Ready for the Challenge?
In November the CPA hosted its Annual Conference. Alan Guthrie reviews the CPA Conference 2023 which discussed present and future challenges facing the plant-hire industry and strategies to remain resilient. CPA Chief Executive Stu McInroy announced several new initiatives - and there was a spirit of positive collaboration.
Challenges are inevitable in business and the hire industry reflects this, being involved so often in responding to urgent and unexpected customer requests, new regulations and emerging market trends. But surely there can never before have been a time when hirers faced so many pressing issues simultaneously, from political uncertainty, economic pressures and recruitment difficulties, to supply chain disruption, rising plant theft and the ongoing drive to Net Zero.
The CPA chose its Conference 2023 to address such topics head on. Held on 9th November 2023 at the Heart of England Conference and Events Centre near Coventry, the ambitious programme comprised four panel discussions, each focusing on different current and future issues under an overall title of ‘Facing the Challenges in the Plant-hire Sector’. Speakers were drawn from both within and outside the industry to give a rounded overview, suggesting practical measures and strategies to adopt.
Opening the Conference, Stu McInroy, who was appointed as CPA Chief Executive in June, said this was a time of change for the Association itself to ensure it continued to reflect the interests of members and the wider plant-hire industry.
He said that too many trade associations inhabited “the echo chamber of the past successes” and were slow to recognise shifting industry trends and changing member requirements. Changes could be unsettling in the short term but by addressing them squarely a better focused industry comprising stronger businesses would result.
Stu McInroy said numerous measures were already in train to gather information that would, in turn, amass industry knowledge and give the CPA greater influence. For example, the Association has responded in detail to the CBI’s (Confederation of British Industry) request for views and recommendations ahead of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement in November.
And CPA has also commissioned the respected Oxford Economics consultancy to deliver an economic impact assessment of the significant contribution made to the UK economy by the plant-hire industry. To make this as informative as possible, Stu said it was vital that members contributed to a request for feedback that will likely be sent early in the new year, with the final report due by June 2024 - very timely, given the likelihood of a general election shortly after.
He also said the industry now had to move on beyond Covid-19 and into a post-pandemic future, focussing on the future not the past.
The four Conference sessions were chaired by Merryn Myatt, a former BBC news presenter who now specialises in media management and positive corporate communications.
In the first, current issues facing ‘The Plant-hire Sector in 2023’ were discussed by four panellists: Asif Latief, most recently MD of Boels Rental UK who spent 17 years with Sunbelt Rentals (formerly A-Plant) and who takes up a senior role with another business in January; Chris Gill, Director of L Lynch Plant Hire & Haulage; James Atkinson, Vice President UK & Europe with industry data analyst Rouse Services; and Mark Anderson, MD North with GAP Group.
Asif Latief stressed that, although challenges exist like financing new equipment and getting customers to pay a fair hire rate for it, it was important to remember that the construction sector is cyclical, so companies had to keep one eye on current issues and the other on the future. Hirers should ensure their fleets continued to reflect customers’ likely future needs and make necessary adjustments: indeed, several companies had recently auctioned off surplus equipment.
“Position yourself and refocus on what you do now and where you need to be when the recovery comes,” said Asif.
He said it was important to monitor costs and avoid unnecessary overspending on areas ranging from unterminated rehire contracts to charging correctly for deliveries and fuel services. And besides devising apprenticeships for new personnel, businesses should upskill existing people to increase staff retention when recruitment is so challenging.
Asif also said he felt “short changed” by the King’s Speech in November outlining the government’s agenda, believing there was little understanding of construction industry issues and needs. Perhaps an equipment scrappage scheme might encourage adoption of new, eco-friendly machines that are typically more expensive.
Indeed, Lynch’s Chris Gill wished the government showed more commitment and consistency. So little had happened by way of industry engagement and direction, it felt as though we had faced pre-election stagnation for years. A national, long-term strategy was needed to build our way back post-Covid and he welcomed the CPA’s earlier stated initiatives to gauge member needs so their interests could be represented to government.
