Alex Small, BIM & Digital Platforms Manager at Tata Steel, discusses what the construction industry can learn from Lego in order for it to succeed in the near future
Over the last few years, the construction industry has seen numerous reports, from Latham in 1994, through Egan in 1998, to the most recent one: The Farmer Report entitled “Modernise or Die” published in 2016. Although these reports drove some initiatives, the industry has failed to change at a scale necessary to make the slightest improvement to the levels of productivity in 25 years.
The ever-increasing skills gap, low margins and lack of innovation have been at the root cause of large losses for main contractors over the last few years. Carillion has recently proven how fragile some contractors are, but Farmer believes the problems are wider than that, recently stating that the industry “is standing on a burning platform and all other options have gone. It simply has to change”.
So what can the industry do to avoid the flames? Well, Farmer believes that “manufacturer-led construction” could hold the key – but what exactly does that mean?
It wasn’t long ago that Lego was experiencing declining sales, losses and failed new business models. However, in 2003, Jørgen Vig Knudstorp was brought in as the new CEO to turn the company around. After analysing the business and the new varied, diversified, range of products, Knudstorp discovered that its clientele just wanted Lego to produce bricks; they wanted Lego to be a construction toy.
As a result, the sets available were cut from 13,000 parts down to 6,500, and the company focused on producing sets based on themes, which they could support with complimentary offerings. The reduced set of parts were called Lego’s “pallet” and were made available to everyone along with a design tool called Digital Designer that enabled their fanbase to design new sets, with the best designs going into production. By 2015, Lego was more profitable than Apple.
“…we are slowly seeing modern design tools being introduced to the industry, which will allow parties to design buildings based on function and output, and then work back to the products they would like to use to construct it. These new tools are leading to the development of completely new systems based on some new products, including ones that could form part of a new pallet.”
So, by generating a standardised kit of parts and a generative design tool, Lego turned their fans in to designers and transformed their business – is this not manufacturer-led construction?
With this in mind, perhaps the construction industry should pull together to create a standardised pallet of products (for standardised systems), which fit simply, quickly and easily together. For example, should Tata Steel start working with window and door companies, sky light manufacturers and M&E installers to develop a click and fix system?
Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) has been around for some time, which is the modern construction sector’s take on building from a kit of parts, with companies like Bryden Wood leading the charge. Unfortunately, however, it hasn’t taken off as well as it should as there simply aren’t enough standard parts available to design from; considerable fabrication and pre-assembly needs to be carried out to engineer a modular set of building elements. Although this is quicker on site, it isn’t always cost-effective, especially if there isn’t the upfront lead-time to generate the assemblies. What’s more, DfMA, like BIM, requires a behavioural change from all stakeholders on a project – and without it a project could be highly compromised.
However, we are slowly seeing modern design tools being introduced to the industry, which will allow parties to design buildings based on function and output, and then work back to the products they would like to use to construct it. These new tools are leading to the development of completely new systems based on some new products, including ones that could form part of a new pallet.
This also offers the potential for construction products to be sold as the true solution to a circular economy (dismantle and re-use) – adding huge value to building owners, developers and the wider environment. What’s more, extensions and building amendments are simplified too as the modular nature and standardised connections remove compatibility issues.
If Farmer is right and we need manufacturer-led construction to save us from the “burning platform”, how much of a revolution is required? It is fair to say that Lego didn’t succeed based on disruptive innovation; it cleverly used new digital tools to maximise the value from its existing standardised system. As we don’t have that in the construction industry, some disruptive innovation is needed to generate that standardised system and associated digital tools to make the construction process easier and more accurate.
BIM & Digital Platforms Manager
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Please note: this is a commercial profile.