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It's time to make that leap to world-leading construction

Jaimie Johnston

The government has long known about the crisis in construction.

Like all of us, it’s well aware of low productivity, financial problems and skills shortages, but what’s new is its approach.

In one week they announced a £72m investment in the Core Innovation Hub (CIH) and called for evidence on proposals for a platform approach to design for manufacture and assembly (P-DfMA). With this, the government will “seek to leverage its buying power to accelerate innovation and the adoption of industry best practice”, according to the Infrastructure and Projects Authority.

The principle of a platform approach will be familiar to anyone who has played with Lego or assembled Ikea furniture.

Sets of components that are designed to work together can form an almost infinite variety of different structures. In construction that means ‘kits of parts’ that can be used to build just about anything. That in turn dramatically upscales and extends demand for the components in each platform system – giving manufacturers a much bigger prize to compete for, with substantial economies of scale.

Manufacturing is not just part of the process, but the model for it. Components are assembled on site, which is made far simpler and safer by design for assembly. A building site will never look like a factory, but all the important elements are the same – including digital design and shorter training periods for workers.

Now for the tricky bit

With so many benefits, there’s now increasingly wide agreement that P-DfMA is the way forward. However, implementation is going to take some work.

First, P-DfMA needs to be scaled up and the Transforming Construction Alliance (the Manufacturing Technology Centre, Building Research Establishment and the University of Cambridge Centre for Digital Built Britain) will lead this effort through the CIH.

“Not everyone will get all of what they want but, overall, everyone benefits”

We will identify design patterns across the government estate to find one really good solution to a problem, not a multiplicity of incompatible and resource-intensive, different ones.

Working with the Manufacturing Technology Centre, we will end up with agreed common standards and open-source designs that manufacturers and constructors are happy to work with. Concerns around warranties and insurances also need to be resolved with the help of the Building Research Establishment.

Everyone benefits

The huge shift to BIM shows that the industry can implement major technological change, and there’s more coming. Machine learning, AI, generative design, the internet of things and ‘smart’ assets all need to be adopted in a coherent way – something the Centre for Digital Built Britain will lead on.

The time to make the leap forward has come, and we’ve got to make it together. Not everyone will get all of what they want but, overall, everyone benefits.

Government wants better value for money, productivity and certainty. Lower-carbon and high-quality jobs are also within reach. All that can come from P-DfMA and, if we get it right, the UK will become a world leader in technology-driven construction.

The state is helping us to deliver, but also challenging us to show that we can act like partners as automotive or aviation do. So let’s seize the opportunity to define the industry we want to have in five or 10 years.

Jaimie Johnston is a director at Bryden Wood and design lead for the Transforming Construction Alliance


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