James Atkinson of Rouse Services believed there are many challenges, from high interest rates, rising equipment costs and rental rates remaining largely static. He said that the construction sector had been slow to embrace new technologies and digital services for greater productivity and that their adoption offered huge potential.
He said that the same applied to artificial intelligence (AI). One only had to think of the impact that smartphones and apps had made on business in recent years, and implementing AI meaningfully could bring similar benefits.
GAP’s Mark Anderson was similarly positive. If hire was a £6 billion industry, that was a big sector to aim at even in a relatively flat market. Hire had proved itself to be resilient before, during and after Covid, and greater political certainty would help further.
He highlighted the importance of sound management, particularly in relation to people costs and equipment depreciation. Following Covid disruption when supply chain difficulties made some plant hard to obtain, many companies had ramped up purchasing to meet demand and were now reining in their spending as conditions normalised. However, it was important to invest in people as good personnel would guide a company’s future success. Mark said he had been particularly impressed by the new talent entering the plant industry highlighted by CPA’s Stars of the Future awards earlier in the year.
Five industry professionals participated in the second panel discussion ‘Fuelling the Future’ focused on the challenges of transitioning away from diesel: Adam Nicholson and Jim Haigh, respectively the MD and Chairman/CEO of Eagle Platforms; Alasdair Reisner, Chief Executive of the Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA), Matt O’Hara, Head of Sales for Clean Energy with Sunbelt Rentals UK & Ireland; and Paul Mabey, National Account Sales Manager with JCB.
Adam Nicholson believed a steep learning curve remained for customers wishing to go green by using electric or hybrid machines. One Eagle Platforms client had wanted to use battery machines during the day and charge them overnight with a diesel generator, which rather defeated the object. In future, adequate infrastructure would be needed for such charging purposes. Meanwhile, transitional fuels like HVO (hydro-treated vegetable oil) would play a role in replacing diesel, especially if the government encouraged its use with a rebate scheme - although the panel agreed this was unlikely.
Similarly, Eagle’s Jim Haigh felt that more benefit could be derived over the shorter term from using the cleanest and most efficient diesel technology with machines incorporating Stage V engines, building on what customers are already familiar with. He believed that battery technology still had to improve and that hydrogen, while being a fuel of the future, was clearly not yet available on a practical scale.
JCB’s Paul Mabey stressed the importance of selecting the most appropriate energy source for each particular task and that customers can achieve cost-effective results now. Surprisingly, the UK lies at the bottom of the global league table for adopting JCB battery powered equipment, so any increase would deliver big incremental benefits.
Paul said that some house builders were questioning the green credentials of HVO, suggesting that the land devoted to growing crops from which it originates could be put to more ecologically friendly uses. He believed that battery and hydrogen powered machines complemented each other, the former suitable for compact machines, and hydrogen internal combustion engines like JCB’s for larger, power-hungry plant that has to work virtually 24/7.
He added that telematics were a valuable tool in optimising diesel use in terms of reducing equipment idling times and unnecessary machine movements.
CECA’s Alasdair Reisner agreed that diesel remained a valuable practical fuel over the shorter term but that it would clearly be phased out on the road to Net Zero by 2050, which is the government’s stated intention. Hydrogen and other novel fuels would have a big role to play and the market would need to keep abreast of developments.
He also praised the CPA’s work and guidance on issues like environmentally friendly plant operation and minimising idling. As such information is available now, industry professionals should be using it and this, he said, exemplified how the industry could work together to achieve improvements.
Matt O’Hara of Sunbelt Rentals agreed that technology existed now to reduce diesel engine running time and that it should be adopted by customers needing to go green. For sites like new house building projects without a mains electrical connection in place, a hybrid solution of a battery energy storage unit with a diesel generator would reduce emissions, lower fuel use and cut costs to deliver environmental and commercial benefits.
He said that the immediate question always posed by customers was how to quantify the savings they would make. Telematics data could show this. Furthermore, in future AI would be able to analyse information and make more accurate recommendations regarding site setups and optimising management to reduce emissions of carbon, NOx and other particulates.
