The newly launched Smart Construction Network brings together academia and leading R&D centres to support the modernisation of the industry. Ian Heptonstall, director of the Supply Chain School, sets out the journey ahead
Over 350 construction leaders attended the recent launch of the Smart Construction Network, which was hosted by the Supply Chain School. Its mission is to encourage the uptake of Smart Construction across the housing, infrastructure, and construction sectors by providing a conduit through which expert knowledge, innovative ideas and best practice can be shared.
A collaboration of over 20 leading universities and R&D centres, the network aspires to support the construction sector on a journey of transformation towards a more modern, productive and sustainable future.
Delegates at the launch explored how new processes and materials will be changing the way we build over the next five years. When asked to consider which new construction processes will have the most impact on our industry over the next five years, the audience voted offsite construction, platform approaches, automation, robotics and 3D printing in their top five.
Commenting on these findings, Ian Heptonstall, director of the Supply Chain School, said: “Offsite approaches are not new, but what we are now seeing is significant investment into the use of factory processes to industrialise the way we build. This facilitates a move away from one-off buildings to a programme of building based upon standard platforms and components, using data and digital processes, that allow mass customisation of the final building by the design team.”
However, according to leading consultants McKinsey, the UK construction industry occupies second bottom in the league table of sector investment in R&D investment and as a result, construction productivity has flatlined over the last 30 years, compared with the near doubling of productivity in manufacturing.
Surprisingly, business leaders at the launch cited “lack of knowledge” above access to finance, lack of customer demand and the procurement process as the leading barrier to innovation in construction.
A hub of information and connections
By providing a hub of information and connections, the Smart Construction Network aims to tackle this lack of knowledge, by connecting businesses to over 20 centres of construction excellence. These centres are universities and innovation organisations, which will allow the sharing of skills and knowledge to enable best practice, inspire collaboration and showcase new opportunities.
Organisations such as the Manufacturing Technology Centre, National Composites Centre, Construction Scotland Innovation Centre and the Universities of Cambridge, Reading, Salford, and Huddersfield all feature in the network.
The network hopes to encourage the uptake of Smart Construction across the sector by providing a free and easy to use tool that locates these centres, connecting businesses to a national network of leading research and development organisations.
Keith Waller, programme director of Construction Innovation Hub, who provided the keynote address on the launch day said: “Collaboration between the universities and research centres that are leading innovation in our sector is essential to help construction businesses accelerate and focus their investment on R&D.
“The Smart Construction Network provides a simple, quick and easily accessible way for businesses to find those centres with the right knowledge local to them.”
Shelagh Grant, chief executive of the Housing Forum, who chairs the Smart Construction Network, said that although many businesses are keen to innovate, they are lacking the support to make the first steps.
“We know there are many construction businesses out there that would like to make the journey towards smarter construction but are perhaps uncertain about how and where to begin that journey.
“The Smart Construction Network will help to accelerate the pace of transformation in our sector by making it easier for businesses of all sizes to identify and access the type of expertise and support that is right for them.”
Finding the right partner
Of course, smart construction is not just about construction processes; it is also about new materials that are being developed and tested right now by businesses, large and small, together with universities across the UK. Business leaders at the launch cited composites, low carbon concrete, graphene, engineered timber and recycled as the top five materials most likely to be used more widely on our construction projects over the next five years.
Speaking at the conference Graeme Jones, managing director of C-Probe Systems, urged others to jump at the opportunity.
“We have been working in collaboration with Sheffield Hallam University (SHU) to take industrial waste by-products to create a range of smart geopolymer products that offer remote control of corrosion, enhanced fire resistance and over 80% CO2e reductions,” he said.
“But it is difficult to find the right partner and the Smart Construction Network will help you find yours, but when you do it becomes a beneficial two-way street. The university (centre of excellence) benefits on not just a single project but a collaborative basis and we accelerate the speed at which we can bring new products to market.”
The Supply Chain School, who is a member of the network, provides training free training to industry to enable businesses to build more efficiently buildings and infrastructure that performs better and help us tackle the key sustainability challenges our industry faces.
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