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01.05.13

Enhancing innovation in the rail sector

Source: Rail Technology Magazine April/May 2013

Annette Gevaert is director of rail and transport at Achilles, the leading provider of supplier information management services. She has oversight of Link-up, the UK rail industry supplier registration and qualification service, which comprises 77% of SMEs and here offers suggestions on how the rail industry can further develop innovative working.

In the recent Budget, George Osborne outlined his plans for the SBRI (Small Business Research Initiative) scheme to incentivise innovation in British industry. Indeed, the UK rail sector currently offers huge opportunities for innovation but it remains prohibitively difficult for smaller businesses to place their innovative products and services in the hands of buyers.

However, it is very difficult to criticise the risk-averse mentality of those procuring new services and products. Multi-million pound corporations can be cautious when taking on a new product – especially if safety and proof of performance are yet to be tested. It can be very difficult to strike the right balance between innovation, trust and reliability. As a result, there is evidence to suggest that suppliers are pitching products that are seen as easier to sell – even though they have more innovative products under the shelf. Suppliers may be innovating all the time, but these products are in danger of being left untapped. The question arises – how can SMEs prove the safety credentials of a new product?

Fortunately, there are several organisations designed specifically to enhance innovation in the rail sector and answer this problem. Enabling Innovation Team, the Rail Innovation Fund, Network Rail’s innovation platform and member organisations like the Rail Alliance are all encouraging SMEs to become more active in the rail sector. Achilles’ Link-up community is also playing a significant role in continuing to drive innovation in rail.

Achilles works hard to encourage buyers to understand that pre-qualification on Link-up should automatically begin to assuage doubts about reliability. Instantly, this mark of quality can reassure buyers and create a level playing field for even the smallest and newest of suppliers. When a significant barrier involves mitigating the risk of innovation, proving auditable standards is necessary for a chance of inclusion in any tender.

Derek Day is the operations director at Emico, an SME mechanical and electrical contracting firm focused on the rail sector. Emico are a member of the Link-up community and Day perfectly articulates our vision. “We would love people to say, ‘Well, even though you’re a smaller company, you have management systems and arrangements and standards of quality and safety that are industry-leading’.”

Pre-qualification should be paving the way for innovative products and services to take their rightful place at the forefront of rail infrastructure. If SMEs want to compete alongside the big players, they have to demonstrate the same commitment to health and safety through audits and the supply chain information processes with Link-up.

All suppliers have to be registered on Link-up to be considered for projects within the industry.

And to become a member, they have to undergo a rigorous pre-qualification process. This is welcomed across the industry by suppliers.

Day epitomises this support for Link-up from SMEs, saying: “We aspire to be the best, so we absolutely want to demonstrate that we can comply with all of the requirements of all of the aspects of the industry that we are choosing to work in, and to discharge all of those responsibilities with a high degree of professionalism.”

However, it can be a struggle for smaller and relatively newly established companies with genuinely innovative products to ensure they are included in large tenders. Infrastructure managers know which suppliers and contractors they can rely on, which leads to a gravitation of the whole supply chain to that of a closed shop. Breaking through legacy providers is an enormous barrier for SMEs and one that is unfortunately still stifling innovation.

Day explained that this was one of the challenges Emico had to overcome. “The same people turn up to go through the same processes, and there has been, in the past, very little opportunity for smaller suppliers to get involved.”

The consequence of this is that viable suppliers can sometimes be precluded from tender processes which would have been enriched by their presence.

Ultimately, the process of promoting innovation within our culture must therefore begin with the procurer.

Infrastructure managers need to allow contractors the space and freedom to decide upon suppliers within their own projects, and the contractors must become more willing to trust external audits and see innovation as a mitigated, rather than overwhelming, risk. Every innovation is an opportunity for improvement, therefore the more willing the buying community is to embrace these innovations, the more positive strides will be made by the industry.

Tell us what you think – have your say below, or email us directly at opinion@railtechnologymagazine.com

c. Alvey & Towers

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