Testing Times for UK Infrastructure Projects

Far from an inconvenience or a “necessary evil”; materials testing not only mitigates risk associated with major infrastructure projects, it can have a positive impact on both timelines and budgets. In this post, we explore a best-practice approach to testing and the importance of engaging with a specialist testing house from the outset.

The materials testing industry has experienced a sustained period of change over the past 20 years. An increase in regulation and a loss of retained skills across the construction industry has effectively siloed materials testing as a specialist resource.

There was a time when almost every major construction firm in the UK would have retained its own materials testing skills in-house. However, with an aging workforce, increasingly complex compliance regulations and a recession-hit construction market, retaining specialist departments made less financial sense.

It’s easy to see why. Testing typically represents less than 1% of project costs; with a disproportionate cost associated with maintaining compliant testing facilities and keeping qualified engineers on the payroll. As a result, the industry has seen a consolidation of skills within specialist testing houses.

A Specialist Service

The construction industry is familiar with the concept of sub-contracting when it comes to specialist services. It simply doesn’t make financial sense to spend time and money establishing a testing laboratory that is not going to be running at capacity – the equipment is expensive, it takes up a lot of space and the technicians needed to operate the equipment are becoming a scarce resource.

Maintaining a lab capable of carrying out a wide range of tests is not without its challenges. Keeping up to date with the latest regulations, motivating and retaining experienced technicians and maintaining accreditation involves a degree of investment that many businesses are not prepared to commit to. When times get tough, it’s the peripheral services that tend to get cut first.

For the testing houses, it means their services are almost always in demand. However, the de-skilling within general contractors can have a negative impact on the testing process. A lack of understanding or appreciation of the desired outcomes of a series of tests can lead to over or under-scoping, which will have implications for project timelines, budgets and general health and safety.

A knock-on effect of this loss of in-house experience is often experienced during the project scoping or tender phases. Obtaining quotes for a range of tests shouldn’t be a purely commercial consideration – the cheapest quote is not always the best quote. An appreciation of why the test is needed, rather than just what test is mandated, can generate significant savings.

Not all testing houses are created equal. It is important to choose a partner that can offer more than simply a battery of tests. Communication is key. With fewer materials engineers in the industry, project managers may not have access to best-practice advice in terms of test methods, frequency and timings.

Keeping on top of the materials testing industry can be challenging. Tests come in and out of popularity; often as a result of changes in legislation. Don’t assume that because a test can be carried out by a supplier, that they can also design a test schedule and interpret the results on your behalf.

There will be times when your materials absolutely must be tested to a UKAS compliant standard, but there will also be times when flexible scope is suitable. At times like this, it’s useful to find a supplier that can offer both – delivering compliance when necessary and cost efficiency when it’s appropriate.