Why we need to stop talking about MMC and embrace industrialised construction

Ron Lang is regional director at AtkinsRéalis

The construction industry is underpinned by a predominantly ‘engineer-to-order’ (ETO) approach to delivery – no wonder given the scale, complexity and context-driven nature of the outputs it delivers. Unfortunately, this approach encourages a constant reinvention of the products we deliver and the production methods we employ to deliver them.

It is my firm belief that the continued dominance of the traditional craft-based construction methods we often bemoan is a wholly understandable and rational response to this approach. Put simply, it is necessary to rely on flexible materials, highly skilled people and high levels of onsite fabrication to bring largely bespoke – and often untested – designs to life. Accordingly, I would like to reframe the current debate, acknowledging that traditional construction methods are not the root cause of our problems but merely a logical response to our entrenched ETO delivery model.

It seems to me that we have for too long focused on changing the methods we employ within our existing delivery model, misguidedly crediting the technologies and processes employed in the automotive and aerospace sectors as the reason for their success, rather than being a feature of their delivery model. This anomaly is evident in our current ‘modern methods of construction’ (MMC) policy landscape, and most prominently, perhaps, in the ‘presumption in favour of offsite’.

Introduced in 2019, the presumption in favour of offsite requires that all social infrastructure projects develop at least one option that includes the substantial use of offsite manufacture during the option-development stage. In practice, such projects are still largely engineered to order, and consideration of offsite manufacture happens too late, requiring manufacturers to produce relatively bespoke solutions, usually at low volume. Given these conditions, the viability of offsite manufacture – both for the project, and for the industry – is severely limited. No wonder then that, despite steady progress in recent years, this approach has been largely unsuccessful in driving fundamental change at a sector level.

A different way

So, is there an alternative? Well, it seems increasingly clear to me – especially when looking beyond the UK – that we need to embrace a more holistic approach to transformation. That is why the concept of industrialised construction has potential – the idea is growing globally and provides a more helpful starting point for the change we seek.

Put simply, the industrialisation of construction is focused on removing unnecessary variability from delivery processes to enable economies of scope and scale while driving continuous improvement. It encourages us to move away from the ETO approach and instead look across programmes and portfolios of work for opportunities to drive greater commonality and repeatability in what we deliver and how we deliver it.

To offer a practical example, the ‘platform’ agenda that has emerged in recent years is a good step in this direction. The platform agenda encourages us to focus on the harmonisation, digitisation and rationalisation of requirements across entire programmes and portfolios of work such that common repeatable components, processes and relationships can be developed and deployed at scale.

It also helps to shift the conversation away from standardisation and mass production – terms often negatively associated with industrialisation – and towards commonality and mass customisation. After all, platforms in all their forms are always about balancing the benefits of commonality with the need for customisation.

Numerous encouraging examples of this approach are emerging too. For example, the Ministry of Justice has worked with its supply chain to develop a standard ‘kit-of-parts’ that can be configured to produce a range of houseblock layouts. Not only does this drive economies of scope and scale into their capital investment programme but it provides the stability required to drive continuous improvement in delivery from design configuration to procurement, component production, logistics and assembly.

This platform approach is expected to bring significant value for the client in operation too, as maintenance and refurbishment operations become increasingly repeatable and replacement components can be produced at scale and efficiently installed by a mature supply chain.

The key point here is that by embracing a broader industrialised construction agenda, we can focus on creating the conditions that enable the adoption of manufacturing technologies and processes. This is a sociotechnical challenge, not a purely technical one, and we must resist the temptation to rely on inventing and reinventing manufacturing technologies and processes as this has no lasting impact.

The success we see in other industries lies in their ability to drive out unnecessary variation, and it is this feature that has enabled them to embrace highly productive production methods. So long as the construction sector relies on perpetual reinvention, a similar degree of progress and transformation will continue to evade us.

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