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The Journey to Operations Director at SOCOTEC Monitoring

From having instrumentation caught in customs in Morocco, to carrying out monitoring activities at the Topolobampo ammonia plant in Mexico's Sinaloa state, over the years, Justin Roffey’s route to operations director at SOCOTEC Monitoring has taken him to some far-flung destinations. Using the skills he gained at Portsmouth University when studying Engineering with Geology and Geotechnics, Justin continues to solve a range of monitoring challenges for SOCOTEC Monitoring’s UK client base, and now mostly gets his travel-fix outside of work.  

How did you become operations director?

I have been in the industry for just over 20 years now, man and boy. After university, I started off in the lab at Soil Mechanics, now also part of the SOCOTEC Group. Here I was sieving soil, doing plasticity indexes, carrying out triaxial tests, and more. I became assistant engineer and later engineer, which required more time out on site, and then moved into site management, with responsibility for running whole sites.

Having spent a number of years at Soil Mechanics, I took myself off travelling, until I ran out of money! On my return I discovered the world of instrumentation and monitoring, and joined ITM Monitoring, now SOCOTEC Monitoring, where I worked as a senior site engineer on the Crossrail project. After a year I moved to Keller Getec, where I spent the next seven years firstly as a senior site engineer, and then general manager.

Having worked at ITM Monitoring previously, when the company became part of the SOCOTEC Group in 2019 I was pleased to be welcomed back as operations director, to head up the operations team and ensure the company continued to provide exceptional service and support to clients as we grew. Given my history at ITM Monitoring, I already had an in-depth knowledge of the business and how it operates, as well as some great working relationships within SOCOTEC and the wider industry, so it was a really natural fit for me.  

Now, my main responsibilities as operations director include ensuring the team is well supported, well managed and that they have the resources and equipment they need to deliver a project efficiently, safely, on time and within budget.

The team at SOCOTEC Monitoring has strong values about the way we work and how we treat clients, and this has been further demonstrated throughout the Coronavirus pandemic. It has really made us step back and look at the way we work – from embracing the joys of Teams meetings, to thinking outside the box to come up with solutions to delays with PPE and equipment, for example. Communication has been key throughout, and I’m incredibly proud of how the team has coped during these challenging times, and the extra lengths every individual has gone to ensure smooth project delivery for our clients.

What's been your biggest monitoring challenge to date?

Ending up in Morocco with 90% of our instrumentation trapped in customs, and a looming Christmas deadline, has to be up there! Luckily, with a bit of MacGyver-style problem-solving I was able to source most of what was needed locally to get the project underway. Thankfully, this was a one-off.

More commonly we experience the challenges associated with not being involved early enough in a project. The debate about the value specialist subcontractors can add if early engagement is possible is nothing new. In fact, my colleague Stuart Fawcett has covered this in detail previously here. Essentially it comes down to allowing enough time to fully understand our clients’ requirements and expectations, and ensuring those are realistic.

With the scale of some of the projects we are working on, the client’s focus can often be on the big picture, with logistics and completion of the project front of mind and instrumentation and monitoring – often a small niche area of a big project – taking a back seat. For example, imagine you have a works manager responsible for pouring thousands of tonnes of concrete. His focus is on pouring that concrete, so when we send a few site technicians to site to install some instrumentation, this may not be something he considered in his planning and therefore the correct access hasn’t been arranged to enable us to do those works.

Larger projects do tend to have a designated instrumentation and monitoring specialist, however, which provides a point of contact for us for arranging site access etc. But, if there isn’t an inclusion for an instrumentation and monitoring specialist in the contract, timescales can be forgotten which puts pressure on the instrumentation and monitoring provider, especially when there are bespoke elements involved and that equipment is made to order. With bespoke equipment in particular, we need time to plan these aspect of the works - ordering the equipment, installing it, getting the system up and running, getting the data out etc. - so that we can deliver what the client wanted in the first place.

As always, communication is king, and the earlier we get involved the better, and the more likely we can add value and project efficiencies for the client.

Predictions for the future of monitoring

Instrumentation is constantly evolving to meet the ever-changing requirements of projects and clients. Sensors are becoming increasingly intelligent and connected, and they have the capability to provide reams and reams of data. This can be both a positive and a negative, as it is only worth having sensors which collect readings at a thousand times per second, for example, if a client is going to use that data.

Clients only need enough information to allow them to have clarity over the particular problem being monitored, and for it to be presented in a concise way that allows them to make informed decisions about their project. Information overload can, at times, cloud what is happening and what is really important.

As instrumentation and monitoring specialists, the SOCOTEC Monitoring team is experienced at looking at the data, reviewing how frequently it is obtained and assessing whether a client needs that volume of data to answer their monitoring questions.

What would be your ideal project to work on?

Ideally, I would like to be designing and installing a monitoring solution for counting coconuts on a beach in a remote tropical island in the South Pacific.

In reality, I like to tackle each project as it comes, as they all present their own intricacies, interests and challenges. I do find technical projects more interesting though. The longer you spend in an industry the more you do the routine things, so when a particularly technical project comes my way I do really enjoy the problem solving that comes with it. I like to be made to think and pushed to use instruments in innovative ways to solve complex monitoring challenges.

Why should clients choose to work with SOCOTEC Monitoring?

Me! And the level of in-house experience they can access. The wealth of technical knowledge within the SOCOTEC Monitoring team is what really sets us apart in the industry.

Being part of the SOCOTEC Group also has numerous benefits for clients, as we’re able to deliver a range of complementary professional services in a collaborative way via a single sub-contractor, saving the client from having to award multiple contracts and the paperwork that goes along with that. This approach also allows us to build stronger relationships with clients, as we get to know and understand multiple facets of a project.

If you have a geotechnical or structural monitoring challenge you would like to discuss, please get in touch.

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