Few industries shape and support human life as construction does. So as the world enters a time of rapid change, the part our industry plays is vital.
We've all seen how technology can disrupt and transform - as Netflix changed film, or Airbnb hospitality - and we can learn from those other industries.
So far, construction hasn't had fundamental change, and threats such as low productivity, a dwindling skills base and scrutiny, following Carillion and Grenfell, remain. But that doesn't mean change isn't coming, or that we shouldn't be asking ourselves what our future should be.
Cultural change needed
Shaping that future will require collaboration, lack of which has been identified as a barrier to progress by The House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee.
Their recent paper Off-site manufacture for construction: Building for change contains guidance for the industry, and I am hopeful that it will be heeded. However, there have been similar reports before – think of Latham in 1994 and Egan in1998.
Core Innovation Hub – leading way for collaboration
What's needed, and what we have with the Core Innovation Hub, is a way to lead the collaborative effort. It will bring together great work from all over the industry, and by creating a centre of excellence, magnify the impact of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. The whole industry will benefit from shared thinking on:
- digital tools to improve collaboration and coordination in the design phase
- emerging materials science
- manufacturing techniques to reduce time and cost, while increasing safety, quality and productivity in the delivery phase
- the measurement of asset performance across whole life
What will good look like?
These developments will catalyse huge changes. For one thing, it'll be much easier (and more attractive) to get a job in construction. The building trades we have now take a long time to learn and the workforce is ageing. As a result, there's a looming skills gap which is likely to be exacerbated by Brexit. The Core Innovation Hub will take us to a new kind of construction.
Like manufacturing, it will start with components designed on computers and precision made in factories. That means less waste and the freedom to design in ease of assembly. At the same time, dangerous and arduous tasks, such as working at height, can be designed out. Instead sub-assemblies, let’s say a ceiling cassette combining structural, architectural as well as mechanical and electrical elements, can be put together at ground level before being lifted into position.
Training and re-skilling a workforce
People can be trained to assemble these components together in a couple of weeks - far less time than it takes to learn a traditional trade. That's transformational in broadening and diversifying the available workforce, offering opportunities to those who might not otherwise consider construction; unemployed, homeless, ex-offenders, ex-services and the disabled.
The viability and benefits of this approach have already been demonstrated, on prototypes that were delivered by a small team of current prisoners engaged through Prison Industries.
This group were trained in manufacturing processes, as well as manual handling and work at height. Initially working at a manufacturing production line making façade sub-assemblies from basic components (for example brick slips and insulation) they eventually progressed to assembling a two-storey structure including façades and fit out.
Creating highly motivated teams
This team proved that up-skilled labour can make highly accurate components and then assemble them into complete buildings. But more importantly, they demonstrated the social return on investment – those involved were highly motivated and engaged with this interesting, productive work; this has potentially huge implications for rehabilitation.
The manufactured components themselves can be seen as a giant kit of parts from which very different structures can be made. Again, the parallel is with manufacturing where platforms - the chassis of a car for example, or shipping containers - use standardisation to dramatically improve efficiency.
Benefits of collaboration in construction
It’s worth saying that collaboration is not a love in - there will be hard choices and we won’t get everything right first time. But the prizes are huge: decent homes, well-designed schools and hospitals, and effective transport infrastructure.
Collaboration has already worked well in other industries such as automotive. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Big Three US car manufacturers came together to create a level of industry standardisation, countering Japanese competition.
It's also worked well in UK construction with the adoption of BIM. Level 2 now providing a solid foundation for more advanced workflows. If we can collaborate in the same way around the Core Innovation Hub, the future of the industry looks bright.
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