London-based startup Aphex has launched a cloud-based production planning application that will appeal to anyone frustrated by continued reliance on paper, sticky notes and spreadsheets for detailed weekly planning.
Some two years in development, newly launched (see news release)* Aphex Planner aims to help the often multi-disciplinary, multi-company groupings involved in trying to expedite detailed on-site construction activities.
In an industry notorious for its low productivity and high levels of waste, it is no surprise that ‘lean’ approaches to construction have been repeatedly advocated. And to support lean construction approaches, various decision-making processes and supporting technologies have been devised – notably the Last Planner System (LPS) developed by the founders of the Lean Construction Institute, Glenn Ballard and Greg Howell in the 1990s.
While project management scheduling tools like Primavera P6 and MS Project are widely used for creating overall master programmes and showing the different phases of activities, the LPS focuses within those phases. Rather than being done by planners, such detailed production planning is therefore undertaken by the construction professionals who will directly manage work execution; these ‘last planners’ are the frontline supervisors who are dependent on one another for release of work. LPS-style working involves them working collaboratively to develop weekly schedules of tasks required to hit milestones, while identifying dependencies and constraints that might affect those schedules. And any breakdowns in the process are used as opportunities to learn and to prevent reoccurrence.
US-based Strategic Project Solutions (SPS), DPR Construction and Ghafari were among the first firms to develop software to support LPS (ProjectFlow, OurPlan and vPlanner, respectively), but most production planning still tends to be undertaken using paper-based processes and Microsoft Excel. In a related field, in the early 2000s, researchers at Loughborough University developed the Analytical Design Planning Technique (ADePT; read November 2009 post) which BIW Technologies [my then employer] attempted to turn into a web-based software product (PlanWeaver) before eventually shelving development. I recently wrote about another LPS-inspired product, Visilean (March 2018 post: Visualising lean BIM: VisiLean), and almost simultaneously was contacted by the London-based developer of a new cloud-based planner product, Aphex Planner.
Aphex was established in 2015 by a pair of recent graduates, Carlos Adams (right) and Carlos Carvalho. Adams told me the two had first met at college in Farnborough aged 16, and both went on to study in the built environment faculty at the University of the West of England, whilst also nursing entrepreneurial ambitions. Upon leaving UWE in 2013 both joined the graduate schemes of large companies (UK Power Networks and Costain, respectively), but were disappointed at the lack of sophistication in the software tools deployed in delivering major projects – particularly when they compared technologies with friends working in other industry sectors (“our tools could have come from anytime in the last 40 years – whereas they had the latest tools, intuitive to use, more engaging, with great user interfaces”).
The duo looked at their spreadsheet tools and the industry’s preoccupation with cost and time, and then teamed up in late 2016 with civil engineer Damian Bucke who wanted to develop a better short-term planning tool. They formed Aphex, recruited an ex-Goldman Sachs VP and developer, Elliott Williams, in early 2017, raised some initial seed funding and, with a prototype of the Aphex Planner product to demonstrate, found some further investors in Australia. They also found a consultant who shared their love of well-designed software – Adams said:
“we wanted to develop a B2B product that users would find slicker than they were used to – to be really user-centric, not just for efficiency, but to make users feel empowered by the tool. Being empowered by good design is one of the core principles of Aphex.”
Along the way, the Aphex team has also established some potentially powerful technology partnerships, with IBM (for weather data, now integrated into Aphex Planner) and with Oracle (clarifying that Aphex Planner is a different proposition to the US giant’s Primavera toolset).
Bucke demonstrated Aphex Planner to me at Aphex’s Shoreditch base. After logging in to the browser-based software, the user is presented with a dashboard view. “Anyone regularly involved with short-term planning, will be used to looking one week back, one week forward, and then to weeks beyond that.” The application can provide different timespan views, and, by colour-coding activities for different users, allows users to quickly identify their responsibilities. For managers responsible for multiple sites, aggregated dashboards are offered from which the user can drill down to specific projects.
“Aphex Planner has been designed to be as collaborative, open and transparent as possible,” explained Bucke. The site level dashboard provides data on activities, their start and finish dates, and their locations, and then, if any other activities are scheduled in the same date ranges and in the same locations (the same buildings, zones, floors, etc – displayed in PDFs of drawings), these are identified as clashes.
Like the shared wallchart and stickynotes in a traditional LPS process, Aphex Planner can then be used to agree sequences of work to resolve the clashes, and these sequences can be printed out to guide daily tasks. Inbuilt notifications help keep users abreast of any changes relating to their company’s activities; users can also annotate activities with photographs and comments.
As tasks are recorded as complete, the dashboard provides graphs showing activity and project progress; where tasks are delayed, the reasons behind the delays can also be recorded, helping teams identify common root causes and trends. Bucke said the incorporation of weather data would allow for automatic warnings relating to activities that might be compromised by adverse weather.
Bucke has been working on detailed planning within the Crossrail Project in London. He described how teams had been sharing plans each separately logging in to a single installation of the standard Microsoft Project platform. Plans were time-consuming to produce, with some issues only shared once a plan has been saved. “With Aphex Planner, multiple users can log-in simultaneously and identify issues as they are flagged almost in real time.”
Aphex Planner has just been soft-launched and is being trialled on Crossrail and on a High Speed 2 project. The company offers free month-long trials, after which users can switch to paid plans starting from £35 per user per month.
[* Disclosure: pwcom.co.uk Ltd has provided PR consultancy services to Aphex.]