Taking inspiration from the automotive industry
A design for manufacturing and assembly led approach could be a game-changer the UK needs to slash costs and delivery times and ramp up productivity. But the industry needs to evolve its business models and change its mindset to reap the full rewards.
According to a recent McKinsey report, the UK’s construction productivity levels have been in the doldrums for the past 20 years.
In the UK, the construction industry is feeling this challenge particularly keenly as it grapples with the urgent need to deliver a pipeline of major infrastructure, commercial and housing projects. This is set against a backdrop of an ageing workforce, and the potential loss of many valuable migrant workers post-Brexit.
For decades, industry reformers have been advocating that construction should adopt the principles of manufacturing, notably taking inspiration from the aeronautical and automotive sectors (where productivity has risen at least tenfold since the 1950s).
However, construction’s economic model and heavily fragmented supply chain have often acted as barriers to innovation and a disincentive to investment.
The rise of platforms
Now, the concept of using “platforms” to enable design for manufacturing and assembly (DfMA), in the same way that cars are created and customised through a series of standardised components, is finally beginning to gain traction. The concept has been given extra impetus with the backing of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority for a wide variety of public sector applications including prisons, schools and hospitals. The Government’s stated preference for offsite methods on public sector projects from 2019 onwards is an additional driver.
We have been working with technology-led design consultant Bryden Wood to explore the benefits, as well as the practical challenges, of bringing the DfMA approach to market.
Our recent desktop study calculated DfMA could bring capital cost savings of between 18 percent and 45 percent on the structural steel frame and floor building elements, when benchmarked against traditional methods.
Efficiencies were gained at every stage of the process: in the factory, where less raw material is needed and designs can be simplified and streamlined for manufacture; at delivery phase as the components can be packed, stored and transported more efficiently. On site, where a comparably smaller workforce is needed, many trades can be replaced by multi-skilled workers trained in assembly techniques.
Construction is also demonstrably faster and precision-made parts dramatically reduce waste compared to traditional projects.
Early adopters are already reaping the rewards. For example, at Circle Hospital in Reading, where 79 percent of components were standardised, the schedule was reduced by 20 percent and 28 percent cost savings were achieved. For the EcoCanopy children’s centres, Bryden Wood’s kit of parts for the primary schools’ market, 90 percent of work was carried out offsite, which contributed to a 50 percent reduction in the overall programme. The costs were also 40 percent lower, compared to traditional methods.
GSK has also been using this approach for delivering new facilities, with the pharmaceutical giant achieving an impressive 60 percent reduction in programme and cutting the number of on-site operatives by 75 percent. Ex-Ghurkhas formed a major part of the GSK delivery team. Specially trained in assembly, they achieved double the productivity rates of traditional site labour.
This is tangible evidence of how DfMA can be used to attract a new and more diverse workforce, addressing the skills gap, while improving productivity.
As it evolves, DfMA will be the key to unlocking benefits from many other innovations.
It could provide the design and delivery ecosystem within which algorithmic design, building information modelling (BIM) and digital control, augmented reality, assembly robots and 3D printing can further hone improvements in productivity.
New operating model
But if DfMA is to succeed in construction, the sector needs to reinvent its traditional operating model, which is still dominated by specialists working in silos, designing bespoke projects. Traditional contracting forces subcontractors to hold disproportionate amounts of risk, while the layered supply chain structures inhibit knowledge and information flow.
The new ways of operating should be more collaborative, with integrated design teams working from standard BIM libraries.
They should also be less hierarchical, with clients able to readily access the specialist knowledge of the lower supply chain tiers. Contracts should incorporate clear data and information requirements and should be managed in a common data environment.
Other behaviours will also have to change: in order to maximise economies of scale, there must be industry-wide agreement to adopt standard platforms. Meanwhile, on individual projects the design must be fixed early so that parts can be ordered in advance, without any break in the process. In general, industry will have to take a longer-term view, rather than focusing on short-term projects.
These caveats aside, DfMA could be a game changer for the UK construction industry, enhancing productivity across the entire asset lifecycle – from concept design, through delivery, operation to asset termination.
A collective change in mindset
To achieve this transition, a collective change in mindset is required. Not only will the industry have to rethink how it leads projects and apportions risk, but it will also have to reshape its training and education strategy, gearing up for a generation of multi-skilled technicians. Clients will need to commit to a pipeline of DfMA-driven projects, and contractors will also have to work more openly and transparently.
The adoption of DfMA could be incremental, or it could happen faster if more disruptors enter the sector. But there is no doubt that a more process-driven industry is here to stay. Those organisations that adapt to it early, will be leading the vanguard for the next generation of building.