Having been part of our Building Product & Construction Business Unit Manager’s network for several years, this week Mark Goldsmith took the opportunity to speak with the Construction Innovation Hub’s Impact Director for Manufacturing, Trudi Sully.
Previously, Trudi was the Relationship Manager at Innovate UK, and Associate Director at the Manufacturing Technology Centre. Mark was enthusiastic to learn more about Trudi’s role and what advances she’s witnessing from within the industry.
Here’s what they discussed:
Mark: A handful of my readers will understand and have had exposure of working with the Construction Innovation Hub. For those who haven’t, can you provide an outline of the value the Hub creates and context to the three partners you work with?
Trudi: Born out of the Construction Sector Deal in 2018, the Construction Innovation Hub is a four-year UKRI-funded programme, structured around four core themes: value, manufacturing, assurance and digital.
The Hub is a consortium of the MTC (Manufacturing Technology Centre), BRE (Building Research Establishment) and CDBB (Centre for Digital Built Britain). Together, we blend our unique skills and expertise – spanning manufacturing technologies, building science and standards, and digital construction – to develop solutions that will help drive the transformation of the sector. In a nutshell, we are pioneering new ways in which buildings and infrastructure can be procured, designed, delivered and operated, whilst ensuring safety, quality and value. Through delivering better buildings I truly believe we can positively impact society.
Vital to the success of the programme is the strong support from our delivery partners right across industry, government and academia, as well as a broader network of those we consult and engage with along the way. We recognise and appreciate that there is so much innovative work taking place out there, and we’re not looking to duplicate or outdo anything that’s already been done. We work with organisations of all shapes and sizes, and in collaboration with the newly restructured Construction Leadership Council we aim to collectively join up the sector so that we can deliver the UK’s £600bn infrastructure pipeline in a faster, smarter and greener way.
It’s important to note here that the outputs from the Hub are not purely for the benefit of the partners we are working with. The outputs of our programme such as the Value Toolkit and Platform Construction System will deliver wider benefit to the industry as a whole and will therefore be available to all. Realistically, we will only realise the impact we are targeting by wide diffusion and adoption. Essentially, our mission is to co-deliver change with industry, resulting in a market with the capability and capacity needed to deliver the UK’s construction and infrastructure needs.
Mark: Given how well the industry has come out of 2020, with incredibly positive PR from all the work that has been achieved, how important is it for manufacturers and service operators to harness this success?
Trudi: Eyebrows may be raised at the notion of last year being described in positive or productive terms for the sector, as we all know that 2020 presented our industry with challenges beyond comprehension. However, I absolutely agree that the pandemic has shone a light on the essential role construction plays in society. From the rapid delivery of the NHS Nightingale Hospitals, to the continuance of essential construction projects throughout the various lockdowns and restrictions, to the swift introduction of the CLC’s Roadmap to Recovery. As an industry, we have massively stepped up to the huge trials we’ve faced, doing so with a resilient and resolute spirit that has, rightly so, raised the sectors profile.
We’ve also seen how the challenges of maintaining delivery whilst applying social distancing rules really highlight the role that offsite construction could play in shaping the necessary work environment of the future. Whilst roll out of COVID vaccines could indicate society’s pending return to normality, it would be unrealistic to expect social distancing to completely disappear in the near future. Considering this through the lens of offsite construction, we know that these kinds of controlled environments need fewer people working in less hazardous conditions, so it’s certainly beneficial on this level.
Though, I must add here, we are not looking to put people out of jobs, we are looking to secure a more viable future for the industry, with great new opportunities for a new generation entering construction, address the skills gap and ageing demographic, as well as best utilise the existing expertise in our workforce.
I would say my main takeaway from last year is the way in which construction has really seemed to sit up and take note of the transformative journey we collectively need to go on – one that we have now accelerated considerably within the past 12 months. The upheaval that 2020 presented seems to have sharpened our focus, unifying many areas of the industry in a mission to deliver infrastructure in a way that puts quality, whole-life value and sustainability above sub-optimal, ‘race to the bottom’ solutions.
Mark: Much of your work revolves around driving innovation into the sector. Both building material manufacturers and construction firms get a lot of bad press around this subject. What’s your take on it, Trudi?
Trudi: I think there have always been great examples of innovation across the sector. There is an astonishing array of architecture in our built environment, with the latest developments often boasting modern, sustainable materials and energy efficient processes. However, we do need to appreciate that these success stories are often low volume or one-off builds that have been delivered with high degrees of bespoke design and big budgets. Meanwhile there are all too many stories of programme running over-budget, over time and under-delivering. The sector has not historically embraced and invested in wide scale innovation at levels comparable with other industries of a similar scale, despite repeated reports indicating the need to do so to be sustainable.
