Under construction

A construction site is, by its nature, temporary. When the job is done, builders hand the site back to its owners, pack up their tools and drive on to the next job. But one company working on Heathrow Airport’s fifth terminal will leave something valuable behind: its wireless local area network (LAN).

Laing O’Rourke has built wireless hotspots that its staff can use during construction. The idea is that the owners of Heathrow will take over the wireless LAN once the terminal buildings are complete.

Laing O’Rourke, which is doing something similar at another key development, the Royal London Hospital, employs 4,000 staff and is in the process of equipping half of them with Intel Centrino-based laptops. This includes WiFi connectivity. The company’s plan is that only administrative staff in head office will keep their desktop computers. Over time, most desktops will be replaced by laptop units.

Unlike workers who spend most of their time in offices, and can hook up to existing networks, staff in the building industry are often on sites with no power or running water, let alone communications. Putting in a wireless LAN at the start of the construction process makes sound economic sense, says Sam Simons, the company’s director of strategy.

Faster decision making is one of the early benefits. Simons estimates that his teams are between 20% and 30% more productive because they can access critical data from their laptops anywhere on the site. Faster decision-making processes also reduce the scope for error and cuts out the need for expensive, last-minute design changes. Any changes that are necessary can be signed off on site.

Laing O’Rourke has been able to move to wireless working without increasing its overall IT spending, says Simons. The system is more secure too: by setting up a wireless network on site, workers have direct access to the corporate network at head office. Previously, they had to rely on clients’ networks for connections.

Clients should benefit too: creating buildings from the ground up for wireless networking makes for greater flexibility. Laing O’Rourke’s designs now make use of moveable glass panels, which create little radio-frequency disruption. And being able to hand over a complete wireless LAN to a client is a strong selling point: “We believe wireless networking will make such a profound difference that we are not only encouraging our clients to adopt it, but helping them to do so,” says Simons.

Laing O’Rourke is hardly unique in its approach. Edinburgh-based building management company Sharkey deals with everything from plumbing and electrics to furnishings.The company, which has an annual turnover of around £35 million, turned to a wireless LAN because it was running out of office space. With 200 staff and additional contractors, it was becoming less and less practical to give everyone a desk and a fixed workstation, and a large percentage of staff are regularly off site with clients.

“The wireless network has cut our costs, because we can provide everyone with access to all their data, but with about a tenth of the space they used to need,” says Anthony Van Gemert, Sharkey’s IT director.

Sharkey chose to install networking equipment from Aruba, citing the security features the vendor offered. Even so, the system was not without its initial problems, not least because of issues with Microsoft Windows that Van Gemert describes as “slight incompatibilities and inconsistencies”. He says that, if he were to roll out the system again, he would run a test based on a smaller number of staff, with a wider range of equipment.

He says that Sharkey has already gained benefits from the wireless system, through greater flexibility and by being able to accommodate more staff in the office than a fixed desk system would allow.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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