The offsite sector is still in its infancy but a future in which robots manufacture complete building elements does not have to remain a pipe dream – we need to commit ourselves to further investment

Darren Richards

Completed elements of a building gliding along a robot-controlled production assembly line and transported effortlessly to site to form a finished construction in mere days, devoid of all the normal angst and quality issues associated with traditional building. For some this is the vision of factory-manufactured buildings, but for others this rose-tinted view of the much vaulted initiative to move the construction process from the “exposed to all elements” construction site to the safe and predictable modern factory environment is a major challenge in terms of understanding the offsite supply-chain, the terminology used (or in many cases mis-used), and the way in which to go about optimising design for manufacture and assembly.

In reality, we can all be seduced by the proposition that is on offer from these advanced manufactured building systems. Most of us, faced with the normal vagaries of the construction site, would find a vision of perfect control over the weather, deliveries, materials, labour, skills availability, and work instructions very appealing. It seems to promise an end to all the things that routinely conspire to upset the flow and quality of work at the workface.

After all, within a well-organised manufacturing environment the production process is broken down into simplified, discrete and documented activities with clear, practiced instructions which effectively de-skills the assembly operations. This avoids the need for specialist trade skills to undertake complex activities where the trades person is required to make critical decisions about the installation process, sometimes with varied results. In the factory it is feasible to train and perfect each operative to undertake specific, designated activities where practice can really make perfect.

In the more advanced factories this is translated into semi-automated assembly production processes where the operator is assisted by mechanisation that further enhances the quality of output. In future there is no reason why the visions that are regularly portrayed in the automotive sector should not start to appear in the offsite manufacturing sector. Robot manufacture of complete building elements is a plausible reality where the human interface is limited to material input and product take-off. This production environment should be exemplary but it will take strong commitment and certainty from government and other major customers of the offsite manufacturing sector to give the sector the confidence it needs to invest in this manner and to this scale.

Getting the most from offsite

Achieving the optimal benefits from offsite technology requires a number of key features to be in place. It is essential that the design and construction teams are experienced in the adoption of offsite techniques, and appreciate the need to bring the specialist manufacturers into the design team at the earliest possible stage. This will ensure that the design teams understand the scope and capability of the offsite systems they wish to exploit.

The challenge of such a rapidly-growing sector, with its seemingly limitless stream of new processes, systems and products, means it can be hard to know where to start

Acquiring the expert knowledge of the many different offsite systems that are available to the construction industry can provide valuable advice on how best to integrate the alternative techniques both within the traditional build element and in the use of multiple offsite systems within the one project – the hybrid approach. While this knowledge will one day be common place and a standard tool within the design team’s armoury, at present this expertise generally needs to be brought into the design team at an early stage to ensure that a suitable and project-wide offsite strategy is in place and is followed.

The challenge of such a rapidly-growing sector, with its seemingly limitless stream of new processes, systems and products, means it can be hard to know where to start or how to keep up-to-date. The theory is all very well, but you need sound, practical and, above all, objective knowledge and training that is relevant to your organisation – real, hard evidence that offsite construction is working for others and, more importantly, how it can work for you.

This is why Cogent is curating a number of new educational initiatives to support the advancement of the offsite sector, including Explore Offsite at Ecobuild, a ground-breaking showcase of offsite construction solutions that will deliver a comprehensive display of offsite technologies and full-scale construction of buildings using offsite technology. This special feature will demonstrate the very latest offsite innovations and will be supported by a comprehensive range of free Offsite Technology Masterclasses and Ask the Expert sessions.

#exploreoffsite #ecobuild

Darren Richards, managing director of Cogent Consulting