Where digital manufacturing meets construction

21 September 2018

It might seem a little odd that one of the world’s largest financial services companies should be advertising for design and manufacturing engineers, assembly line team leads, and CNC and assembly operatives. But then the FTSE 100 Legal and General is no ordinary finance house.

Less the 50 miles from the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), the tenth largest investment management firm in the world is building homes. Not conventional homes: but modular homes, designed, manufactured and despatched from a £50 million factory in rural North Yorkshire.  

Rosie Toogood, Chief Executive of Legal and General Modular Homes, recently told a parliamentary inquiry that her company is “determined to disrupt the supply side of the housing market so that generation-rent can have the opportunity their parents had; so that people in need of social housing can access it and so that older people can choose the right kind of housing for them,” Rosie said.

Such disruptive activity is creating new opportunities for manufacturing, and those who provide services and equipment to the industry, according to Shirley Harrison, Company Engagement Manager at the AMRC.

“The way we construct buildings has not changed in 40 years and the construction sector suffers from unpredictable delivery, low profit margins, an ageing workforce and a poor image,” says Shirley. “Off-site modular manufacturing using advanced technologies such as robotics, automation, virtual and augmented reality, is increasingly being seen as the way forward for construction.”

That is why she has invited, Mark Farmer, author of the Construction Leadership Council report, Modernise or Die, to be the keynote speaker at the AMRC Forum on October 2nd where we will explore the opportunities for advanced manufacturing as the construction sector makes the transition to digitalised, off-site modular build.

“I’m really looking forward to coming up to the AMRC again,” said Mark. “What is happening here demonstrates the astonishing ‘horizontal innovation’ opportunities which construction can benefit from, drawing expertise in digital manufacturing from other sectors such as automotive and aerospace. “The integration of smart technology into buildings using remote sensors to monitor building asset performance will have direct relevance to the property and real estate sectors.”

Mark will be joined by Laing O’Rourke, CITB and members of the AMRC’s own Integrated Manufacturing Group. “This is a fantastic opportunity to meet Mark and gain insights into how government policy and advanced technologies are opening opportunities for both advanced manufacturing and the construction sector,” Shirley added. “The construction industry can learn so much from the way the aerospace and automotive industries have embraced digital technologies.”

Working alongside a new breed of young engineers at the AMRC, Laing O’Rourke are exploring how robotics and automation can make their new advanced offsite production facility in Worksop as efficient and productive as possible.

The company has been investing heavily in combining engineering excellence with digital platforms and offsite manufacturing and the new factory will be able to supply at full capacity up to 10,000 high quality homes a year. This will enable them to directly deliver smarter and more efficient products that generate economic, social and environmental benefits.

Shirley adds: “The AMRC’s role is to help construction companies like Laing O’Rourke and Legal and General develop a roadmap to adoption. For many it will seems a daunting task. But as Mark said in his report, unless the industry embraces change the future is truly bleak. Industry digitalisation and robotics are a key part of the solution, not only for improving productivity but also in meeting the legacy challenges the industry faces.”

Whether it is the use of Augmented Reality to rapidly upskill the workforce of the future, and tackle the problem of an ageing and shrinking skilled workforce, or the potential use of robots to perform repetitive tasks such as brick laying, the Forum will explore how technologies and processes used in both aerospace and automotive production can be deployed to significantly increase quality, productivity and sustainability in the construction sector.

 And Mark believes the North is leading the way on this. “The rebalancing of the economy that the government has sought to achieve through its Industrial Strategy, is underpinned by a strong theme of regional, place based economic growth, harnessing improved competitiveness for industry outside of the London and the South East.

“A sustainable and integrated digital transformation agenda is what is needed in property and construction, underpinned by new delivery models which ultimately touch the smallest businesses as well as the largest. From what I have seen, AMRC and the wider High Value Manufacturing Catapult programme across the UK is likely to play a key role here.

“Against this backdrop of construction modernisation opportunity, I see a renaissance in the north of England’s real estate markets. My own business is active with projects in Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester and there seems to be real confidence in emerging markets such as Build to Rent with investment fundamentals supported by new employment opportunities in towns and cities reinventing themselves to face the future not the past.”

Within a 50-mile radius of Sheffield there is a growing cluster of companies who are leading the charge on offsite modular. “There is a great opportunity here for the manufacturing and construction sectors to come together to explore how they can help each other grow by harnessing the power of advanced digital manufacturing technologies to the housing sector,” said Shirley.

So, if you’re manufacturer or manufacturing supplier who wants to understand more about the changing face of construction and the opportunities this opens up, or a construction company who wants to understand how advanced manufacturing can transform your productivity, the AMRC Forum is the ideal starting point.


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