Of course, one-of-a-kind, flagship buildings will always have a place in the built environment, but with a £600bn pipeline of government procured infrastructure needing to be delivered in the UK, we simply cannot afford to continue to accept new build programmes that do not deliver to society’s needs. However, there is a shift that is growing rapidly. Industry has recognised the need to change, the benefits of collaboration have been recognised and brought organisations together and government have accordingly invested through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund to enable innovation programmes to drive change.
When it comes to innovation, I think we often conjure up images of things that are shiny and new, but we strongly believe innovation can come just as well from adaptation and adoption. As the Hub, we are not reinventing the wheel, instead we want to take lessons learned and best practices from other industries and really understand how they can be applied to construction. We believe significant benefits can be realised through this approach and this is reflected in our work on such elements of our programme as the Platform Design Programme we are delivering with our industry partners. We are adapting manufacturing quality management approaches and applying systems engineering processes to facilitate a more effective, efficient and productive system for delivery at scale of a range of social infrastructure building types.
That said, this also isn’t just about a ‘faster horse’, there is real and demonstrable need for a significant overhaul. So, let’s take advantage of the lessons learnt elsewhere for the benefit of accelerating our own transformation.
Mark: Given your work, I must ask about digitalisation. What’s your take on its adoption, both within a factory, manufacturing setting, and from a project delivery point of view?
Trudi: Digital is certainly a bit of a buzzword of the moment! It feels like every phrase relating to innovation or change is pepped up by the addition of ‘digital’ at the start. Don’t get me wrong, digitally enabling or digitising (or digitalising) processes and systems is vital. We know that the construction sector has suffered due to its lack of comprehensive data management, so digitalisation will be vital to achieve more effective, efficient delivery of outputs.
The Value Toolkit is a good case in point. This Hub-led industry project is developing a new process and supporting tools to drive better decision-making in construction. In the simplest terms, this is a “digitalisation” of the industry’s perception of value, translating this abstract concept into something that can be clearly defined and measured within an industry-standard framework. What the Toolkit also supports is the enabling of an effective feedback loop to inform continuous improvement – each project learns from the last, and this is critical to maintaining momentum in the scale of change we need to see in the industry.
So, what I really want to see, is the use of ‘digital’ to be normalised, to be expected, to be the default terminology, rather than a tag that is used to make something sound more advanced than it perhaps actually is.
Mark: A lot of my work involves working with the more traditional material manufacturers. There is clearly traction being gained in newer, more sustainable products that are coming to the market. In your work how are you witnessing traditional manufacturers combating this and who seems to be doing it well?
Trudi: There is a wealth of opportunities to come along for this ride.
There are those whose traditional stances are becoming more challenged; who are observing the changes that are evolving and developing their own new business models accordingly. Transformation isn’t going to happen overnight, but if we reflect on Mark Farmers warnings of ‘Modernise or Die’, now is a key time to take account, identify potential new markets, new mechanisms or USPs and develop a plan to move on.
It’s also worth reflecting on those adoption opportunities we discussed earlier relating to manufacturing processes. This could just mean adapting production processes to adhere to new approaches that are being developed so that you become part of a new supply chain delivering against a platform, for example. Or at the other extreme, it could be a significant capital investment in production facilities.
As the Hub and through organisations such as those in the Smart Construction Network there are great opportunities for manufacturers to work with others to identify how they can shift from ‘construction to production’ and a whole heap of other ideas for delivering differently. There is no doubt that collaboration drives faster innovation at lower individual cost.
It’s also important to remember we still need traditional experts. There will always be a requirement for specialist and bespoke work. In my view, freeing up highly skilled workers to do appropriately skilled work is a benefit to all. Where those specialist applications are then interfaced with standardised and manufactured systems even more value could be realised.
Our Platform Design Programme is being developed with specific clients (government departments like Health and Education) in mind but will create outputs that can be deployed across multiple building types and sectors. There will still be those stunning one-off projects that we all admire, but our ambition is to also enable delivery of vital public buildings from a standardised ‘kit of parts’, that offers wonderful experiences to the end users, are delivered with whole-life value as a primary focus, and yes, are also beautiful. One thing is for certain as we start a new year, despite the ongoing challenges we face, transformation has never been more within our reach, or with more support and momentum. If you aren’t already, now is absolutely the time to get involved.
To understand more about the work Trudi and the team do at the Construction Innovation Hub, explore their site and get in touch here