Insight into off-site: the future of housing

11 October 2018

An ageing workforce and the inability to attract young people with the right skills into the construction industry are two of the key drivers behind the sector’s shift to offsite modular manufacturing, according to Mark Farmer, keynote speaker at our latest SME Forum.

Mark, author of the Construction Leadership Council report, Modernise or Die, said that while these aren’t new challenges, unlike 10 or 20 years ago, the construction industry now has novel digital platforms to enable transformative change.

Drawing on expertise in digital manufacturing from sectors such as automotive and aerospace, Mark said the construction industry could improve productivity and continue to deliver on demands with a constrained workforce through use of robotics and automation, augmented and virtual reality, and the increasing use of AI and machine learning.

With the publication of the Industrial Strategy in late 2017, the Government announced its support for innovation within the industry with plans to invest £170m to help the sector increase its productivity and construct buildings 50 per cent faster and 33 per cent cheaper.The Government now appears to be willing to help the construction sector and force it to change,” added Mark

The AMRC is taking the national lead in providing the sector with the research and innovation assets to adopt and implement advanced, digital manufacturing processes, and is already engaged with many of the key players in the market: including Legal and General, Aecom and Laing O’Rourke.

Colin Burke, General Manager of Advanced Manufacturing at Laing O'Rourke said his company has a clear vision of how to embrace the move towards offsite manufacturing and onsite assembly by adopting digital technologies to achieve a balance of highly variable products that can be automated with a high level of repeatability.

Laing O’Rourke is doing this through early client engagement, by using digital transformation and optimising what the company can offer from standard products it can be responsive to what the client wants and adapt manufacturing processes quickly; reducing lead times as well as cost.

“To do this we are using proven technology; there is nothing out there the construction industry needs that isn’t already available. We just need to configure it to be optimised for construction.”

James Illingworth, the AMRC Integrated Manufacturing Group’s (IMG) Theme Lead in Automated Assembly said there are a number of technologies that can be transferred to construction from other industries to enable the move to offsite manufacturing. The AMRC has been working with construction companies to develop existing technologies for construction applications, de-risking any potential future investments.

Working with Laing O’Rourke, IMG has produced an automated robotic solution for a façade production line. The project uses a robot to embed brick slips for the desired building façade onto a reinforcement mesh. The solution uses technology already available and in use within the automotive sector. James said: “We are just developing it to work for construction products. This is really exciting work which is helping to create on-site efficiencies by enabling offsite modular construction and help meet the demand for 240,000 houses a year.”

Future Skills and Innovation Lead for the Construction Industry Training Board, Ben Lever told the Forum that to ensure the construction industry can continue to meet this demand, it requires a shift in mind-set about how we see skills training for the sector.

“The courses on offer for the construction sector don’t necessarily reflect the skills needed at the moment, and it’s not a case of lifting ones straight from the manufacturing the sector, as we will see a hybridisation of processes where construction knowledge will still be needed in digital roles.”

Ben said these roles will become increasingly important, requiring training in digital and creativity skills, with knowledge of the latest technology.

Industry collaboration to define new roles and qualifications with common skills requirements, complemented by specialist digital skills is the best way to support the move into offsite manufacturing, is the way forward, he explained.

“The opportunity to offer higher level skills will change the image of industry, the retention levels and increase working life within the industry as you move away from the perception of construction as potentially dangerous and cold construction sites, to the relative comfort of a factory environment using automated tools.”

AMRC SME Engagement Manager and host for the event, Shirley Harrison, commented that the challenge with skills is also about working with local schools to try and get teachers to update their views about working in construction. “Teachers don’t have enough information about the changes that are happening in industry. It’s about getting them and the parents to understand what the move to digital in the construction industry is all about.”

James agrees that the adoption of digital technologies will influence the decision of younger people in the future: “Construction requires new skills in the workforce to use the new technologies being adopted; investing in this new technology should be exciting to graduates and bring young people into construction arena.”

James was quick to point out that adopting new skills, technologies and embracing R&D projects isn’t exclusive to the big players in the construction industry. As the construction supply chain is SMEs heavy, utilising R&D facilities is a great opportunity to become more productive. He told delegates that at the AMRC projects can often be tailored to shorter lead times to demonstrate the art of the possible in developing automated applications that can be delivered to the workshop floor, de-risking investments for those working with lower margins.

Mark said the construction industry is already seeing lots of initiatives starting to pop up with opportunities for manufacturers outside of construction to bring innovation into the sector. “As the industry moves towards the Fourth Industrial Revolution, digital decentralised manufacturing and fabricating locally onsite will transform the sector.” Mark said this includes the SMEs in the supply chain and not just the big players. “This shift in how the construction industry operates needs to be accessible by all for it to be successful.”

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