Like JCB’s Paul Mabey, Matt emphasised selecting the most appropriate equipment for individual tasks and sites. Solar power would be suitable at certain times of year, for example, while HVO could increase further the sustainability of diesel Stage V engine machines. Hirers and customers, he said, can work together to achieve benefits.
Challenges identified by some of the CPA’s Special Interest Groups were explored in the third panel discussion, with participants comprising: Kirsty Archbold-Laming, Director of Southern Hoist Services and Chair of CHIG (Construction Hoist Interest Group); Peter Gibbs, Chief Operating Officer for Ainscough Crane Hire and Chair of the Crane Interest Group (CIG) for Mobile and Crawler Cranes; and Steve Featherstone, MD of Sachle Consultants who chairs the Rail Plant Association (RPA).
Kirsty Archbold-Laming said that the nature of the hoist and lifting equipment hire market was that any construction slowdown typically took several months to have an impact and that business remained steady. However, to mitigate any potential disruption, Southern Hoist Services had diversified into additional markets such as events and film production, as well as winning overseas contracts.
Kirsty said that a common frustration - which many hirers will empathise with - was how many customers simply expect equipment to arrive on site and be installed with minimal preparation having been done beforehand on their part. Perhaps clients could be educated in planning an installation in advance. However, she said that considerable advances had been made in training since CHIG’s formation, with dedicated courses on aspects of hoist inspection and usage. A course in basic training for new installers, leading to NVQ pathways, is due in January.
Peter Gibbs from CIG said that during a time of change such as now, when new kinds of equipment and power sources are being developed, risks and responsibilities change also. Again, hirers and users should work together to find the most appropriate and safest solutions. All too often, the onus was placed squarely on the equipment hirer.
He also emphasised the positive role that Special Interest Groups played during a period of political and economic uncertainty, raising awareness of key issues, representing members’ interests and promoting higher standards.
Representing the Rail Plant Association, Steve Featherstone expressed the frustrations felt by many in the industry when the government had taken decisions suddenly to axe work already planned or under way without appreciating the impact on contractors, hirers and the supply chain.
Given the long procurement lead times for equipment and the length of time that large plant typically remained in fleets, companies faced making decisions about future investment against an uncertain backdrop while trying to satisfy the concerns of shareholders, lenders and other stakeholders. Special Interest Groups could represent members’ concerns and urge change.
Steve also suggested that the cancellation of the Birmingham to Manchester leg of HS2 could be viewed positively, since the allocated funding had always been long-term and the government’s stated intention is to redirect this towards upgrading and improving existing infrastructure instead of greenfield activity. That represented challenges and opportunities, especially as rail passenger business was now back to pre-Covid levels as more people are using trains for leisure journeys.
The final session topic was ‘Combatting Plant Theft and Fraud’, with panellists including Superintendent Andy Huddleston, head of the National Rural Crime Unit; Ian Elliott, Group Head of Security with Clancy Group who previously had 30 years’ service with the Metropolitan Police; Joel Babb, Cyber Security Evaluator with Falanx Cyber; and Kevin Howells, CEO/MD of the CESAR Scheme from Datatag ID Ltd.
Indicating the scale of the plant theft problem, Andy Huddleston said that prior to Covid, between 40-70 high value machines would typically be reported stolen each month but now the figure averaged 100-150, sometimes exceeding 200. Amongst other factors, disruption caused by the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the ban on equipment sales to Russia has led to a thriving black market.
Plant theft is highly organised crime with machines often stolen to order by brazen, experienced gangs. Hirers and contractors needed to ensure their premises and sites are adequately protected.
Andy also stressed the importance of sharing information - another example of the industry collaboration that was mentioned frequently throughout the Conference. If someone heard of or fell victim to theft or fraudulent hire, they should circulate details to others.
Companies should protect themselves by adopting measures like forensically marking machines, which cost a fraction of the amount needed to replace equipment, he said. And the industry should urge more manufacturers to fit security systems as standard and do away with using single keys to fit all machines.
