The Construction Innovation Hub support collaboration across the digital, manufacturing and construction sectors to develop and commercialise technologies that will help transform the sector. Sam Stacey, challenge director for Transforming Construction at UKRI, outlines how it will work
The UK construction industry is facing a once-in-a-generation opportunity for transformation – but it cannot currently deliver the infrastructure and homes the UK needs in the way it currently operates.
The industry is very labour intensive, with processes dependent on each stage being completed before the next starts, high levels of material waste, variable quality and gaps between designed and actual asset performance.
In the past, construction has been held back by industry fragmentation and lack of applicable technology. We will change that through a partnership between government and industry.
In July 2018, the government published the Construction Sector Deal as part of the Industrial Strategy. The Sector Deal describes how government procurement will drive change in the design and assembly of buildings, how the skills challenges faced by the industry will be addressed and how £170m provided as part of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) will bring to market the solutions needed for transforming construction. This will bring together a critical mass of clients, construction firms and materials suppliers to start the transition to a new approach that embraces digital, and offsite manufacturing technologies.
To seize this opportunity, the sector will have to change – it will have to go through the industrial and information revolutions. The challenge is great – but if we achieve our aims, the UK will be a world leader in construction, opening the doors to new market opportunities in an expanding sector expected to be worth $15trn by 2025.
At the heart of the Sector Deal is the Core Innovation Hub (CIH). The CIH ties together and enables all other elements of the Sector Deal – collaborative R&D, building strong supply chains in the UK and the government’s £20bn per annum construction procurement to deliver better performing buildings.
The CIH consists of is a partnership between three centres of established excellence: the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), the Building Research Establishment (BRE) and Cambridge University’s Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB).
The CIH will bring technologies used successfully in other industries to the construction of buildings and infrastructure. Digital technologies will be used to design buildings based on components – in the same way cars are built now. Manufacturing processes will be developed to produce these to high standards – enabling rapid production of buildings to lower costs, while also delivering better performing schools, hospitals and homes to the benefit of businesses, public services and people. Buildings will be produced with less waste, to use less energy and be recycled at the end of their lives.
Data will become an increasingly valuable commodity – with material traceability, so we will know what has been installed where and to what standard – making buildings safer.
Safety on site will also improve, with fewer workers put into dangerous environments. This, in turn, will make the sector attractive to a more diverse workforce. Factories established as part of new growing UK supply chains can be located where the social return to the country is greatest, bringing regeneration and skilled jobs to manufacturing heartlands.
Digital techniques such as augmented and virtual reality will be brought into construction for the first time. The latest generation of robots will assist construction workers on site and in factories. Machines that work autonomously, such as self-driving excavators and robotic cranes, will be introduced to construction sites.
Smart sensors and digital systems will be incorporated in buildings and infrastructure, so they can manage and maintain themselves – and the data they gather will enable us to make our towns and cities better places to work and travel in.
All this will mean that we will be able to build much faster, cheaper and more sustainably than we do today. Not only, for example, will we be able to produce nine schools for the price of five today, but the learning experience for the pupils in those schools will be better.
The Construction Industry Sector Deal represents an opportunity to make the UK construction industry a world-leader. We must seize this, and make it a reality.
Sam Stacey is Challenge Director – Transforming Construction at UKRI. He is leading the Transforming Construction challenge, a £170m research and innovation investment, matched by £250m from industry, to create new construction processes and techniques for building manufacture in the UK.