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Flaunting convention, an issue for MMC

Graham Cleland, general manager at NG Bailey’s Offsite Manufacture facility, looks into the challenges facing the UK offsite sector in the battle against traditional build

We have a growing economy and the prospect of a fairly healthy construction sector, but there is genuinely less skilled resource to service demand than six to seven years ago. Recessions tend to take a toll on the construction sector, and the most recent has proved no exception to this rule. With manpower leaving traditional trades to find gainful employment elsewhere, there is a challenge relating to the new build opportunities that exist, and this is one area where the construction industry as a whole needs to focus.

One powerful resource that remains largely untapped is offsite capability and capacity. Offsite products for the construction sector can take many forms, including fully volumetric modules, structural insulated panels, cross-laminated timber framing systems and mechanical/electrical plant skids. There now needs to be a refocusing of good balance throughput to make this a viable option for projects. Trading conditions for offsite manufacture remain difficult and it’s time we as an industry look afresh at the best ways to create and deliver projects; tapping into the very beneficial resource of offsite.

Consultants and main contractors are effectively service providers, and so in bidding for new work they are looking to secure an income stream to sustain their ongoing overhead commitments. This process is largely a matter of instilling confidence – demonstrating expertise and experience, whilst being able to evidence that commercial and programme risks can be minimised or eliminated through the innovative and cost effective use of offsite. A traditional approach to a design and build contract prevails, but we now have a job to do as a manufacturing industry to raise awareness for the offsite proposition, which can potentially deliver an improved approach to new build – with the outcome of a better building for the same cost, as well as an earlier completion date.

Undoubtedly, the construction sector in the UK is capable of designing and producing some stunning and incredibly sophisticated buildings. Often, however, projects are delivered over budget, late to the agreed programme, or the performance of the final building is found to be wanting.

The concept of the offsite approach might initially seem to be hard work, as it necessitates thinking not just about the option itself, but a holistic approach to the development, implementation, delivery and more. In order to respond to the Government’s challenges as part of its Construction 2025 industrial strategy, the sector needs to get on board sooner rather than later if it is to deliver the cost, sustainability and export performance targets that have been set and offsite manufacturing can play a big part in this.

Timeframes and deadlines are important themes in construction and the reduction of wasted effort is a prime focus for offsite manufacture. This is a much leaner model and an advancement on outdated working practices. The offsite sector offers the opportunity to shake everything up and re-define the rules of the game, because the solutions being presented by this community imply a very different methodology in terms of time required and the underlying approach to design and build.

Making the most of BIM

From a design perspective, despite the multiple advances in technology and data management, Building Information Modelling (BIM) is largely used for defining what needs to be built and how a property will be maintained. It doesn’t look at how something will be built nor when the activities need to take place in the project plan. Appointing a specialist contractor early on to generate modelling information from an offsite perspective would garner considerable benefits and reduce unnecessary costs with multiple consultants. A specialist contractor could plan the entire series of activities and milestones, including design inputs, approval, design, procurement, manufacture, delivery and installation – leaving the main contractor to use the same information and successfully co-ordinate the contributions of other parties, therefore optimising information flow and saving unnecessary cost spend.

Today it is no longer the case that main contractors are builders, rather they are integrators.  The appointment of a specialist contractor can provide some form of offsite solution that might require the main contractor to engage additional design resources to co-ordinate packages of work. It might equally imply a more substantial reduction in project and commercial management resources. Embracing an offsite approach can have additional impacts on certain elements of the project including requirements on site for accomodation, storage and welfare facilities.  There is a likely reduction in physical numbers of personnel, and following on from that, a lowering of the amount of time this resource will typically spend at site. Long term this can only be beneficial in delivering projects within budget and to time.

There are also contractual implications for a build using offsite solutions. In essence, when the majority of design and manufacturing activity is taking place away from site, the potential for the late installation of product is greatly reduced, thereby eliminating any costs and conditions relating to damages to be paid for missed deadlines. It makes sense to give consideration to agreeing some sign-off protocols for factory inspection and testing of the finished product, and agree a window for the installation of a product, so as to create small amounts of float in the overall construction programme.

As the economy grows and the prospects continue to look healthy for the sector, there are opportunities that can be seized and risks that should be mitigated, to gain the confidence that builds featuring offsite effectively cost less, have fewer risks, need fewer people and take less time. By using the offsite proposition, not only will the industry benefit, it will also prevent offsite manufacturing from becoming redundant. The industry needs strong thought leaders to take a positive stance on this topic and help set the agenda. There is a strategic importance in the use of offsite; it provides medium-to-long-term benefits of leveraging productivity and growth. Leaders within the sector need to rise to the challenge of embracing offsite manufacture, of seeking ways in which their businesses can flaunt conventions, to create a better, more holistic approach across the industry, so that it becomes ideally placed to serve end-clients and generate healthier returns for all.

NG Bailey’s Offsite Manufacture division has been pioneering the use of offsite manufacture since 2000, with a 76,000 sq ft specially designed facility in Yorkshire, the largest of its kind in the UK. Its offsite proposition offers a modern and innovative approach to engineering solutions, presenting a realistic, affordable option to labour-intensive, time-consuming on site production and assembly. NG Bailey has a proven track record of delivering projects on time, on budget and defect free.