Clancy’s Ian Elliott agreed that thieves were “super-efficient criminals” rather than random opportunists. Perpetrators, he quipped, probably knew more about starting a machine than some plant operators. Through initiatives from bodies like CITS (Combined Industries Theft Solutions), more police officers were being trained in recognising suspicious behaviour and in tracing stolen equipment.
However, it was essential that owners and site managers kept records of machine serial numbers and identification markings so that details could be provided quickly to the police, giving better chances of recovery.
Ian added that not just plant was at risk. Items like metal track mats were very attractive to thieves, so hirers should ask manufacturers to incorporate their company names on them. Streets works signs, fencing and barriers were also common targets.
Datatag’s Kevin Howells said that hirers and equipment owners should adopt as many layers of protection as possible to guard against theft. Equipment should be registered on the national police database and fitted with visible and covert markings, as in the CESAR scheme, and devices like tracking devices and immobilisers could be added. However, he and other panellists agreed that prevention was far better than having to trace a stolen machine.
Falanx Cyber’s Joel Babb said that cybercrime was one of the fastest growing areas of risk and all companies should check the security of their systems and information storage. “If you lost all your data tomorrow and were faced with a ransomware demand to unencrypt it, how quickly could you recover and what would be the cost to your business?” he asked. Firms should backup data regularly and consider cybercrime insurance.
Indeed, Ian Elliott says that cybercrime was currently regarded as Clancy’s biggest risk and the company has established a specialist unit to manage it. All companies, including SMEs (small to medium enterprises) should be vigilant and suspicious of unusual emails or unexpected invoices suggesting their systems had been compromised.
Joel Babb urged caution at all times and especially if requests for equipment or payment stressed the urgent or melodramatic ‘sob story’ nature of the surrounding circumstances. Companies should operate due diligence, conduct background checks if suspicious and, above all, devise a policy and stick to it.
This year’s Conference was the eighth organised by CPA and was the best attended yet with more than 200 delegates plus 20 exhibitors and event sponsors, which shows the appetite for information and the industry’s collaborative spirit.
In closing remarks to the Conference, CPA President Brian Jones pointed out that the hire industry has a history of proving resilient during challenging times, as shown in the 1970s, 1990s and following the 2008 credit crisis, and it would prove so again.
Indeed, when event convenor Merryn Myatt had asked for a show of hands earlier in the day, a significant majority of delegates showed they were optimistic about future prospects, not pessimistic. A very good sign, then, and one suggesting that the CPA and the wider industry will meet these future challenges with confidence.
Rising to the Challenge
There was a record number of exhibitors at the CPA Conference with products and services designed to give plant-hirers a competitive edge.
Point of Rental Software, the Conference’s Headline Sponsor, promoted its Syrinx, Elite and Essentials hire management software solutions. These products help users make better informed decisions in the light of current and future challenges in areas such as utilisation and rental rates. Available on both iOS and Android platforms, Point of Rental’s Syrinx 365 app now combines the functionality of the legacy Operator and Workshop applications within POR One for easier remote working within the functionality found in a single location. Another feature under development will enable verified POR users to see where engineers are located in real time for the optimum response.
BigChange promoted its mobile working job management system that allows multiple aspects of a hire operation to be stored in one place. Tasks can be scheduled, tracked and marked as complete, with integrated SatNav capability, and invoices and payments can be monitored together with an overview of job performance in a paperless environment.
Capja’s paperless systems enable plant-hire firms to manage data efficiently. The company has won two Innovate UK awards, one for CapjaDocs that allows documents to be retrieved by scanning a QR code, and the most recent one is to develop the software to integrate with artificial intelligence to offer on-screen fillable forms.
CESAR Scheme from Datatag ID promoted its CESAR ECV emissions compliance verification system, an advanced emissions identification solution to create green construction sites. Tamper-evident colour coded labels give access to detailed machine information, allowing site managers to see the emissions standards equipment meets. Venom forensic DNA fuel theft deterrent was also displayed.
CITB (Construction Industry Training Board) gave details of the services it offers through grants, funding and training for every kind of plant and application. The organisation is currently piloting eight new training strands and is inviting industry feedback. CITB helps promote construction as a positive career choice to attract new talent.
