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EEJ: Inside an Engineering Enterprise

Staying ahead of the pack

Innovation is essential to the survival of all businesses. Society quickly develops an appetite for good innovations, with yesterday’s novel extra becoming tomorrow’s must-have feature.

As Jack Welch, former Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of General Electric, warned: ‘If the rate of change on the outside of your business exceeds the rate of change on the inside, then the end is near’.

Car manufacturers, which make the most technologically sophisticated products the majority of consumers will ever buy, are under huge pressure to innovate. In addition to meeting ever-tightening environmental and safety regulations, buyers have come to expect the very latest in technology and creature comforts. For example, people know that driverless vehicles are just around the corner, so they now anticipate a formidable array of driver-assist features in their next purchase.

Through radar systems, sensors and cameras, manufacturers can now offer advancements such as adaptive cruise control, automatic collision avoidance, blind spot monitoring, lane departure prevention, pedestrian detection and self-parking. These cutting-edge options could soon become standard equipment, in the same way that satellite navigation, smartphone connectivity, remote locking and climate control have.

However, a significant proportion of the automotive sector’s US$100 billion annual research and development budget is invested in the design and manufacturing process; in areas customers cannot directly see but which meet new regulations, generate better value and reduce running costs. For example, the industry continues to increase the fuel efficiency of conventional engines, develop better hybrid and electric models, and deliver more efficient powertrains. New materials such as graphene, aerogel and gorilla glass are helping make vehicle bodies lighter, while nanotechnology is being used to make tyres and coatings last longer.

Innovation is just as critical in the construction industry, where much can be learned from the processes and solutions being developed in the automotive sector. Construction is arguably more fundamental to society – providing essential buildings and infrastructure and employing significant numbers of people, both directly and via the supply chain. But it too needs to stay ahead of the curve to survive. Just like the automotive sector, the construction industry must be constantly open to new ideas and new ways of working, in order to meet client expectations.

Recent examples include building information modelling, asset mapping, cloud collaboration, photovoltaics, ground- and air-source heating, kinetic energy recovery surfacing and nanomaterials. All of these help to deliver better-designed and more efficient buildings and infrastructure, which also meet the latest standards and regulations.

One of the most notable construction innovations in recent years has been Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA). Designing projects such that significant elements can be manufactured and assembled in controlled conditions off site substantially reduces the time and risk traditionally associated with construction. It results in higher quality and more reliable delivery of buildings and infrastructure, providing greater value and certainty for clients.

But although DfMA reduces the number of workers required on site, the offsite manufacturing process still requires a significant degree of direct human input, albeit applying a different, and in many cases greater, set of technical skills. No matter how well organised an offsite factory is, working conditions can still be physically demanding and the output quality is largely dependent on the interventions of skilled engineers and technicians.

In the UK the skills shortage in traditional construction trades is particularly acute in the residential sector, where only around 150,000 homes are built each year as opposed to the 250,000 needed. To large sections of society, particularly women, construction sites and factories have never been particularly appealing. These days traditional construction-related careers are being avoided in favour of more information-technology-based jobs in sectors like professional services, reflecting the needs and interests of the digital generation.

To address the human resource gap, the industry needs to find a way to make construction a more attractive and inclusive career option. Innovation is the answer − not only in design and offsite manufacture − but also in the way the manufacturing is carried out.

Advanced manufacturing facility

One of the primary innovations in the automotive industry over the past 50 years has been the almost wholesale adoption of automated manufacturing. This ranges from the giant 1960s Unimate robots to the latest generation of small and smart ‘cobots’, which work in close collaboration with people.

Over the past five decades, increasing automation has directly led to dramatic increases in both quantity and quality of vehicle output, as well as providing customers with better value, a wider range of options and shorter delivery times. It has also significantly improved working conditions, resulting in improved industrial relations and a more skilled and content workforce.

Following extensive research into automotive manufacturing processes around the world, Laing O’Rourke is rapidly progressing its plans to create a similarly highly automated construction factory in the UK. Once operational, the advanced manufacturing facility will at full capacity employ over 600 people, but in very different roles to today’s offsite factories.

The focus will be on controlling, monitoring and maintaining state-of-the art robotic and electronics systems, resulting in greatly enhanced workforce productivity. The factory will provide a clean, comfortable, technology-based working environment with far wider appeal. It will lead to the creation of an engineering workforce built on higher-value, longer-term careers.

