The ideal approach

Darren Richards discusses the findings of the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee report ‘Offsite manufacture for construction: Building for Change’

This report acknowledges that offsite construction techniques are now recognised as some of the most important solutions to many problems facing the UK construction industry today – particularly in the housing sector. Evidence from the report reveals that the construction industry and its labour model is at a critical crossroads. Whilst the diagnosis points to a deep-seated market failure, there are certain industry trends and wider societal changes happening now that represent both unprecedented risk and opportunity for the industry and its clients. As the team at Cogent knows only too well from our work in the industry – if the opportunities are not harnessed in a planned and structured manner, the risks may become overwhelming.

In my opinion, one of the report’s key and most important recommendations, is that the Government should encourage the use of offsite manufactured solutions through policy measures as part of the wider procurement strategy across the ‘big five’ spending portfolios – infrastructure, education, healthcare, prisons and housing. There is an opportunity here for the UK to extend our position at the forefront of offsite manufacturing globally in these sectors – such a policy would further strengthen the confidence in the offsite supply-chain and encourage greater R&D/innovation investment.

Concerns that the UK lags significantly behind other countries in the low-rise residential offsite sector is a real issue, particularly as some low-rise offsite specialists have recently gone out of business 7after a relatively short time in the market, which brings me onto another crucial element of the report – pipeline/demand certainty – probably the most significant issue for all elements of the offsite supply-chain.

Carrot and stick
The report recommends that the Government provides a steady pipeline of projects for the construction sector so that companies can plan and make the capital investments or create the strategic supply-chains necessary for embracing offsite manufacture. I welcome the Government’s commitment to the National Infrastructure and Construction Pipeline in the Construction Sector Deal, but it is important that the Government adheres to the pipeline to provide certainty to the sector. The ‘presumption in favour of offsite’ – if properly executed – will help to achieve this, but it is also important that public sector procurement bodies take heed of the important recommendations around a ‘reporting/auditing’ framework to require an explanation as to why offsite technology may not have been used. This looks like a recommendation for the use of the carrot and the stick – either way it will take strong Government leadership to enforce.

The key issues of standardisation, capital investment in semi-automation and the cost premium often associated with low volume offsite manufacturing are part of the same equation and have a direct correlation. That is, with more standardisation there is a higher likelihood of a production process being repeatable and therefore automated, with automation comes investment in machinery which increases efficiency and productivity levels and ultimately provides cost reductions. Crucial to unlock the benefits of automation is asset financing. As an industry, we need to lobby the Government to find better ways of asset financing to encourage a greater uptake of automated processes, which will increase advanced and lean manufacturing procedures. The automotive and aerospace industries have been exploiting this model for decades and it is time that the offsite manufacturing sector had the confidence to do this too.

Embrace technology
Crucial to lean and advanced manufacturing is Design for Manufacture & Assembly (DfMA) protocols and Building Information Modelling (BIM). DfMA enables optimal configuration of offsite solutions on site by engaging with multi-discipline and multi-tier suppliers – ideally from the beginning of the design development process. This approach requires a change of mindset and a shift away from ‘traditional construction thinking’ to the adoption of assembly principles. Think about ‘assembling’ the building rather than ‘constructing’ it.

The discipline and collaborative working that DfMA requires and facilitates, are ideally suited to the needs of prefabrication in terms of early detail design co-ordination and three-dimensional design information. The output of the BIM design process, the IFC model – can now be directly imported into the fabrication software eliminating the time-consuming translation of engineer’s information into cut lists and assembly drawings. Further to this, it reduces the risk of errors. Designs can be optimised and tested in a virtual and pre-production environment before reaching the full manufacturing process – reducing costly rework and errors onsite.

The next steps in the development of this technology will be to integrate BIM/digital design processes and specification information with Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and Material Requirement Planning (MRP) using ‘intelligent graphics’. This will also permit full manufacturing simulation and visualisation, clash detection and virtual onsite assembly modelling and programming which can then be enhanced using the latest augmented and virtual reality digital developments. Bringing the use of the latest digital technology from predominantly the design and architectural stages into the manufacturing and offsite technology assembly process.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to changing its procurement models so that the public sector can procure for whole-life value rather than upfront cost. This, along with the Government’s ‘presumption in favour of offsite’ across five departments, will provide an important signal to the construction sector that there will be a consistent pipeline of projects, allowing companies to invest in offsite manufacturing facilities with confidence. However, this ‘presumption’ needs to be material and system agnostic and not always advocate volumetric modular construction. We need to have access to a full portfolio of offsite systems from pods and modules and panels and cassettes to hybrid solutions, if we are to utilise all of the capacity that the UK offsite manufacturing sector has to offer.

Change is not easy, and not all first experiences of using offsite technology will run smoothly! For most clients they are on a steep learning curve when initially adopting and offsite method of building and they will need to remain resolute in adopting the new mentality of ‘assembly’ rather than ‘construction’. The offsite manufacturing sector has to be cognisant of these issues and will need to support public sector clients as they feel the pressure from Government and take their first steps.

In the Construction Sector Deal the Government sets out that it will provide £15 billion of new financial support for housing over the next five years, taking total financial support to at least £44 billion to 2022/23. Furthermore, the Government states that it will ‘ensure that’ funding for the Transforming Construction programme supports the development and commercialisation of technologies and digital building designs that can help deliver the Government’s housing objectives. When allied to the ‘presumption in favour of offsite’ the conditions to flourish could not be better.

The Government and the wider public sector are by far the construction industry’s biggest clients. Their role is pivotal in increasing the use of offsite technology – they have the power to drive change. The problems are clear and well documented – the recommended actions are set out in the report. I implore the Government to heed the recommendations made and urgently respond with a detailed plan of action.

Darren Richards is Managing Director of Cogent Consulting, one of the expert contributors to the Lords Committee Inquiry. Cogent’s comprehensive offsite knowledge and experience enables clients to access a breadth of specialist services from a single company – providing an exceptional range of proven design, engineering, manufacturing, project management and supply-chain management skills. Cogent is able to draw on a wide base of in-house professional expertise, and long-established networks of specialists, to provide tailored solutions to meet the exact needs of clients across all construction sectors, based on a first-hand experience and understanding of the offsite landscape.
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