliers to find the equipment and price they wanted and my staff needed additional time to administer the multiple orders, invoices and suppliers.”

Another new addition to the on-line services available through the A-Plant Extranet is the launch of the A-Trak system for monitoring hired equipment. A-Trak utilises mobile GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) devices, fitted to A-Plant equipment such as dumpers, rollers, excavators, telehandlers and compressors, which provides internet tracking and telematics information by communicating with host servers with bespoke software running to decode the incoming data.

A-Trak was developed with Enigma Vehicle Systems with security as the principal requirement and can be accessed by the customer through the Extranet to obtain a wealth of information about the status of the equipment they have hired. With A-Trak, the customer can check that the equipment is being used properly and that it is at its intended location.

Theft recovery

All equipment covered by the A-Trak system remains in contact with the server all year round, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so its status is available at all times. Once linked to the A-Trak system, customers can request positions, ringfence machines, (for additional theft protection) and monitor operating hours. The ability to monitor running hours is one of a number of sensor options that can be provided by using the information ports available on the device at the centre of the A-Trak system. Functions that can be monitored also include fuel level, battery level, coolant, engine on/off, ignition on/off, engine covers open/closed and so on.

The customer can even generate an aerial photograph of the site and the equipment on the site. Photographs like this are also being used to guide the police when they are attempting to recover stolen plant. The information on these photographs is so good that it has led to many recoveries of equipment, even when it is hidden.

In a recent incident, A-Trak not only helped to locate and recover stolen A-Plant equipment, it also led the authorities to other stolen equipment and to detaining the possible culprits. The incident involved a telehandler from the A-Plant depot at Maidstone in Kent which was reported stolen at the beginning of the week from a customer's site in Chislehurst. The unit was eventually located by the system at Dover Western Docks, where the police moved in to arrest four people and recover the telehandler and eight other pieces of plant, together with a stolen Scania tractor unit and trailer. The stolen equipment was prevented from reaching its intended destination -Cyprus.

Andy Wortley says: “Customers will be excited by the information and protection provided by the ATrak system. It is a powerful deterrent to the theft of A-Plant equipment, significantly reducing downtime and costs for both A-Plant and our customers.”

Supplies portal

With the development of the Extranet, A-Plant is also now offering suppliers a similar portal to the company's customers. Through the Extranet, suppliers can see the status of their accounts on the A-Plant system, invoices in query, and add comments which feed straight into the A-Plant purchase ledger query management system. Suppliers can also see which invoices are cleared for payment.

“A-Plant was the first company in the equipment rental industry to introduce an Extranet five years ago and the latest additions make it easily the most advanced on the market”, claims Andy Wortley, “But we will continue to develop the Extranet to meet the requirements of our business and to provide even more features not previously available on-line to hire industry customers and suppliers.”

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