Transforming Construction: Digital engineering, modular construction, and offsite manufacturing for the future

Digital engineering, modern methods of construction, and offsite manufacturing are key to the future of construction, according to a report by the Laing O’Rourke Centre for Construction Engineering and Technology.

The construction industry has long been anticipated to evolve into a highly productive, technologically advanced, low-carbon sector. However, this transformation has been slower than expected. The newly released report, “Transforming Construction,” from the University of Cambridge’s Laing O’Rourke Centre for Construction Engineering and Technology, outlines a vision for the future and provides insights into how the industry can accelerate its transformation.

Prof Campbell Middleton, Director of the Laing O’Rourke Centre.
Prof Campbell Middleton, Director of the Laing O’Rourke Centre.

Addressing the Slow Pace of Change
Professor Campbell Middleton, Director of the Laing O’Rourke Centre, in the report emphasises the slow progress in the construction industry despite numerous reports and recommendations over the decades. He highlights the need for substantive change, pointing out that while excellent reports exist, their implementation has often fallen short. The Laing O’Rourke Centre aims to address this by educating and upskilling current and future construction leaders, undertaking applied research, and providing evidence-based thought leadership.

“We are not moving anywhere near quickly enough [to transform construction],” says Professor Middleton. “We have had report after report on the industry saying there’s a need for change and about what we need to change. You can go right back to the 1940s for some of them. And they are excellent reports. But how many of them have led to really substantive change? What has really changed in the industry? Not enough. We could do far more.”

Laing O’Rourke Centre research strategy.
Laing O’Rourke Centre research strategy.

Overcoming Fragmentation in the Industry
One of the key challenges identified is the fragmentation within the construction industry, which operates on a contractual model that hinders clear and productive engagement between industry, academia, and policymakers. Professor Middleton points out that the UK alone has over 300 bodies representing the construction industry, making it difficult to present a consistent message to government and policymakers. The Centre aims to use its profile to bring these stakeholders together and foster a more unified approach.

“We’ve done a survey trying to identify key bodies representing the construction industry. I think we’ve got up to over 300 [in the UK alone] and that makes it very difficult to get a consistent message through to government and policymakers,” he asserts. “What can we do in all that? I see our role is to use the profile of the university to bring people together and try to get people to work together and get some consistency in their approach.”

Key Outcomes and Enablers
The Laing O’Rourke Centre’s research strategy is built around three key outcomes: net zero carbon, enhanced productivity, and social value. To achieve these, the report identifies five enablers: digital engineering, manufacturing (modern methods of construction and offsite manufacturing), whole life performance, procurement, and skills.

Laing O’Rourke Centre's three possible enablers of transformative change by 2030.
Laing O’Rourke Centre’s three possible enablers of transformative change by 2030.

“Digital Engineering: The Centre focuses on measuring performance, ranging from productivity to quality during construction and the performance of built assets once in service. This involves the use of sensors on structures to measure various factors, providing valuable data to help the industry and policymakers make informed decisions.

  1. Manufacturing: Offsite manufacturing is seen as a crucial element in transforming the construction industry. The Centre’s research highlights the need for consistent measurement of performance across projects to truly understand the benefits and challenges of offsite construction. A new methodology for measuring these benefits has already been published and is gaining traction in the industry.
  2. Whole Life Performance: The focus here is on creating structures that not only perform well during their construction phase but also throughout their entire lifecycle. This includes addressing sustainability and reducing the carbon footprint of construction projects.
  3. Procurement: Effective procurement strategies are essential for driving change in the industry. The Centre advocates for integrating modern construction methods and digital technologies into procurement processes to improve efficiency and outcomes.
  4. Skills: Upskilling the workforce is fundamental to the industry’s transformation. The Centre’s Construction Engineering Masters (CEM) programme is designed to equip future leaders with the knowledge and skills needed to drive change. The programme combines academic rigour with practical application, ensuring that students can implement innovative technologies and methods in their careers.

Data as a Catalyst for Change
Professor Middleton stresses the importance of data in driving change within the construction industry. Consistent and accurate data collection is essential for measuring performance and making informed decisions. The Centre’s work includes developing methodologies for data collection and analysis, which are being implemented in collaboration with industry partners.

“If you can’t measure it and understand what is happening then you are not going to change it. So for me, the starting point for change all comes back to data. Data is the new gold,” says Professor Middleton.

The Role of Offsite Manufacture
One surprising finding from the Centre’s research was the inconsistency in measuring performance even within the same company across different projects. This has led to the development of a new framework for measuring construction performance, which has evolved into a broader performance measurement framework for the entire industry.

The Centre had an opportunity to work with the Construction Industry Research and Information Association (CIRIA) to look at the issue in depth by studying school construction in an area of the UK where there is a lot of offsite work underway alongside conventional builds. This study resulted in a new methodology, published in 2020 by CIRIA called Methodology for quantifying the benefits of offsite construction (C792F).

Professor Middleton explains, “These were top-tier companies delivering a range of schools and what we found was there was an inconsistency in how they approached measuring performance. It wasn’t just between companies, it was actually even within some companies from project to project. There was a lack of consistency in how you define cost, programme, quality. It wasn’t a case that some were right or some were wrong – it was a case that you couldn’t compare progress.”

The Construction Data Trust
Working alongside the Construction Productivity Taskforce, the Centre is also involved in the Construction Data Trust. In conjunction with companies like Microsoft, developer British Land, and major contractors like Mace, Skanska and Sir Robert McAlpine, it aims to build a structured collection of data for the industry that can be used to establish benchmarks to understand what is achievable in the industry.

“It’s a very exciting initiative and what has been surprising is the huge variability we are finding in the performance of, for example, building a multi-storey commercial development in London,” says Professor Middleton. “They are very similar projects but with a massive range of performance. Sometimes it [the variability] is even within projects. Working with our construction partners, our goal is to help them get insight into why this variability is there and what we can do to address it and improve productivity.”

‘Nike philosophy’ to construction
To effect meaningful change in construction, Professor Middleton advocates adopting what he calls a ‘Nike philosophy’: Just do it. “My mantra is that underpinning everything is how we procure construction. And by procurement, I don’t just mean what contract you use but the wider context of how we approach planning of construction projects: how we procure them, how the design is incorporated, how we get contractors involved.”

Download the report (pdf) HERE


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