CPCS (Construction Plant Competence Scheme)/NOCN demonstrated its new Health, Safety and Environment e-learning module, an interactive and neurodiverse suite that enables learners to participate remotely on-line, at a time and place that suits them. Users are verified via facial recognition and the educational resources can be viewed multiple times to ensure full understanding.
EMS (Equipment & Machinery Supplies) offers a range of construction products including Optimas paving and kerb handling machines such as vacuum lifts, stone clamps, screeds, laser levelling attachments and small paving tools like stone splitters and paving aids. Also available is the TMU40 remote controlled tracked tool carrier from C4 Mecanica.
Genquip Groundhog’s welfare unit portfolio includes iRange models designed to eliminate the need for fuel throughout the summer months for up to 100% reductions in carbon emissions, with the onboard battery charger only running when required. The i360 unit was shown, plus Hogpad touchscreen displays directing enquirers to real-time product information.
GO Plant Fleet Services Ltd specialises in operated road sweeper hire and highlighted the importance of disposing of site waste correctly and legally. The company can provide electronic waste transfer notices proving that what has been disposed of has been done so in full compliance and at licensed tips, immediately viewable to customers.
MHM Group’s environmentally friendly product line-up includes the ST9 compact solar-only lighting tower which gives zero emissions with no noise. Also available is the Solar-Hybrid Gen range combining solar and diesel backup power, with models available from 3.5kVA to 60kVA. Operation can be monitored remotely via telematics giving data on fuel savings and emissions reductions.
National Highways focused on the safe transportation of abnormal loads such as large, heavy or wide items of plant. Details may have to be given to the police, highway authorities and bridge or structure owners like Network Rail, and this can be simplified by using National Highways’ electronic service delivery for abnormal loads (ESDAL).
Nexus Vehicle Rental is an aggregation service that enables enquirers to hire vehicle from more than 300 suppliers and the company has introduced a similar service for construction equipment via its IRIS rental management software. The organisation is signing up more partners for the system which is designed for fast automated procurement.
Plant Planet aims to connect up the plant-hire industry via its print, digital and app-based news services that together reach 60,000 subscribers across all platforms. Publication frequency is every two months and an industry podcast is to be launched shortly. Information is written for the industry, by the industry.
Products promoted by Prolectric included the ProPower Solar Hybrid Generator and ProPower Solar Battery Power three-phase solution, as well as the new compact ProRXM Hybrid Solar Lighting Tower. The business has won a Queen’s Award for Sustainable Development and recently achieved a Gold Corporate Social Responsibility accreditation with an impressive 95% score.
Rouse Services offers a data platform enabling hire companies to compare their own rental rates and utilisation levels with their peers, integrating with commonly used software systems. Also available is SmartEquip, a multi-manufacturer platform for parts and spares information that enables orders to be placed across many brands on a single platform.
Spartan Solutions provides the Phalanx 6 suite of mobile apps and tools to digitalise logistics and services needs, designed specifically for rental applications. It integrates with major hire management software and can process operational aspects at the depot or in the field. It can also incorporate telematics and artificial intelligence data.
SQA, the Scottish Qualifications Authority, offers training internationally in a wide range of plant disciplines for all business types, including Ofqual and Qualifications Wales recognised programmes in: operative and specialisms; technical, supervisory and management; and street works. The organisation can also devise customised, tailored solutions.
Thomas Group offers self-drive and operated plant on a national basis. The company gave details of various machine control systems it can provide from suppliers including Leica, Topcon and Trimble, as well as its own OnGrade GPS machine control equipment hire, installation and monitoring service, along with drone survey operations.
Tobin Plant is a main dealer for the Chinese equipment manufacturer LiuGong which makes machines that range from 1.5 tonne mini excavators up to 95 tonne models. The company gave details of the electric machines in its portfolio, many of which have been proven in the field for more than two years.
VIN CHIP is a multi-layered technology-led security system to deter criminals and support the police in identifying stolen assets. It uses long-range RFID technology which can be used by police scanners with no risk of revealing the position of the chip. Serial numbers are registered on the company’s Secure Asset Register.