Product research and development, factory processes and workforce training across the supply chain are being seed-funded by a £22.1 million grant from the UK Government’s Department for Business Innovation and Skills as part of its Advanced Manufacturing Supply Chain Initiative (AMSCI).

The grant was the first under the government initiative to go to the construction sector. Laing O’Rourke argued that such an intervention was critical to help the government deliver its ‘Construction 2025’ industrial strategy, which aims over the next ten years to cut whole-life costs by 30 per cent and programme times by 50 per cent. If the industry carries on as normal, these targets are stretching in the extreme and highly unlikely to be met.

Speaking in a House of Commons debate on ‘prefabricated housing’ in November 2015, Minister of State for Housing and Planning, Brandon Lewis, said: ‘The wider Construction 2025 strategy sets ambitious goals for reducing costs and speeding up the delivery of construction projects, as well as encouraging innovation in the sector.

‘We are supporting construction firm Laing O’Rourke to develop its advanced housing manufacturing factory facilities through a £22.1 million grant from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

‘I welcome moves by industry to promote innovation in house building and to point the industry towards the future. It has enormous potential to create jobs and growth through a new factory-based industry. I encourage industry to go further with it, and use it more often.’

The key to winning the grant was creating a consortium of 22 partners, including large manufacturers, small-to-medium enterprises, major consultants and leading research-based universities. A vital function of the university partners is to facilitate cross-sector learning, applying lessons from the automotive and aerospace industries to construction manufacturing. The project will act as a catalyst for developing a construction manufacturing supply chain.

All consortium partners are participating in the research and development. For the supply chain, this will help them optimise their input to Laing O’Rourke’s products as well as enhance their overall performance. For example, kitchens that are currently delivered to site as flat packs may now need to arrive preassembled so they can be landed directly onto the production line. Logistics will need rethinking, along with how to deliver greater coordination and efficiency in fulfilment and delivery.

Training will include roles in design, manufacturing, and assembly. The factory is expected to create and sustain 1,000 highly skilled jobs and apprenticeships throughout the supply chain.

These will include product developers, maintenance engineers, machine operators, logistics planners and process managers −many of which will be multi-skilled − as well as the more recognisable construction trade disciplines. Specific training programmes will be developed for factory-based roles, which will form the bulk of the training investment, with the remainder focused on specific skill sets required from the supply chain.

Laing O’Rourke is funding the balance of the capital investment.

The factory aims to achieve significant increases in productivity compared with current offsite manufacturing. For example, the investment in advanced technology equipment for AMEP components is expected to improve productivity over existing offsite operations by 80−90 per cent.

The advanced manufacturing facility will have four production lines, delivering E5+ residential modules, bathroom pods, smartwall units and AMEP modules. 

The factory is taking the latest and best manufacturing innovations from the automotive industry, and making them fit for the construction industry. The robotics will be designed and delivered by our high-tech automation partner, Comau (a subsidiary of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles). The computer-aided design and manufacturing tools will be supplied by Dassault Systèmes in France and the control systems by Siemens in Germany. Together these companies have delivered automated manufacturing solutions for almost every major car maker in the world.

Brad Pelachyk, Comau’s Head of Purchasing says: ‘For Laing O’Rourke’s advanced manufacturing facility we have assisted with product design, utilised our strategic supply partners, and developed a complete automation process that we can integrate from start to finish. We have focused on incorporating processes to maintain quality considerations like error proofing, vision inspection and manual inspections. Linking the process automation solutions with the associated production activities yields a complete solution that has superior quality and traceability, and supports the latest trends in lean manufacturing’.

Car manufacturing characteristics that Comau plans to use in the advanced manufacturing facility include component architecture independence, all parts loaded at the beginning of the line, and improved meantime between failures and meantime to repair, resulting in reduced part feeding and loading.

‘Dassault Systèmes is extremely proud to be playing a role in this industry-changing initiative,’ says Stephen Chadwick, the company’s EuroNorth Managing Director. ‘Laing O’Rourke is breaking new ground with this advanced manufacturing facility, but is doing so based on assiduous research and an engineering-led approach. It is a privilege to be involved.’

In developing the designs for the factory, Laing O’Rourke visited several vehicle manufacturing plants. These included Jaguar Land Rover, the UK’s largest automotive business and biggest investor in manufacturing research and development. A recent innovation is the company’s Virtual Customer Experience, where would-be buyers specify their vehicle and then interact with a full-size projection on screen. Laing O’Rourke is working with Jaguar Land Rover to develop a similar configurator for its construction customers.

