Use of digital technology is changing the ground shoring business of MGF and improving efficiency for its clients
Wigan-headquartered excavation safety plant manufacturer and hirer MGF has embraced new techniques since day one – a quest that in recent years has taken it to the heart of the digital revolution.
MGF was formed in 1981 by Michael O’Hara, who still owns and leads the firm today. At the beginning, the firm imported shoring products to a depot in Manchester, a daring venture at the time.
“They bought some trench boxes from Germany and tried to peddle them around the region,” says engineering director Steve Hesketh.
“It was very low-tech compared to what we do now but very advanced for the time – what we know now as the start of modular shoring was seen then as new-fangled health and safety equipment. Most people didn’t use it.”
Undeterred by its difficult beginnings, MGF soon started making its own products, including manhole braces, drag boxes and walers. Eventually the operating climate changed, and as safety came to the fore in the 1990s, demand increased and the company began opening depots in the north east, the Midlands and Bristol.
Two pieces of legislation particularly focused the minds of ground engineering bosses on the need to protect their workers – the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1992 and the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 1994.
“The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) drove a lot of the change,” says Hesketh.
“Groundworks became safer and our niche modular shoring processes started to get traction. Companies wanted a product that would hold the ground back by calculation.”
At the turn of the century, MGF was flourishing, but rather than admire its earlier gamble, it started to look forward to predict the next step change in industry behaviour.
“I joined in 2005,” says Hesketh. “I came from a main contracting background working in the nuclear sector where we were used to 3D design. The potential to bring that way of working to ground engineering attracted me.”
Hesketh started to build up MGF’s digital nous. A major lightbulb moment occurred when the firm started working with Balfour Beatty and Skanska on the widening of 63km of the M25.
“We were doing all the drainage for the project, and we were asked to build temporary works into the contractors’ models – the first time we’d seen building information modelling (BIM). Luckily we already modelled in 3D so we were half way there.”
The HSE, which Hesketh worked with on various committees at the time, showed an interest in the way the modelling process allowed MGF to show contractors the safety risks of installing and using its equipment – and how to avoid them.
“We decided to embrace it and started modelling all our products in 3D,” says Hesketh. “We encouraged the use of Sketch Up, which was free and accessible software at the time. This allowed us to create images within half an hour to start showing people and getting feedback on ideas.”
By no means did MGF stop there, however. Over the past decade the company has explored a huge range of ways of using digital technology to improve its operations. “We transformed the business,” says Hesketh.
“We developed digitally incrementally – updating software at every opportunity, bringing in young people from college with certain capabilities and so on.
“It’s hard to go to the business and ask for £40,000 for recruitment or £10,000 for software up front. We did it gradually and then showed the business what it produced so they actually asked us to do more of it.
“Now we have three animators, we have web developers, coders, we have a load of Revitt licenses and 3D printers. It’s ingrained. BIM is only one part of it. We’re talking about digitally intelligent use of data for the use of the business internally and externally.”
One way the company has exploited the digital revolution of this century is using the internet to boost safe use of its equipment.
“We have 3D story boards and animations on You Tube that show site teams how to assemble and use equipment,” says Hesketh. “Site managers love them because you don’t need English language or reading skills to understand them. Animators show lessons in what can go wrong. There might be a video from an excavator view to show operatives that the driver can’t see them.”
MGF even up-skills its own teams through online training modules. And beyond this it uses animations to uncover how new products or guidance could prevent accidents.
“If there is an injury on a site, we’ll look at investigation reports to recreate the incident in an animation then watch it with the contractor and client to see how the process could have been done and what products or procedures are needed to stop it happening again.
“We’ve designed a boundary wall restraint system recently through this process. Elsewhere we might put an important note into installation guidelines.”
Modern technology is aiding product development in other ways, too, reducing the need for costly prototypes just to discover what isn’t working with a design.
“We bought a 3D printer for £1,200,” says Hesketh. “Now every product we design we model using the printer and show it to sales, engineering and manufacturing teams for feedback that hugely enhances the product.
Whenever we actually make a prototype – which can cost £10,000 – we’re 98% of the way there with the design. It’s like night and day from how we did it before.”
MGF works with contractors on their bids for work, adding in install and remove sequences and showing exactly how excavation safety plant will be used on a job.
“We provide a tender service for big jobs – it convinces clients the contractor knows what it’s doing.”
MGF has a digital strategy that builds on many of the ideals set out in the government’s Construction 2025 policy document – such as BIM-led collaborative working – but goes beyond that to target the creation of a “digitally intelligent business” with the ultimate desire of becoming “the easiest and smartest company to deal with’ in its sector”.
“We want to provide an easy customer experience like Google or Amazon,” says Hesketh. As such it has launched a set of off -the-shelf products under the Mi Design brand, designed to be accessed eventually by an online portal.
“The aim is for the customer to input information into a design request form that asks a set of questions and directs them to a standard solution,” says Hesketh. “At the moment we go to customers with the system but we’re aiming for them to do it themselves online. We want to revolutionise how people do business in our sector.”
As well as collecting customer data in this way, MGF wants to build up its store of ground and equipment performance information using temperature displacement and load sensors and wireless monitoring.
“You never see ground engineering feedback reports,” says Hesketh. “We don’t know how the majority of our excavation jobs turned out. Now we are collecting data to see where problem soil areas are and so on. It should promote efficiency and reduce the chance of things going wrong.”
By the time GE is 100 years old, all parties on a construction project will have much more information to base decisions on, Hesketh predicts.
“The digital revolution is just getting going. Data use is going to develop much more. Knowledge will increase. Facts will be captured. There will be more programme and cost certainty.
“Certain companies will only work with certain others, based on communication and satisfaction data, on ratings like you see on Hotels.com but for business-to-business decisions.”
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