Involve M&E suppliers earlier to save project costs

Early M&E supplier involvement on projects can deliver cost savings and avoid common missed opportunities, says Simon Burras.

Applied Industrial Systems supply the SCADA system that monitors and controls two tunnels at the Dartford tunnel.

“If only they’d spoken to us earlier,” is a thought I’ve had many times after completing the first pass of M&E tender documents for the latest infrastructure project. And I suspect this is a common wish among M&E suppliers.

Although used to being the ‘tail-end Charlies’, giving M&E suppliers the opportunity to become involved earlier will benefit many aspects of a project as a whole, especially where the M&E provider’s role extends to system integration. This is because, when designing large infrastructure projects, it is customary for the owner organisation to engage a design company to ensure the project’s viability from an engineering and budgetary perspective. 

Once the project is approved, the role of the designer evolves to focus on generating performance specifications and tender documents. From experience, it is during this process that a series of disconnects with M&E systems can be introduced, which can subsequently lead to three key missed opportunities and longer term cost of ownership issues. 

Missed opportunity #1: Disparate systems rather than an integrated approach 

M&E equipment is generally specified as a number of separate packages and these in turn will most likely be tendered separately. Historically, this wasn’t a problem as most of the M&E packages were relatively simple, stand alone systems. Today, the situation is vastly different, with the majority of M&E equipment having its own computer control. In a complex infrastructure setting, this requires an integrated system approach rather than the supply of a number of disparate computer systems that the operator of the final systems may struggle to reconcile and use.

Missed opportunity #2: Relying on generalists without specific systems experience

A second disconnect occurs where the performance specification becomes too prescriptive in some areas, but ambiguous in others. The root of this problem lies with the engineers who write the specifications, because as generalists, they will inevitably have a more limited understanding of the current technology available than specialists. 

This is not a criticism of the engineers, but a statement of fact as to the way that design companies are often organised. For example, an electrical engineer is frequently assigned the role of specifying the SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) computer system and whilst he or she will have some experience of the technology, they probably won’t have the in-depth computer system and software experience that could benefit the design.

Missed opportunity #3: Failure to innovate

The first two missed opportunities inevitably result in M&E specifications being recycled across different projects, with the consequence that new technologies are neglected for the ‘same old’ approach. This is in part understandable as design budgets like all other areas of construction are under pressure, but the context here is that we have seen specifications based on documents over 20 years old and that simply can’t be right.

A good example to illustrate the benefits of early M&E involvement can be found in the Dartford Crossing, for which Applied Industrial Systems supply the SCADA system that monitors and controls two tunnels and the Queen Elizabeth Bridge. Working in partnership with the project consultants, Jacobs, led to the design and build of a single, integrated Life Safety Control System (LSCC).  The UK’s first SIL2 and BS EN 61508 approved SCADA system, this would operate in stand alone mode for safety functions, but was integrated with the site wide SCADA for maintenance and diagnostics.  

The collaborative approach taken between M&E and the main project contractors offered multiple benefits. These included improved functional integration between the Fixed Fire Fighting System (FFFS), the ventilation systems and active exit signage, the opportunity to innovate with a dedicated fixed camera CCTV being installed for automatic incident detection, greater system acceptance because operators were involved early on in the process and perhaps most significantly for the contractors, minimised operational and lifetime ownership costs through reduced maintenance complexity. 

Early main contractor involvement in large infrastructure projects has been around for a number of years and has undoubtedly delivered benefits in terms of costs and timescales. We would now like to see it becoming the norm for early M&E supplier involvement too. There is significant innovation available from Tier 2 and Tier 3 suppliers if they are given the opportunity to participate early.

Simon Burras is the managing director of Applied Industrial Systems, an M&E system integrator specialising in the control and monitoring of tunnels and bridges in highway and rail infrastructure projects.