Testing times

Materials testing not only mitigates risk associated with major infrastructure projects, it can have a positive impact on both timelines and budgets. Dave Goddard explores 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 wold 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 one per cent 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.

The construction industry is very 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 deskilling 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.

Scoping for success
When it comes to preparing a testing schedule, it isn’t always an experienced engineer tasked with putting the spec together, so there are a few things to bear in mind:

First of all, it’s rare that testing requirements will be identical from one project to the next. There will be similarities, and it isn’t unusual to see a schedule with some components that have been cut and pasted, but the devil is often in the detail.

It’s important to get your testing house involved as early in the process as possible. Engage with the experts as a part of the scoping process – it might change the way you approach the project completely.

Review the testing requirements thoroughly before submitting. Even if you aren’t an experienced technician, you’ll get a feel for whether it makes sense or not. Don’t forget to include the time it takes to carry out tests, receive results and seek approvals in your project plan and understand how it will impact on your delivery schedule.

Why do we test?
It might seem like an obvious question, but it’s worth going back to basics and remembering why you are testing. On a fundamental level, you are testing to ensure the suitability of a material for its intended use as well as its final performance characteristics such as density or strength.

This will influence the best choice of test and remember, don’t simply test to achieve the result you want. If you are scoping tests with an agenda in mind, the chances are you’ll find the answers you’re looking for.

Whether excavated or imported, materials should be tested prior to use and, ideally, both at source and at deposition. This establishes the suitability of the materials in terms of physical properties, density, moisture content etc.

We also test to manage risk. This is increasing important as the burden of risk on major projects has shifted away from project designers to contractors. When you are already operating within a tightly regulated environment, the last thing you need is to add unnecessary risk.

Whether you are testing earthworks, concrete or asphalt; testing for stability, strength or contamination, the implications for your project timescales and budgets are significant – especially if you get it wrong.

Site laboratories
For major infrastructure projects, it makes sense to establish a site laboratory, as this can provide faster, more cost-effective results for materials testing. However, the benefits of an on-site laboratory go beyond simply speed of access.

Site laboratories are a turnkey solution that can be developed to meet the specific needs of your infrastructure project. Working with your testing partner, you can define the scope and scale of the laboratory in advance of deployment on site.

A UKAS accredited site laboratory will provide immediate access to testing, reports and analysis. The speed and accuracy of a site laboratory can generate significant savings – in both time and money – over the lifecycle of a project.

If you find the right testing house, they may also be able to offer additional support in the form of access to qualified health, safety and quality engineers who can assist in the design and management of the laboratory.

Dave Goddard works at CET, one of the UKs leading materials testing companies. It provides a comprehensive range of soil, aggregate, concrete and asphalt tests from its nationwide network of UKAS accredited laboratories. In addition, CET provides specialist structural, geotechnical and environmental consultancy services, including phased site investigation, waste soil classification and contaminated land surveys.

For more information, please see www.cet-uk.com