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Are we getting the best out of off-site manufacturing?

UK Construction Online’s Matt Brown talks with Mark Enzer, Mott MacDonald’s Chief Technical Officer, about the advantages of off-site manufacturing and its perception within the construction industry.

Is off-site construction fully integrated into most of Mott MacDonald’s projects or is it just specific ones?

It is just specific projects at the moment, because it’s not always appropriate and not all clients are ready for it yet. We see varying levels of maturity in the market, both in the UK and globally, however we do expect to see off-site manufacture in more projects in the future.


Do you feel that the move towards the digital and BIM construction process means using off-site construction make more sense?

Yes completely. BIM is a massive enabler of both off-site construction and design for manufacture and assembly (DfMA). You can just about do off-site construction without BIM, however DfMA would be impossible without it. As we become better and better at BIM, we find ourselves in a stronger position to drive off-site manufacturing.

Doing BIM by default is where we are aiming to be. We aren’t quite there yet but we are making strong progress.


The public sector is a big driver of BIM with the mandate, do you find the public sector is getting on board with off-site manufacturing to the same degree?

It is still early days. The government mandate has really helped get BIM off the ground and in many ways the UK leads the world in BIM now which has to be a very good thing.

When people get their heads around BIM then they naturally begin to understand off-site manufacturing and product-based delivery. One follows the other. Therefore, it won’t come as a surprise that as BIM gets more commonly adopted then the demand for off-site will increase. We already see this in parts of the private sector.


Is BIM the big game changer for off-site manufacturing?

It might not be the big game changer, but it is definitely a key enabler. If we understand BIM, then that enables us to do off-site and DfMA.


What is the general perception of off-site manufacturing from within the industry in the UK?

When it comes to the industry’s attitude, you do see quite different levels of maturity. In some parts, there’s still quite a lot of wariness about it. It’s as if they are dipping their toe in the water, while wanting someone else to take the plunge so that they can follow.

There are a number of far-sighted clients who are driving change, however it is very difficult to transform the industry because there’s inertia. The industry tends to want to do what it has always done.


In terms of the environment and sustainability, what advantages can off-site manufacturing offer?

It would be entirely possible to do off-site manufacturing in a non-sustainable way. However, there is definitely the potential to come up with lower-carbon, more sustainable solutions using this approach.

This has been proven in Anglian Water’s @one Alliance. The off-site manufactured products developed there were both lower carbon and lower cost. They also dramatically reduced time spent on-site, therefore reducing disruption to customers. Altogether, that’s a good sustainable outcome.


Would you say it’s easier to meet certain standards with a controlled manufacturing environment?

Yes, absolutely. However, the design has to be right in the first place. The D in DfMA has to be correct, then the M and A can be higher quality and better value.


How easy it to train somebody in the off-site manufacturing process?

That’s an interesting question because the change of mind-set actually needs to be much wider than just in the individual workers. What you really need to do is change the end-to-end delivery process and then the training of individuals can feed into that.

What tends to happen is that DfMA gets squeezed into a traditional-style procurement approach, which then doesn’t work as well as it could. We’ve got to change the whole end-to-end delivery process to get the real benefits.

Having changed that, the question about training then becomes key. Really, the training needs to be at all levels as construction gets to look more like a mix of manufacturing and logistics.


Can off-site manufacturing make a positive impact tackling the skills shortage?

There is certainly that potential. On one hand, in a controlled factory environment you can make better use of people with lower skills. It is also possible to have more robotics in a factory, which allows skilled workers to be more productive, meaning more output per worker.


Is off-site construction safer than more traditional methods of construction?

Yes, very much so. What it means is that a lot of the potentially hazardous on-site activities would no longer exist. You would also have fewer people on-site and more in the factory environment.

It is therefore essential that the standards of safety in the factory are at the highest level. We obviously don’t want to make sites safer, but then have unsafe factories.


You are also not at the mercy of the elements.

That’s right, it should be a much more pleasant working environment. People have a regular place of work and don’t have to use temporary accommodation away from home. Whereas particular tradespeople, such as electricians, really benefit from not working in the cold on a building site.


What about the advantages of spending less time on site?

This is one of the major benefits of manufacturing off-site. Spending less time on-site leads to cost savings, but very often there are other requirements that means it makes sense to reduce the time on-site. Usually, this is to do with minimising disruption to the public.

For example, if you’re working almost anywhere that is in the way of the public, you will want to get the construction done as quickly as possible. So, if the components can be manufactured off-site and just need plugging in on-site, that’s going to lead to far less disruption.

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