The rail industry is becoming a hotbed of innovation in construction, and while much has been achieved, there is room for much more
The rail industry is becoming a hotbed of innovation in construction with projects such as Crossrail and HS2 applying the latest building information modelling (BIM) systems and collaborative workflows across their supply chains. But can this streamlined approach to construction be used more widely?
The benefits of using BIM to deliver off-site or modular construction are well documented for a wide range of infrastructure projects. In the rail industry specifically, there is much to be gained from faster, more cost-efficient construction methods capable of delivering a high-quality and consistent outcome. As well as minimising disruption for franchise operators, such methods bring greater certainty when it comes to managing costs and ensuring on-time delivery.
Whilst much has been achieved in the rail industry so far, there is room to do more. Controlled and managed by Network Rail, a growing number of rail improvement projects place an emphasis on the use of modular construction methods; recognising the cost savings and other benefits that can be realised by standardising the construction of key areas such as waiting rooms, ticket collection areas and platforms.
As well as minimising disruption for franchise operators, such methods bring greater certainty when it comes to managing costs and ensuring on-time delivery
Effective management is critical when using modular construction methods due to the closer collaboration that is necessary at all levels of the supply chain – from designers to contractors, subcontractors and fabricators. To ensure success, management processes should be established at the outset. Whereas once it was usual for contractors to seek three quotes and negotiate the best price before appointing a subcontractor, such arrangements are increasingly pre-set at the start and a more cooperative, partnership-led approach is required.
Modular construction methods require more rigid planning too. On a traditional building site for example, designs can be tweaked onsite to accommodate slight variations. Such flexibility is not possible when using modular construction methods, as access may have to be arranged for larger pre-fabricated modules to be ‘craned in’ at the right time and in the right place. Any changes at this stage, can carry major cost implications and cause significant disruption.
For the project manager, modular construction methods can bring additional procurement-related risks. When appointing a supplier for example, it is important to understand their operational capacity and financial security, seeking assurances where necessary. If there is a capacity shortfall, it may be possible to overcome this by introducing extra shifts for example, but the project manager needs to understand what can and can’t be done at the start.
Unlocking the potential of modular construction methods requires micro-planning and a strategic approach to supply chain management
As well as allowing greater cost certainty, modular construction methods can bring significant cost efficiencies – often linked to reduced use of labour. Manufacturing parts off-site means they can be made in areas of the country where labour is cheaper or more readily available. This is particularly useful if the construction site is in London where key building trades can be in short supply. On-site assembly also requires less skilled labour, which helps to minimise health and safety risks whilst also reducing cost by requiring fewer welfare provisions.
Unlocking the potential of modular construction methods requires micro-planning and a strategic approach to supply chain management. Achieving this will enable project managers to secure better outcomes across all cost, time and quality considerations.