As we find ourselves racing to build back business and our economy, as well as meeting increasingly ambitious net zero targets, the drive to create efficiency in our processes has never been more pressing.
Eugene Smethurst is technical director at Atkins
Over the past decade, there’s been much talk of lean methodology in design and construction, but a full understanding of how it can best work to optimise processes is far from mainstream.
The key to utilising lean methodology, I suggest, is to shift our focus from maximising value-added activities, to reducing non-value added activities and stamping out waste, in the broadest sense, wherever possible.
By considering lean methodology as part of a four-pillared approach, we have the tools needed transform the sector and create a robust and sustainable model to improve construction for the future.
Outside of a manufacturing environment there has been a tendency of using the lean methodology to maximise value by increasing value-adding activities, without paying much attention to how we can reduce waste in the broadest sense. If we instead put our efforts into minimising non-value adding activities, huge savings could be made.
When we broaden our definition of waste to consider the full process, it’s clear to see where efficiencies can be made. Non-value adding activities, or waste, can include:
With the rise of industry 4.0 and the boom in big data, we now have access to complex information of all kinds to identify opportunities for eliminating waste across complex supply processes and to support the efficient implementation of lean methodology across the board.
By incorporating smart technologies, the Internet of Things and cloud computing, for example, the concept of a factory can be transformed and the possibilities of automation harnessed to create a future state map that stamps out waste and creates the efficiency, flexibility and resilience needed for today’s challenging market.
The automation potential of industry 4.0 empowers design for manufacturing and assembly and opens up real potential for its roll-out across the wider construction industry to maximise the efficiencies it can bring.
Processing raw materials into products for design and assembly creates a significant proportion of waste and is often carried out on a project-by-project basis. As often is the case, if we could increase the volume of products produced, we would increase efficiency by a long way.
The answer, surely, is to increase production of commonly used components that could be sold and distributed to various contractors across multiple projects, making them in bulk to reduce waste and drive down cost. By designing sub-assembly products off-site, we can further minimise waste by using cranes and automated assembly, as opposed to labour-intensive, cost- and carbon-intensive wet construction.
Pre-assembly may be the key, but therein also lies the challenge. Successful implementation of pre-assembly, automation and off-site, bulk production relies on a viable and reliable supply chain, as well as an efficient, consistent and robust logistics network.
If commonly used, smaller products were readily available on the market, there’s little doubt they would be bought on mass. But the problem is that the supply chain works the other way around. It relies on customer demand to dictate what and how much it makes – which for smaller components and sub-assemblies, currently isn’t there.
This is where design teams and consultancies have a unique role to play. We have the ability to create the volumes needed for viable production. By working with groups of clients with similar needs, we can drive the demand required by the supply chain, saving all our clients money, significantly cutting waste within the process, while at the same time, significantly reducing emissions and making strides towards net zero.
As we begin to rise from the ashes of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s clear Brexit is causing significant delays to construction work as it stands – far from optimal conditions to begin planning a new paradigm for the production and roll-out of pre-assembled components.
But there is hope. When we look at the mammoth success of the Covid-19 vaccination programme, we can see what is possible. Logistics and pharmaceuticals have worked together with the support of government intervention to deliver at a pace and on a scale that was previously unimaginable. If we can learn from the logistics journey of the pandemic and lobby government to employ similar strategies to remove barriers and waste, such as passported products and increased shipping limits, a way forward becomes clear.
Coupled with international collaboration, significant investment in infrastructure and appropriate legislation, a modern, four-pillared approach to lean methodology has the potential to transform design and construction to build back better.
*Eugene Smethurst is technical director at Atkins
Department of Civil Engineering https://www.ibu.edu.ba/department-of-civil-engineering/