Two HS2 construction sites in the UK are being used to pilot a project to supply contractors with building supplies using converted on-site shipping containers. The aim is to reduce losses and theft on infrastructure projects and cut downtime caused by missing items.
VJ Technology (VJT), one of the UK’s largest distributors of fixings, consumables and small tools, says it has it has successfully trialed its iStore supplies units on the HS2 sites and plans to roll out at least two additional containerised stores a month in 2023 on a variety of sites across the country.
The company, based in Ashford, Kent, says it has patented the design of the stores which provide 24/7 on-site access to contractors and sub-contractors who buy goods through its online portal.
An iStore is delivered to site. (Photo: VJ Technology)
Each container uses CCTV cameras enabled with AI analytics to track authorised users as they scan and pick up items including fixings, fittings and small tools.
These items would previously have been purchased by a contractor’s procurement division.
Each store contains 400 to 600 items including fixtures and fittings, paint, anchors, chemical anchors and small tools including drill guns, battery-operated drills, torque wrenches and nail guns.
“The amount of items that go missing on a construction site or are just taken is staggering,” Mark Pettit, the company’s COO, tells Construction Europe.
“When you’ve got a van of items to deliver to a big construction site, the challenge is always to find the right person that has ordered them or to leave it securely.
“It’s like home delivery; people are never there when you need them, so many boxes and parcels get left with security which means that anyone can walk up with a hi-vis vest and say, yep that’s for me, I’ll take it.”
“We’ve had no theft so far and maybe one misplaced item in all our testing,” says Pettit. “Part of that is because people know that if they’re in the container they’re authorised and they’re being monitored in real time by cameras.”
How can iStore reduce project delays?
Customers which have previously registered with VJT and given credit card details order items online through the company website. When they get to the point of check out, instead of getting confirmation that their goods are being sent, customers are given a six digit code.
This enables an authorised user to enter the iStore, switching off the alarm system and activating the cameras inside.
Contractors working on HS2, the UK’s high speed railway project which will eventually link London with Manchester, are already under pressure to trim any costs possible. Europe’s biggest infrastructure scheme has tripled in price since it was approved a decade ago.
Pettit adds that giving contractors immediate access to building supplies, could reduce delays on site while workers wait for the correct components.
“Amazon is good, but you only get deliveries in eight hours. These sites are often working all through the night. You can have the situation where there is a team of eight people sitting around waiting at two o’clock in the morning because they haven’t got the right drill bit.”
Although VJT promises to sell items in each iStore at the same price as its online delivery stock, the company says that it hopes to use the greater convenience offered by the store to win market share, both from competitors in the consumables and fixings market and from rental firms by making it more convenient to buy through them.
Reducing construction site carbon emissions
“On any large construction site, most contractors don’t have just one provider of fixings they buy through, and normally all of our competitors would also be delivering to the same site,” Pettit says.
“There are seven or eight suppliers in the space we’re in and contractors tend to shop around between them. After all, they’re not buying just one box of screws, they’re buying 10,000 boxes of screws.
“But if we sell it at a competitive price, the same price as the website but in a more convenient way, we believe they will be more likely to come to us.”
And, by reducing deliveries from daily, to once every three weeks, Pettit says VJT is able to help contractors to reduce their carbon footprints.
Inside an iStore container. (Photo: VJ Technology)
“One of our pilot sites is a project where there were multiple sections to the construction so they ended up ordering from us every day,” says Pettit.
“We were sending our driver or a courier every single day to the same place. The carbon footprint of that is huge.
“By having a container on site that they can access themselves, the replenishment is now down to every three weeks.”
Where are iStore containers being rolled out?
So far VJT says it has only supplied its containers to existing customers, using buying history data to decide what items to include in each contractor’s iStore and to agree a minimum monthly spend amount.
Customers can request to put other items in their iStore if they think they may need them in future or change the contents of the store over time as a construction project moves into a new phase.
Contractors are also required to provide an electricity supply and, if possible, an internet connection to enable the store to function.
Subcontractors on site will also be able to make purchases through the store, the company says, although so far none have been included in the pilot projects.
VJT hopes to roll out the idea across the UK in 2023 and into mainland Europe the following year, provided it can build the required infrastructure which also includes training the workforce needed to deliver and supply each unit.
“Each container almost becomes its own profit and loss centre so it is very easy to tell if they are successful by looking at the number of orders coming through on a daily basis in real time against what we have projected as a minimum spend for them,” Pettit says.
“So far they have exceeded our expectations and we’re getting a lot of pressure to put more out there.”
Ashford-based VJ Technology is a distributor of fixings, fasteners and building consumables to the construction and infrastructure sector, focussing on technical connections to timber, concrete and steel.
The company currently stocks over £7m of products and has operations in Glasgow, Stoke-on-Trent, Stourbridge, Daventry, Sizewell, Park Royal, Aylesford and Southampton. The business was first established as a partnership in 1991 and was incorporated as a UK legal entity in 1995.
In 2005, the company was acquired by UK-listed insulation and roofing specialist, SIG. Thirteen years later the business completed a management buyout led by former SIG sales and marketing director Mark Tomlin and supported by private equity firm Primary Capital.
The company has supplied goods to projects including Heathrow T5, the London Olympic Park, the Newfoundland project at Canary Wharf, Crossrail and Hinkley Point C power station.
The company supplies brands including Lindapter, Makita, Paslode and Rawlplug.