Sam Stacey, former Skanska director and now head of the Transforming Construction Challenge at UK Research and Innovation, wants to reset construction to enable rapid innovation with £170m of government funds to make it happen. Interview by Stephen Cousins.
Can construction shake off its reputation as being slow to innovate?
Yes it can, but at present it is structured to be resistant to innovation, I want to reset the model so that innovation can feed into it much more effectively. If we industrialise the sector, through the adoption of offsite techniques and integrated supply chains, that can happen much more easily. Today there is a great lack of integration and most interactions between suppliers are transactional, not collaborative.
What sparked the move from Skanska?
At Skanksa I developed a great deal of interest and enthusiasm to transform construction and was involved in many industry forums and lobbying the government for the Construction Sector Deal.
I was addressing innovation from the point of view of a major contractor, but I realised that to effectively transform construction there was need for much greater coordination, to bring together a wide range of organisations. Now I have a range of tools at my disposal to help instigate change.
What does “change” mean?
Very simply put, we need to transform productivity in construction, that’s my number one goal. We can do that through a combination of industrial production, which means some form of offsite manufacture, and digitalisation by thoroughly modelling everything connected to the building process, including the final building and everything needed to create it.
What is the Transforming Construction Challenge?
We will invest up to £170m, matched by £250m from industry, to create new construction processes and techniques. Funds of £36m will go into setting up the Active Building Centre to create energy positive buildings – including schools, offices and houses – as part of a mission to reduce the carbon intensity of the built environment.
That project will build on the work of the SPECIFIC Innovation and Knowledge Centre, an academic and industrial consortium led by Swansea University, which has just started construction of Active Homes Neath, a development of 16 homes and flats designed to generate, store and distribute solar power.
There are plans to invest £72m, pending ministerial approval, in a Core Innovation Hub up to produce standard product platforms (building systems) and processes to industrialise building production, with an initial focus on schools, but looking at all building types.
That will involve a combination of development and prototyping of standards product platforms as well as testing the buildings and related digital processes produced. The Hub is intended to become a showcase for how the industrialisation of construction can work.
The rest of the grant money will go towards collaborative research and academic solutions designed to assist the industry with transformation, covering approaches to digitisation, manufacture and data development, collection and sharing.
What progress has been made so far?
We are in the final stages of judging the first round of proposals for productivity solutions, each seeking a portion of £12.5m. We plan to announce the circa 30 successful bids at the end of the month.
A second call for proposals for academically-focused research needed to support the longer-term transformation of construction and aiming to tap into a £7m pot has had a good response.
How does BIM fit into this?
It is absolutely integral. Transforming Construction is primarily about offsite construction and the use of digital techniques, otherwise known as BIM. Many of the applications for grant funding we have received so far involve BIM and the Core Innovation Hub will focus heavily on BIM.
A lot of this is about continuity from the Level 2 BIM mandate and developing more intelligent BIM models and more widespread and advanced BIM techniques.
How will BIM evolve in the near future?
It’s mainly about modelling more thoroughly and improving uptake across the supply chain, sexy innovations such as integration with AR and VR are important but secondary. To a large extent it is about continuing the good work that has already been done.
From the procurement side, clients need to be much more prescriptive about the digital elements of construction. Tand the wider supply chain needs to realise that these things are thoroughly beneficial and make good business sense.
What do you see as the most interesting and exciting future applications for digital technology in construction?
There is currently a tremendous lack of explicit data about the industry. If we understood more about the capability of supply chains, the performance of existing assets, and work in progress in construction, it would enable us to make much better decisions and control processes more effectively.
Construction is vastly complex and we have produced numerous buildings we are all very proud of, but at the same time there is a huge amount of process waste involved and assets underperforming compared to how they were designed. I see vast vastgreat potential for improvement, and having better data and applying AI techniques will be a massive part of the solution.
Is artificial intelligence going to have the massive impact everyone has been talking about?
I’m sure it is, advances in the field are rapid and there is an enormous amount of resource going into it. Any area of life that is wasteful can certainly benefit from the application of AI if you have the right data to work with, which has to be the first step in the process.
AI can help us generate meaning from data. If, for example, concrete is riddled with cracks, which to an extent is how it is designed, AI could analyse structural movement, how quickly cracks change and determine when it is necessary to intervene. It could analyse the vibration patterns of a rotating piece of machinery and understand when there is a need to change a bearing.
Another part of the data equation is the ability to tag and track all building components through the production process, to know their physical location and record the various checks they have been through in the process of being cut, assembled and transported.
What do you consider your biggest successes when working at Skanska?
I was involved in several projects related to Internet of Things solutions, including sense tags and monitoring, for example tracking of items through the production process.
A particular success was the use of “flying factories”, or temporary flexible factories for offsite fabrication dedicated to specific projects. These helped Skanska avoid the issue of long-term fixed overheads associated with a permanent factory, whilst simultaneously achieving the efficiencies of factory production in terms of speed and quality assurance. We successfully set up flying factories to fabricate pods for apartments and precast bridge sections for the A14 project.
Is this form of prefabrication the future?
We are taking various approaches to increase the proportion of work done offsite in factories, the UK also needs more permanent factories in diverse geographical locations to ensure we provide jobs and economic stimulation in different parts of the country. It’s a key part of the Transforming Construction equation.