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New biometric screening technology could slice a third off the time it takes passengers to pass through Heathrow airport, according to Atkins, the consultancy advising on its implementation. For Atkins, which was bought by Canadian engineering group SNC-Lavalin for £2.1bn in 2017, developing the technology is only part of its work with Heathrow and other airports.

“Airports have to be very responsive to the changes that come at them, particularly regulatory changes,” says Caroline Bimson, head of the business and digital consulting practice at Atkins. “Some of those happen quickly and they need to be able to respond.”

Atkins is also advising Heathrow on replacing and repurposing infrastructure, reducing operational risks, improving resilience and cutting energy consumption.

Replacing assets and compliance with shifting regulations are not the only subjects on which clients seek advice from the design, engineering and project management consulting firm, now more than 80 years old. It is recommended by clients and peers in 13 sectors and service categories in the FT’s 2019 UK’s Leading Management Consultants ratings.

“For many of the businesses . . . planning capital programmes and expenditure activities in the face of some pretty significant headwinds and geopolitical concerns is a real struggle,” says Nick Roberts, Atkins’ president. “Our ability to do that is increasingly called upon.”

Technological change requires both swift reaction and a more strategic approach. “We did that at Heathrow, for example, to help them move from being reactive to regulatory changes to setting their own digital strategy,” says Ms Bimson.

The advance of the digital economy also demands new ways of working and Atkins advises clients on change management. For SNC-Lavalin, the acquisition of Atkins strengthens the group’s capabilities in this area.

Adapting to change means also ensuring that employees’ skills are constantly updated, both for clients and among Atkins’ staff. “We are very alive to that — there’s no room for complacency,” says Ms Bimson.

An operating environment in which disruption is the norm for many of Atkins’ clients, which include energy, aerospace, public sector, infrastructure and construction companies. Yet many of the organisations have long-term horizons and need to create investment strategies that span geopolitical shifts and technological advances.

Meanwhile, the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission, set up in 2015 to develop strategies that go beyond political cycles, has created some stability for clients.

“The NIC has really helped bring clarity to the long-term pipeline of projects in the UK, which has given clients, investors, the supply chain and government confidence and visibility in the world that lies ahead,” says Mr Roberts.

Looking beyond the UK, its new owner gives Atkins — which also operates in Europe, North America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa — access to new markets. “SNC-Lavalin brings a business in Latin America where Atkins really didn’t operate to any scale, particularly on the mining and resources side,” says Mr Roberts.

He adds that such expansion will be mainly into new geographic areas rather than new industrial sectors.

“A lot of the focus is where we’re going to work together to increase market share,” he says. “This is about combining that global capability to win more with our existing and new clients.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

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