Modernisation or transformation – time to be bold
Over a year now from the publication of Modernise or Die, the report continues to provoke comment. Mark Farmer explains how his findings of systemic failure are perhaps less disputed than the suggested path he proposes the industry should take to future-proof itself – fundamentally transforming our physical site-based production process and increasing the level of premanufacturing.
My decision to nail my colours to the premanufacturing mast was not accidental or taken lightly. I have seen enough though to know that pure promotion of collaborative working and behavioural improvement espoused by the likes of Latham and Egan is unlikely in itself, to change anything. The last 20 years of stagnation, if not now outright deterioration in industry processes, productivity and client outcomes is testament enough to that. Collaboration and integration is at the heart of what will modernise and improve our industry but it has to be hardwired to a new way of doing things. Too many people – rightly passionate about engendering positive change – have wasted time in this area applying new contracts or promoting new practices in an industry fundamentally fragmented and misaligned. You need to change the game not modify the rules.
A specific area that I have drawn some criticism for is that I have not apparently wholeheartedly put my weight behind the BIM lobby. Bizarrely, some people have even gone to the extent of counting the references to BIM in my review or the page numbers that it first appears on – it is the subtlety in my thinking that perhaps some people are misinterpreting. I am 100% sure that the digitalisation of our industry will drive modernisation and transformational change. The fact that I don’t see ‘BIM’ as is currently practiced as the solution is down to how it is not making sufficient impact on our wider industry.
A recent study by Designing Building Wiki on the use and sharing of knowledge in our industry confirmed what I have been thinking for some time now. BIM evangelists are huddled together at the fringe of our industry, effectively talking to themselves. A cohort of very bright technologists and digital converted industry practitioners are speaking a different language to the bulk of clients, advisors and supply chain stakeholders which is continuing to marginalise them from the mainstream.
McKinsey have recently reported that construction is one of the least digitalised industrial sectors in the world and this is reflected in on-going inability to improve productivity relative to other industries. The UK’s prognosis for a shrinking traditionally skilled construction workforce means that the ‘push’ drivers for change from within industry are now growing. The parallel ‘pull’ of technology has never been greater but has still been resisted. The game changer I believe is artificial intelligence (AI).
Research undertaken by Accenture, shows that artificial intelligence can drive up productivity levels in all industries by 30% by 2035. Fundamentally, AI is a technology that outsources thinking, allowing us to do much more as humans, more efficiently. While this image may seem some way off from your typical mainstream construction project, I would suggest that some technology has short to medium term mass roll out potential at every level of our industry, from the design office to manufacturing to the construction workface.
The use of generative design and solution optimisation will fundamentally alter how we work as an industry. It will alter the role of planners, designers, surveyors, suppliers, manufacturers and constructors. The use of smart embedded technology in components will also revolutionise asset performance management. When combined with digital enabled premanufacturing, fabrication and on-site assembly, in a way that by-passes all of the traditional workflow barriers currently being experienced in piecemeal digitalisation of our industry. It will join the dots to enable not mundane mass standardisation but mass customisation, and it engages everyone, including SME’s in the process through simple and accessible digital tools and worker augmentation.
My thought process therefore is that something different at the heart of our delivery model needs to be changed to release the full power of both digital working and integrated processes in a way that can impact throughout our industry not incrementally but more fundamentally. This now leads me onto my prognosis for the offsite sector.
There is now a real challenge being laid down to the UK offsite market. To date, it has suffered from a high level of fragmentation – a ‘cottage industry’ feel to quote many commentators – relatively low levels of capitalisation and a constant battle to identify consistent pipeline. It is also fundamentally characterised by an IP protective and bespoke system approach to product design and building solutions that now acts as a major barrier to expansion in terms of client and funder perceptions.
Having spent time since my report’s publication, socialising the message that our industry faces unprecedented future challenges, and pushing people towards the premanufacturing sector as a potential key solution, it is now time for the offsite sector to recognise how it has to also change to seize the opportunity. That change relates to fuller digital enablement and a move towards more joined up and interoperable technologies, promoted by better design and product codification. The only way the sector will thrive in my opinion, is to change from using product uniqueness as the point of difference and start pursuing efficiency, assurance and quality as the route to market. I recognise however that this has to be done in a way that does not constrain or dumb down innovation. The potential is to grow the size of the cake, whilst accepting the slicing of the cake may increase. The net benefit is greater market share of total construction.
The important initiator of this change is how construction is commissioned. Some disruptors are fully vertically integrated and will be masters of their own destiny. Other clients will need assistance through better codification of how specific assets can be designed and constructed from an interoperable ‘kit of parts’ that is also supply chain aligned. This still allows for architectural individuality and appropriate differentiation to produce high quality, contextual buildings but they can all have a common backbone. AI can and should play a key part in this process and may involve ‘open sourcing’ the asset specific AI technology that releases the genie from the bottle when it comes to digital design configuration and linked procurement systems. This is way beyond the current fixation with BIM object libraries and language protocols.
Putting this in context, the London Assembly report, Designed, Sealed & Delivered has been very positively received by the London Mayor and now creates a unique opportunity to drive a different way of thinking in the housing sector. Its specific recommendation relating to a London Manufactured Housing Design Code is key. I am pleased to say I helped influence the inclusion of this but ultimately credit to Nicky Gavron who realised the potential benefits. This can be something that the offsite world either responds positively to or sees as a threat. In my mind it is a no brainer but the offsite sector has to come to the party. I hope it decides better collaboration, shared product research and development and a more aggregated response to a more aggregated demand is the way forward. Watch this space for future developments!