Pioneering firms and a trailblazing government project have the potential to transform industry productivity through manufacturing methods. Binyamin Ali finds out how.
In February 2017, McKinsey Global Institute’s Reinventing Construction report found there is a $1.6tn growth opportunity in the global construction industry.
The key to unlocking this massive opportunity is better productivity, the report said.
From Latham in 1994 via Egan in 1998 through to the Construction 2025 report in 2013, the industry is littered with studies that highlight shortcomings in the sector, identify opportunities and quantify the size of the potential prize.
Yet the industry continues to struggle with the same problems: poor productivity, limited collaboration and standardisation, and a yawning skills gap.
McKinsey’s report noted: “While many sectors including agriculture and manufacturing have increased productivity 10-15 times since the 1950s, the productivity of construction remains stuck at the same level as 80 years ago.”
This “glacial pace” of evolution is found across the global industry, the report added. As a result, the manufacturing and automotive sectors are widely (and correctly) cited as the standard bearers of efficiency, the success of which construction should seek to emulate.
But until now, the question of how this can be achieved has received few viable answers. This, however, might be about to change.
A chassis for a building
Consultant Bryden Wood has been working with research body the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) over the past 18 months. The pair have been trying to find ways of introducing manufacturing methods of design, production and delivery to the construction industry.
One of the biggest breakthroughs they have had is the idea of having a variety of replicable building platforms, all of which have standardised dimensions in areas such as corridors, rooms and floor-to-ceiling height. “A platform is a standardised superstructure of a building – think of it as the chassis of a motorcar: it’s a platform,” explains Bryden Wood engineer Dries Hagen, who is also a former client of the company.
“On that platform you bolt on a load of things that make it a Mini, or a Mini Countryman and so on. In terms of construction, projects are very much the same where you have a superstructure which is the standard platform. Onto that you can add cladding systems, plumbing systems, bathrooms, offices and so on. You can do anything, but you can use the same platform.”
It is the repetitive nature of such a platform that then allows you to step into the world of manufacturing thinking, Mr Hagen says enthusiastically.
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The concept came about following a conversation between Bryden Wood, MTC and the Infrastructure and Projects Authority in spring 2017. The trio were discussing the current set-up where every building is, in effect, a prototype – a team is assembled, it invents something from scratch that is built just once, and then typically changes for the next project or disappears entirely – along with everything that team has learned.
“At the moment, there is no continuity of expertise and learning from project to project,” says Bryden Wood director and head of global systems Jaimie Johnston.
“Every time Ford designs a car, they don’t get a completely new team in that’s never designed a car together who ask each other, ‘How many wheels should we have?’ They have quite a sophisticated [starting point] and ask how they can develop it with new things from material science, technology and electronics – they have a continual improvement rather than constant reinvention.”
The platform concept is not completely new. The likes of Tesco and BP have been using similar methods for years, while Bryden Wood developed a standardised operating theatre for the Circle Reading Hospital project, which is now being used for the under-construction Circle Birmingham Hospital – 10 years after it was first conceived.
Componentising buildings before and after it is fixed into place, to ensure there are no errors.
To take the concept forward across construction, Bryden Wood suggested that government clients should stop separating multi-billion-pound frameworks into separate pots.
Instead, they could spend the money “on mass customisable components that can then be used in multiple programmes, so [they can] immediately start to cross fertilise learning,” Mr Johnston says.
Customisable components are the second part of the concept. Just as the chassis of a car needs to be fitted out with a shell, wiring and seats, the building platform needs wiring, plumbing and cladding that is also produced on an assembly line, which is essential to unlocking the productivity gains of manufacturing processes.
“What we’re trying to do here is look at the design of some very novel components – things that have never been used in construction before, as opposed to the traditional approach to facade walls, for example,” explains MTC delivery engineer Terri Livingston.
One of the innovations this has led to is a ceiling cassette that can be assembled by a complete novice with limited training.
Working with a base unit onto which all of the wiring, plumbing and insulation must be fixed, the individual receives on-screen instructions such as ‘place component X into location Y’. Every component is barcoded and scanned before and after it is fixed into place to ensure there are no errors. A similar solution has been developed for cladding.
“What we’re trying to do here is look at the design of some very novel components – things that have never been used in construction before”
Terri Livingston, MTC
The whole concept has moved beyond prototype phase and is being used on a live project for a government client – one which plans to use the platform superstructures and componentised solutions on future developments too.
“This really is an area where the MTC came to the fore because what we are doing here is not off the shelf,” says Alfie Heyland, project manager at Mace, which is also involved in the project for the government client along with Interserve and Kier.
“We’re buying a series of raw components, assembling a product and going through a journey of, ‘How do go through the stages of product design development, process design development, and validation of those processes?’” Mr Heyland says. “We’ve got some good ideas [in construction] but we don’t have the full span and history that automotive and other manufacturers have, in terms of that rigour and discipline, looking at things from every possible and conceivable failure mode.”
