Sam Sherwood-Hale spoke to Paul Capener, Managing Director of XEIAD about the company’s training academy, upskilling the industry and the company’s growth
In January, Paul Capener was appointed as Managing Director of XEIAD, an established UK structural inspection and investigation engineering consultancy. Paul has been with XEIAD for 18 years and has been integral to the development of the business taking XEIAD from a micro-SME to an established SME now employing circa 200 staff. He is experienced in managing and coordinating major asset inspection and structural investigation contracts, rail civils projects including track renewal schemes, bridge reconstruction and rehabilitation, civil asset repairs and maintenance, and structural health monitoring.
How did XEIAD get started, what significant changes to the rail sector have you seen during that time, and how would you say XEIAD has adapted to those changes?
The business was formed in 2003, focussing on specialist access inspections, specifically rope access and diving, in the transportation sector. Over the initial ten years, the business grew from a start-up to an established SME delivering a wide range of projects and spread organically into marine and petrochemical markets. In 2014, with new investment we shifted our focus from being a small company just growing organically to looking at achieving a step change. The majority of our operations had always been around structural inspections whether that be within a confined space, dangling from ropes or diving below water to determine asset condition for clients.
When I joined the rail industry 25 years ago, the examination contracts were procured in a way that generally prohibited SME organisations from tendering. The only opportunities companies like ours had was to support the larger organisations as a Tier Two supplier. This did create opportunities for growth, but our vision was always to secure one of the main contracts ourselves.
2014 saw the first of our big opportunities with Network Rail bringing the North West and Central examinations contract in-house. The specialist access framework was the first of our Tier One contracts with Network Rail and allowed us to commit to development in people and technology. This was the start of our digitisation process.
In the latest round of procurement, Network Rail had dramatically changed their approach to market and facilitated opportunities for SMEs to tender for the Regional examination contracts by
restructuring the contracts into a number of Lots. As XEIAD had been carefully preparing for this since the beginning of CP6, we were well positioned to define exactly which of the Lots we sought to secure and prepared ourselves accordingly.
With the incumbent supplier having held the contracts throughout the majority of the UK for the past 20+ years, we knew that the tender process was going to be tough. We had a great bid team though, with a wealth of technical and commercial knowledge drawn from a wide pool of industry experience, we knew that our tender submission would be strong.
So this brings us to 2021. Having been successful in all tenders that we prepared for, we secured the Eastern Region Detailed Examinations Contract, Western Route Structures Examination Contract, Wessex Route Structures Examination Contract, Southern Region Culverts Examinations Contract and Southern Region Underwater Examinations Contract. On top of this, we also secured a seven-year contract with National Highways for the Historic Railway Estate East Area Examinations Contract and more recently the Southwest Technical Surveys and Testing contract for Highway Bridge Inspections. So all in, quite a successful year!
In order to step up and mobilise for the contracts, competent people, particularly skilled Engineers and Examiners were always going to be essential. We successfully transferred over 100 people into the business and directly recruited over 25 more, however, as part of our delivery strategy the one area that needed urgent investment was the training and upskilling of new Examiners throughout the country.
Unfortunately, over the past ten years, there has been a significant underinvestment in new Examination and Inspection resources, this has not just been restricted to the rail sector though as we’ve seen a shortage in competent inspection resource throughout the wider industry – this is an industry challenge.
So you’ve identified a long term trend that actually needs to also be solved in the short term, how did you develop these shorter training courses that delivered qualified staff within that shorter timeframe?
Historically, to become a competent Structures Examiner, you would normally take around two years to achieve the right level of competence. However, in that time we are going to be moving towards the back end of our contracts already, so we needed to define a way where we could develop resources and have them trained up much more quickly. Traditionally, you would have Trainee Examiners working on active site work and the training would be delivered progressively over a period of time. Our proposal was to condense the technical training into a shorter time frame but crucially, for the on site mentoring phase, we removed the Trainees from productive and billable work and placed them into environments where they can learn quickly with multiple mentors and assessors providing dedicated support in a safe and supportive environment. By delivering the training programme this way, their focus is to complete a large number of inspections in a condensed timeframe which exposes them to a wide variety of different types of structures and a range of conditions. Many of the structures we’re inspecting during the programme are on historic and heritage railway lines, which present the range of defects required to generate the knowledge and experience required.
This programme is an intensive one and is not going to be for everyone, our recruitment for the course has been very stringent and we’ve only selected the very best.
So what used to be a two year process now only takes four to five months. The learning never stops though, additional modules and further training, development and assessment will continue
for many years to come. We’ve got three cohorts scheduled this year, that’s over 30 new Examiners which will be trained up and deployed into our teams this year. Following that, we’re looking at the prospect of delivering further examination programmes but not only for us, but to support the wider industry.
With the coming launch of Great British Railways, how do you anticipate your place within the supply chain changing?
The work XEIAD do is safety critical and essential to ensure the safe upkeep of our railways, the transition to Great British Railways is not going to change that. I believe that the structural inspection services should be left within the private sector, we are very well placed to invest in both people and technologies that will improve productivity and optimise delivery of services. The important alignment is the continual knowledge sharing within industry so that our developments are clearly meeting the needs of the ultimate client.
In terms of technology, how do you anticipate things might change in the next five to ten years?
The one thing I think I’ve seen over last few years is the introduction of drones and other survey technologies, whilst they have huge advantages in specific areas, in terms of everyday structural inspections, they are still very much a tool in the box. For safety critical assets, I believe there will always be a place for the competent Inspector or Engineer looking at the structure and interpreting the data to produce a report and provide recommendations to the client who can then make their informed decisions.
Over the 5-10 years, I expect the visualisation of assets to become more commonplace. We’re starting to do this already with some great results, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we complemented the traditional reports we see today with 3D models of assets as a standard deliverable highlighting defined defects and providing overlays to compare deterioration from one inspection to the next. However, the one consistent factor with this will still be the competent Structures Examiner who remains the eyes and ears on the ground.
What do you have planned for the year ahead?
The focus for us has been on mobilising for these examination contracts, at the same time we’ve gone from 60 people in the business and will be employing well over 200 people by the end of the year. In terms of new contracts, CP7 isn’t too far away so we’re looking at new opportunities and specifically where we can widen our service provision now that we’ve got the geographical coverage across the UK.
We will continue to remind industry that we Keep Critical Infrastructure Safe. As a business, our focus is to capture accurate digital data on site, be that a bridge inspection, site investigation, river
survey, or structural investigation and produce interpretive and factual reports to allow asset owners and managers to make informed decisions on their assets.
Now that we’ve achieved the geographical coverage and have the major contracts to support investment in technology and digitalisation of our data, we will be looking at how we develop our services within those boundaries but also within that sphere of data collection and interpretation, including deployment of alternative reporting methods beyond the traditional formats.
So if we were speak again this time next year, what would make you look back on the year that had just gone and say it was a successful year?
I would look at the fulfilment of our recent contract wins as a symbol of the successful mobilisation across multiple regions. The challenge of bringing people across from one company to another, to recruit and train people in the XEIAD way, all of which would not have been achieved without the support of both the existing team and those who transferred across.
We have some great engineers, trainers and assessors at XEIAD who have lived and breathed structures examinations for many years and they are eager to impart that knowledge on others. I’ve had a number of mentors over the years who have supported me to where I am now and I want to ensure that the next generation of engineers and examiners have those same opportunities too.
Finally, I would like to thank the Great Central Railway, Network Rail and National Highways for access to their assets and their ongoing support in the development and implementation of the XEIAD Examiner Training Programme.
Paul Capener is Managing Director of XEIAD