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Is technology our friend?

Billy Valler, managing director of W.B. Simpson & Sons Ltd, has just won the Lifetime Achievement Award at the recent TTA Awards.

As his business celebrates its 190th anniversary this year, here Billy reflects on the changes in the industry brought about by technology, considering the impact of all aspects from mobile phones to Artificial Intelligence.

One of the biggest changes to have taken place in this industry over the last 20 years has been the impact of computers and technology more generally. I can remember when we would get a parcel of drawings – a bundle of paperwork – which would arrive at the office, and you would price the job based on that. Nowadays, we get a link which takes us to a portal for the project, and within that portal we can find every single bit of information about the project, down to the last nut and bolt. The onus is then on us to sift through all that information to find out what’s relevant to the project and to our aspect of the work, and provide our estimates based on figuring out what’s important from a huge amount of information.

Although this has made life easier for main contractors, it has tended to create additional work for companies in our position, who now require more labour to do what used to be quite an easy job. It’s considered to be our responsibility to go and find the information that we need. Since our estimates have to be accurate and fully compliant, there’s risk for us, and we can’t afford to miss anything.

If we look at the impact mobile phones have had, that is quite striking as well. Nowadays you can call anybody any time, whereas before people had mobiles, if the guys were on the road, you had to catch them when they came into the office or when they got home – and you might not even have been able to leave a message on a landline phone!

It’s been a massive change and in many ways the ease and speed of communication has made things more complicated and definitely made the industry more stressful. Contract managers are being constantly bombarded with emails, and it’s a case of sifting through the information to decide what is important and relevant and what isn’t. The problem is, the overall rate or quality of work ends up not being much better than previously – it’s just more stressful. We need a lot more people than 25 years ago to manage this information flow.

That’s not to say everything has been made more difficult. Some things are definitely easier – for instance, now everyone is effectively their own secretary: a big change from when we had to dictate letters to typists which would then be typed out, checked and posted.

Of course all drawings are done electronically nowadays, and all design elements are dealt with digitally – and have been for quite a few years.

The problem is that specifiers tend to cut and paste specifications from other jobs, which has the risk of them including information which is not necessarily relevant or accurate for the job in hand. So we find we have to give a lot of guidance to the main contractors and architects, whereas 20 or more years ago we wouldn’t have had to do that because they would have had the time and the in-house expertise to give it more consideration themselves.

As ever, these things are driven by money. One of the changes in this business – which I’ve mentioned before – is that 25 years ago we would have been one of just a few companies in the industry doing what we do. Now there are dozens of companies even just in London. So it’s become a lot more competitive. Our approach is always to try and sell our capabilities, the level of service that we can offer because we have invested over the years in our staff and our level of resource.

Unfortunately however, customers are too often obliged to look solely at the bottom line. The risk is that they go with somebody who is 5% cheaper, but who can’t deliver the project as well as we can because they just don’t have the necessary resources.

We are now told we are on the cusp of a new digital revolution caused by the development of artificial intelligence. I have yet to see analysis of what impact that might have in our sector, but I have no doubt it will present us with some challenges, as we go forward, seeking to remain competitive and retain high skilled employment in flooring.

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