The company also visited the McLaren factory in Surrey, famous for its pristine white tiled floors and clean-room environment, JCB’s sophisticated factory in Staffordshire, and Ford’s state-of-the-art Transit plant in Turkey.

Automated processes

The advanced manufacturing facility will feature everything one would expect to see in an automated production plant and more, from state-of-the-art orbital and seven-axis robots for cutting, bending, fabrication and assembly tasks to automated guided vehicles and operators wearing Google glasses for quality inspection.

All products will be based on parametric digital models, enabling each one to be configured quickly to suit customer needs. The parametric objects in the digital models will be retrieved from the product lifecycle management (PLM) system, which carries the full manufacturing details including bills of materials. Once an order is committed, the design and manufacturing details will be retrieved from the PLM and automatically loaded into the manufacturing execution system (MES). The MES will then populate the production planning system and distribute the computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacture (CAD/CAM) files to the relevant manufacturing processes.

Primary processing of ferrous raw materials −including mild steel, high-tensile steels, alloys and stainless steel − will be performed by state-of-the-art laser-cutting robots, which will be shared across the product ranges. Robots fitted with dust-free water cutters will be used for the gypsum fibreboard. All loading, unloading and cutting operations will be computer numerical controlled (CNC), ensuring the highest levels of accuracy. Flexible work-holding devices will eliminate the need for dedicated fixing points.

Laser-cutting robots will be used across all four product lines 

Cut materials will then be fed into manipulation, fabrication, sub-assembly and assembly cells for further processing.

The tube manipulation robots will be able to shape both round pipes and non-round sections for framework and structural components. Joints will be created by 360° orbital welding robots or rotating fixtures, integrated with seven-axis welding robots, fitted with either gas metal arc welding or tungsten inert gas equipment.

Sub-assembly cells will be divided into component level and high level. Component-level cells will produce a variety of elements, such as pipe spools, columns, back-span beams and frame members. High-level cells will produce more complicated items such as AMEP spine sub-assemblies, ceiling cassettes, and external and internal walls.

For the E5+ modules, many of the sub-assembly operations will use flexible rotating fixtures with gas metal arc welding equipment. Quality assurance will involve vision systems and automated voltage control coupled with an extensive data capture system, giving instant operator feedback to ensure welds and other processes are flawless.

Sub-assembly cell concept for E5+manufacture

E5+ component sub-assemblies will feed into the main framing line, where the structural steel frames will be fabricated. The framing- line robots will be based on automotive body assembly technology and deliver a dimensional accuracy of ±2mm. Installation of high-level sub-assemblies will be completed by robots that will accurately pick and place components into each residential module.

Operators will be guided via visual displays, automatic tool selection and quality confirmation equipment to enforce a ‘no faults forward’ (NFF) rule. The manufacturing process and production schedule will be optimised both to ensure efficient utilisation of the production facility and to meet customer requirements.

All materials will be called off via the PLM and MES and confirmed using reading devices at the point of fit. Incomplete tasks or incorrect material cannot progress under the programmed NFF rule. With these control systems − plus lean manufacturing principles relating to equipment, layout, materials, methods and people – the advanced manufacturing facility will deliver high-quality, high-value products.

Standardised work processes will be employed throughout the facility to achieve safe working practices as well as quality fabrication. All operators will perform a task in the same manner, ensuring the product quality remains constant. All assembly will be checked ‘in process’, reducing end-of-line testing, and results will be recorded in a database for traceability via the MES.

Laing O’Rourke’s health, safety and environment culture will be embedded from the start of the robot design stage and all equipment will meet relevant UK and European legislation, with safe operation and maintenance being the highest priority. Equipment will also be evaluated to ascertain its environmental impact during both operation and end-of-life decommissioning.


With high-volume, automated offsite manufacture, the construction industry will be able to deliver to unprecedented levels of speed, quality and reliability in buildings and infrastructure. It will create a step change in output to meet market demand − particularly in the volume housing sector.

Laing O’Rourke will be able to produce up to 10,000 high-quality residential modules a year. It will also help address the skills gap, creating sustainable engineering jobs, with a wider, more inclusive appeal, in an area much in need of employment. This, in turn, will help to alleviate the growing shortage of construction workers in major cities, where the housing crisis is most acute. It is an example of how innovation can help the construction industry continue to meet society’s needs in the 21st century.

Stephen HarleyDirector of Advanced Manufacturing
Adam LockePartnership and Innovation Leader for the Engineering Excellence Group
Dr Graham HerriesFunctional Director of Systems Integration within the Engineering Excellence Group

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