Off-site manufacturing – a tool for ‘levelling up’

In this article we highlight how development creates jobs for a broader demographic

10 November 2021

It starts with looking at the development opportunity in three dimensions

With the right approach, development projects can use Modern Methods of Construction to support ‘Levelling-Up’ by a focus on the social value agenda. Public and private bodies have a key role in working together.

Moving operations ‘off-site’

‘Modern methods of construction’ means a lot of things to a lot of people, from offsite manufacture to on-site innovation. 

Here we focus on off-site manufacture:

  • volumetric or modular production
  • panellised construction
  • platform design and manufacture for assembly.

With a traditional construction approach, most activities would be carried out on site, constrained by practical/geographical challenges and subject to the elements. The ability to deliver social value can be limited by the short term nature of each project.

As well as providing consistent conditions for carrying out the construction activities, adopting a manufacturing approach potentially poses fewer risks and better wellbeing for those working in the industry. Although huge strides have been made in ensuring health and safety on a construction site is prioritised, it cannot compete with the process-driven risk analysis that can be applied to a manufacturing approach, where certain activities are done repeatedly and monitored and adapted until they can be done without risk. Higher risk activities such as working at height or performing ‘hot works’ can be minimalised or done under controlled conditions, which is infinitely safer.

Off-site manufacture can address some of the negative perceptions of the industry, making it a more attractive industry with a broader range of opportunities. Although not a quick fix, in the long term, it can support a widening of the skills base both geographically and in the wider community.

A move from a peripatetic workforce to one with a stable geographic base supports greater wellbeing and sense of community.

Location of employment opportunities

Off-site manufacturing facilities can, within reason, be anywhere – this enables location of them where there is better scope for recruitment into the industry. Compare this with the traditionally itinerant workforce, with employees and tradesmen having to travel towards wherever the projects are. Volumetric pods or panelised units destined for a BTR scheme in London could be manufactured in other UK regions specifically targeting growth of the skills base, for example.

Job creation is not therefore limited to wherever the development is located but can deliver economic growth over a broad geographic footprint. Facilities can be located where the skills are and, crucially, where jobs are needed. This could be vital as the government looks to its Levelling-Up initiative, however that manifests. 

Another benefit of having a fixed, predictable place of work is that employees can make use of public transport. Not only will this again make the industry accessible for those that perhaps don’t have private transport, but it also takes more vehicles out of the daily / weekly site commute.

Improved welfare for the workforce

Those working in manufacturing facilities are not spending their days outside, dealing with wet and cold days, or having to carry out physically demanding activities in the blazing sun. This in itself is likely to make being involved in the industry more appealing to many.

Looking at the types of activities that would traditionally be performed on site, the perception is that a significant proportion of them are physical and would require a certain degree of strength. However, the use of technology and manufacturing machinery (e.g. hoists, conveyor belts, lifting equipment, etc) can remove that and again open up the opportunities to those who perhaps wouldn’t have considered working in the industry before.

Temporary building sites do not lend themselves to the provision of a top-quality workplace environment. Contrast this with a manufacturing facility – a permanent facility that may even be purpose-built to include all of the ‘mod cons’ that today’s modern workforce has come to expect from other employment settings such as offices.

We are not just talking about basic facilities such as toilets and heating. Break rooms, substantial food and drink options, rooms for religious use, and well-supported medical facilities can all be provided. It’s also possible to take things further – nursing / pumping rooms for mothers or a co-located crèche may significantly improve the prospects of attracting women into the industry.

Ensuring the facility is designed and constructed to maximise accessibility for those with disabilities will also provide opportunities to get involved with an industry that traditionally may not have been possible.

Sustainability KPIs

Sustainability is an important metric for employees, and those wanting to attract the better talent will need to show that their values align.

We have already seen that there are environmental benefits in terms of transport to/from a fixed manufacturing facility as opposed to the fleets of vans that are generally associated with the industry.

Waste is a huge issue in the construction industry. However, the use of manufacturing processes can introduce various ways of minimising waste, as it can be more easily monitored and tracked, and more accurate mechanisms used to ensure the whole manufacturing process becomes more efficient – not dissimilar to the Toyota Production System in the way it revolutionised the car manufacturing industry[1]. Off-site fabrication has been calculated by a KLH Sustainability study to create a 50 per cent reduction in waste generation, a 45 per cent reduction in material use and 40 per cent reduction in HGV movements on construction sites[2]. Making more of these statistics – and improving on them where possible – will attract those for whom the value of sustainability is an important metric when assessing a potential employer.

Technology and innovation

‘Modern methods of construction’ is a term that covers a broad range of activities, and many of them have been around for some time. However, where the real modernisation is happening is through the technological developments being brought to the industry. Whether it is in the design phase, the adoption of technology to enhance manufacturing processes, or new innovation in the manufactured products themselves, the industry is evolving at pace.

With this comes the need for a different type of employee with different skills. Structural engineering companies are now employing as many ‘coders’ as they are traditional ‘designers’, and more effort (and, crucially, investment) is going into innovation. Whilst most in the industry will speak to the tangible nature of the work we do as being a major draw to the industry, a move to modernisation will help attract those looking for a job in technology, with an understanding of IT systems and coding, and bring with it a different approach to place-making.

What are we waiting for?

The construction industry is currently going through some of the toughest conditions it has ever faced. It is an industry that was already under pressure to modernise, already in desperate need for an image overhaul. Then came Brexit and the Coronavirus pandemic to worsen labour shortages and create a volatile environment of contractor insolvencies and cost overruns and delays.

We have seen how the use of strategically placed off site manufacturing hubs (of the sort envisaged by Heathrow[3]) may not only help address unemployment in those areas most in need of Levelling-Up, but in turn help solve the labour shortage in the industry (and go some way to fix its image problem) through opening up opportunities to a far more diverse workforce.

The issue not whether it is worth the investment, but when to take the plunge. Off-site manufacture is perceived as having a fairly high barrier to entry in terms of the investment required to set up a manufacturing facility, the training required, etc[4]. The only way investors are going to be willing to take the leap is if they have predictability of pipeline and certainty of volume. The parties best placed to provide that are of course the public sector employers, a fact recognised and encouraged by the Construction Playbook[5]. When this change in approach occurs, the market will be incentivised to respond – and in doing so they will also be helping the same Government’s own ‘building back better’ and Levelling-Up agenda. The sooner the public sector wises-up to the benefits of modern methods of construction (and in this case off site manufacture in particular), the sooner we can start improving the construction industry for those working within it, and begin to attract new talent.

That’s not to say the private sector doesn’t have a role, but in the UK – unlike in the US where (for example) BTR projects have many hundreds of units across dozens of locations and there is already a more mature off site manufacturing industry in place – the public sector has an almost unique power to really set the tone for change, innovation, and overall improvement of one of its key industries.

[1] https://www.leansixsigmadefinition.com/glossary/toyota-production-system/

[2] http://www.klhsustainability.com/news/4-quarter-2016/the-overlooked-secret-of-off-site-fabrication/

[3] Heathrow reveals offsite hub shortlist (theconstructionindex.co.uk)

[4] Inside Housing - News - Morning Briefing: another year of heavy losses for L&G’s modular homes business

[5] Guidance overview: The Construction Playbook - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

Key contact

Matthew-Crossley

Matthew Crossley Director

  • Construction and Engineering
  • Real Estate Development
  • Modern Methods of Construction

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