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May 5, 2021
Expert Insight

The Role of Technology in UK's Booming Offsite Construction Market

The modular and offsite construction industry is predicted to see phenomenal growth in the coming years. This growth is expected in major construction markets including the US, UK, Canada as well Europe and Australia/New Zealand. 

In the UK, the Government has taken an active role in categorizing Prefab, Offsite and Modular methods of construction within the Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) designation and is actively promoting these methods. They recently announced a task force dedicated to accelerating the delivery of homes built through MMC and established criteria around a strategic partnership to deliver at least 25% of homes over the coming years using these methods. Furthermore, cities in the UK are taking an active role in promoting MMC with Oxford City announcing a £1bn modular construction framework for its new housing schemes.

As new factories and contractors move their process offsite to capture this new opportunity, they will face new challenges in design, manufacturing and delivery. They will have to invest in new technologies to address these challenges and help manage their new MMC processes. 

In this Expert Spotlight we sit down with Graeme O'Doherty, Partner at AnyOffsite and former Partnership and Technical Director at Magna Offsite Solutions. We discuss the role new technology can play in furthering MMC adoption and helping new players manage their production and quality in a factory focused construction process. 


Q: Graeme: Workflow project management and collaboration is critical in traditional Onsite Construction and there are many software platforms targeting that market. How do you see the role of new technology in growing the Offsite Construction market?

As more work is carried out remote from the building's final location, project management becomes more complex and very few current software packages extend to cover the manufacturing process. Collaboration in the construction industry is currently based on a project basis and, by definition, is short term. As we move towards a more production based model the collaboration offers shared benefits of a longer term relationship between organisations. Managing the key interface between a factory and a construction site is one of the vital roles to successful delivery of the individual projects. Project Management software which digitalises this process is a significant step in providing consistent quality.

ICT in general refers to communication of information through the use of technology. Data is growing massively in the world today and if left unrefined it is as useless as crude oil straight out of the ground. Whether this data is collected from a drone, a robot or project management software, once refined it provides information which can advance knowledge and provide a platform to enable quicker, more informed decisions to be made. These decisions can improve productivity, sustainability, improve margins and reduce project programmes.


Q: Graeme: The UK may be ahead of the US in adopting Offsite Construction, what market dynamics do you believe are pushing modular construction forward so quickly? 

You say “Offsite Construction (OSC); I say Modern Methods of Construction (MMC)”. My belief is that for the construction market to adopt modern methods of construction more widely, a focus on four significant areas is required:


The climate crisis

The housing emergency (in most countries)

The skills shortage

Productivity


New innovative business models also need to be established to challenge the domination of conventional builders. A great example of this is Kent Homes in Canada, who provide excellent factory built modular homes direct to the public.

I think the single biggest contributor to successful adoption of MMC is being able to change hearts and minds of people who are generally very resistant to change. Many of the long standing contractors delivering houses see no reason to try and fix something that in their opinion is not broken. Established contractors need to learn how to integrate new forms of construction within their current processes so they can confidently make recommendations to their clients.

As you have already described the UK Government is providing incentives for people to change and sadly the route to lasting change is likely to be through legislation.


Q: Graeme: Given that many modular factories in the UK still haven’t digitized, what do you see as the major headwinds preventing mass technology adoption across factories? What advice would you give factories looking to digitize their quality and production process?

This has partly a similar answer to the previous question in that the largest constituent element of a human is water. Water always finds the easiest route, even if it is not always the best one. Changing this course is a significant challenge and one which requires many people to support.

 Processes for factories have been established in some cases for over half a century and the risk of making changes to an industry that does not have high margins is one which requires a particular type of leader with a positive outlook on attitude to risk. I’m certain that once innovative organisations such as M-AR Offsite demonstrate how digitising processes can lead to higher productivity and margin improvements, other manufacturers will follow.

There are wider social aspects to consider when discussing digitalisation: for example are there enough skilled people or can people be retrained to manage the digitisation process? Benefits of digitalisation are broad and not only provide more productive manufacturing but can also lead to breaking down the cultural issues of the construction industry: if factory processes can be made visible, clients tend to demonstrate more trust. We thoroughly evaluate factory processes before making recommendations on what should be digitised and provide a balanced report highlighting benefits and constraints of the system being proposed. Providing on-demand access to Quality Management Systems is key to being open and transparent and developing trust between clients and manufacturers.

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