As well as moving quality standards closer to those found in the manufacturing industry, Bryden Wood and the MTC are also creating something that can be described as a genuine design for manufacture and assembly project (DfMA), Mr Johnston says. “People try to post-apply offsite to an existing process, so you design a building and say, ‘Right, let’s turn it into a DfMA project’ – it doesn’t work like that. It’s design for manufacture and assembly,” he stresses.
A bridge for manufacturers
A knock-on effect of being able to properly use DfMA in construction is that it acts as a bridge between the construction and manufacturing industries, opening the door to a completely new supply chain that construction firms have so far been unable to access.
Bryden Wood discovered this when it was trying to develop components that could be assembled to create large segments of buildings (such as the ceiling cassette) and broken down into brackets. The company quickly found a laser-cutting specialist that was able to improve its design and offered to make it the next day for half the price.
“You suddenly unleash a load of new people who can say, ‘Right, I’ve got a whole load of techniques that you would never have got your hands on, but because we’re now having this conversation, let me tell you about brackets’,” Mr Johnston says. “And you’re thinking, ‘Brilliant, now we’re having a proper manufacturing conversation and now we are starting to get the benefits’.”
Mr Johnston adds that this can also enable experienced individuals from the manufacturing and automotive sectors to make the jump into construction, due to the creation of a new manufacturing space within the sector.
Given that the public sector is the industry’s biggest client, it is encouraging that the concept has secured the backing of a government client through a live project.
The ambition is to secure industry-wide take-up, but this will mean reversing some long-standing approaches and assumptions about how a building can and should be built.
At the outset, contractors can develop a series of platform superstructures off their own balance sheet, but (in the early stages at least) componentising the larger segments of a bespoke building will take time and money – who pays for this?
“Clients need to step up to the plate,” says Bryden Wood’s Mr Hagen. “In the automotive industry, they spend all of their money upfront on design. In the construction industry, everyone delays spending money as deep into construction as possible. That’s the wrong way around.”
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Instilling this change in client mindsets may be difficult, but the long-term upshot could be huge. “If you take a school for example, historically it would take around six-to-nine months from appointment to design completion,” says Kier preconstruction procurement lead John Handscomb.
“What we’re now asking is: how feasible is it to get that down to a week? The first reaction you get is, ‘That’s impossible’. And yet, I can go onto the BMW website, choose all of my finishes, alloys, sound system and so on. I never question the wiring or the chassis in the car because they tell me that is the wiring and chassis. And it will configure that car, with a schedule for them to make it, within minutes. They can do it and a car is a complex piece of kit.”
Implementing this new way of working also means accepting that passing down risk through the supply chain will no longer work. This is because all stakeholders – client, contractor, supply chain – will need to be involved from the start of the project to select the best platform, agree on what can be componentised and how, and how best to manage the logistics of offsite and onsite assembly.
“What you’re looking at is involving the people who are going to hold the risk across the project,” says the MTC’s Ms Livingston. “That is one of the key elements that might be transformational for construction.”
MTC associate director Trudi Sully adds: “The sooner you get people involved earlier in the the process together, the better the overall quality. [This pre-empts] the common story of the contractor having to go back and change the design because it can’t be built that way or doesn’t function in that way.”
Obstacles to evolution
The stakeholders involved in this initiative are understandably excited about the potential impact it could have, but none of them appear to be under any illusions as to how quickly the industry can adopt a manufacturing business model.
For a start, there are a limited number of individuals in the industry who have the required skills to help push the transition along. “We need more manufacturing people in with us as part of construction because we do speak different languages, and we need more and more people who are going to act as translators,” says Mace’s Mr Heyland.
This is one of the reasons why Bryden Wood recruited Mr Hagen. His engineering background and pragmatic approach to problem-solving have allowed him to fulfil this translator role, and remain a constant throughout the project.
“What we’re now asking is: how feasible is it to get that down to a week? The first reaction you get is, ‘That’s impossible’”
John Handscomb, Kier
“Bryden Wood needed someone to come and help preach this gospel because it needs people who can shout from the rooftops and not cower when they come up against adversity,” Mr Hagen says. “It needs a lot of that because this change is going to be very painful and [some] incumbents don’t really want – and can’t really afford – to embrace it wholeheartedly. It will disrupt their existing mainstream activities too much.”
Mr Heyland agrees. “It’s going to be uncomfortable for us in construction to make that journey,” he says, though he believes that bridging the remaining gaps is far from impossible.
“We’re going to have to work in a different way and we’re going to have to focus our attention further and further down the value chain, which actually means far more detail than we’re used to,” he says. “We’re going to need support, not just from bodies like the MTC who are helping to bridge a gap, but individuals with experience that will be part of construction and help us drive forward the theory as much as possible.”
Unlike with a lot of offsite factory solutions developed by private companies, none of the parties involved in this project will claim intellectual property rights – any IP generated will be given to the Crown.
The fact the public sector will adopt a presumption in favour of offsite construction from 2019 suggests this concept is being given every chance to succeed.
If it does, the billions in productivity benefits dangled by McKinsey’s 2017 report may finally become a reality.