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Philip Ball: The challenges of ground investigation procurement

Procuring ground investigation services is a tricky task. Neither Amazon or eBay market it and nowhere can you find a star rating for the hundreds of firms involved.

philip ballPhilip Ball is a member of the BDA Executive

There was plenty of evidence at last week’s British Drilling Association (BDA) seminar “Emerging Best Practise in Ground Investigation for Linear Infrastructure Projects” to reaffirm the difficulties that persist in the industry relating to the correct and appropriate selection of ground investigation specialists.

For example, one delegate from a large organisation voiced the need for detailed, specific site investigation that meets the needs of the detailed design, while others voiced concerns over the general lack of recognition and status of the BDA – its aims and what it stands for, as well as the positive impact it is having on the wider drilling sector.

From a client’s perspective, ground investigation is often a necessary evil that they are told they need but don’t see the value in or carry any consequences for. Often then, the lowest cost is chosen not the best value. Frequently those procuring the work are not going to be involved with the follow-on project – land ownership changes, project teams move on or the scheme is put on hold. So, the consequences of a poor selection are not felt by those that make them.

The sector is populated by everyone from single-machine operator/owners to multi-million-pound international organisations with sophisticated laboratories and digital everything. Some don’t have any plant or equipment and others have bespoke top-of-the-range tooling – how can we make sense of this mix?

Even informed clients and consultants – and there are still many – will struggle to be able to base their selections on rational argument. No amount of prequalification questions will reveal the real value or quality of a business; they are the minimum standards in most cases.

The decline of in-house specialists in so many major organisations means that procurement of some services is misunderstood and mishandled which inevitably results in poor choices. Inappropriate forms of contract, incomplete specifications and miss-matched bills of quantities are commonplace. Then, when the work gets to site the supervision and understanding of what is happening is non-existent or lacking. It is not a good situation.

The Spotlight survey initiated in 2016 in partnership by the BDA and AGS reveals the scale of some of the issues with some startling statistics:

  • Compliance with codes and standards: 59% of respondents had either a “good working knowledge” or were “completely familiar” with the technical standards
  • Procurement: 58% agreed that “Inappropriate procurement processes discourage adhering to the technical standards”
  • Safety: 77% of respondents either had a good working knowledge of legislation or were completely familiar with the legislation

In an attempt to make a small improvement the BDA has been developing a “Buyer’s Guide to BDA Members”, which is intended to provide factual information for any buying organisation to use to evaluate which specialists are appropriate for their scheme and what capabilities they have. Some information will be provided by member firms in good faith and some will be audited independently.

The key facts most buyers need to know relate to the scale and complexity of their project; do the subcontract specialists fit the profile for the work I need doing? No client wants or benefits from a mismatched selection of tenderers. None of those pricing the work want to waste time and effort if the competition is not appropriate. Ideally the buyer will create an appropriate “playing field for everyone to drill through on an equal basis”.

During 2018 the BDA will roll out the criteria for its members for review and comment. By the end of the year the return of the completed question set will become mandatory for members and the results will be published on the BDA website for reference, along with the live records of all audited drillers. In this way it is intended that buyers can be more easily informed about the firms to choose and the site staff can be certain that they are using validated drillers.

There is no expectation that any of the above will guarantee that site operations will always go perfectly, or issues will not arise from time to time, but it is hoped that at least the procurement process will start off with the most appropriate firms being invited to tender for work that suits their skills and capacity.

  • Philip Ball is a member of the BDA Executive

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