Innovation and product development is the key to our success in offsite manufacturing

David Scott Engineering Director
9 min read 2 min video

We are on a wave of transformational change in the way that buildings and infrastructure are designed, procured and delivered. Innovation and product development is the key to our success.

At Laing O’Rourke we believe that change is essential for our continued success, we are exposed to many drivers for change both from inside the business and outside. External drivers may come from large, longer timescale phenomena, such as shifting demographics, urban growth and climate change or from nearer term demands from our clients and governments for productivity, sustainability and performance improvements. Within the Group, our continued curiosity to challenge established practice and solutions has created a strong culture of innovation.

In combination with this culture of innovation, we recognise that technology has turned these drivers into opportunities. It is now rare for contractors bidding for work to be limited to a generic design solution developed by a consultant. Modern design and analysis tools allow contractor teams to rapidly redesign and tailor buildings and infrastructure to what they want to build in order to differentiate their offer from the competition. In other words, a client will be offered different solutions from different contractors, each using the products and systems they have developed to deliver efficiency and client value. In this scenario, competition is driven by the ability of the contractors to meet or exceed the client’s goals and performance requirements. Those who can deliver innovative and integrated solutions most cost effectively are the winners.

The pressure for innovative integrated building and infrastructure solutions is being felt across the industry. One of the principal ways we deliver innovation is through Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA). Only through innovation are we are able to pursue our goals of 70% of the constructed asset manufactured off site, a 60% improvement in productivity and a 30% improvement in delivery schedule, while working to eliminate accidents and minimise carbon.

In each of our sectors, we seek to maximise the value that we can bring by using manufactured components to simplify construction and bring speed, certainty and efficiency to the delivery process.

For Laing O’Rourke, innovation is not simply the development of new products but also the transformation of the construction process, both in what we build and how we build. We seek to collaborate in new ways, with new business models, new delivery mechanisms and most importantly, new ways of working with clients in order to deliver their ambitions and make them more successful.

Quote icon

Innovation is at the heart of Laing O’Rourke’s ambition. It is a fundamental part of our work-winning and project delivery strategy.

David Scott Engineering Director

About author 

David Scott is a globally renowned expert in structural engineering, with a specialism in tall buildings. Before becoming Structural Engineering Director for Laing O’Rourke, David was a principal at Arup New York, where he worked on the World Trade Center master plan and the Freedom Tower. He led the post 9/11 industry review of design standards and procedures for tall buildings.

An increasing challenge for clients is how to evaluate different options and how to compare one set of integrated solutions with another. Clients are able to compare costs but are often less certain about how to evaluate the benefits of building faster, safer or how to compare products of different quality, sustainability or energy performance. As more and more clients embrace innovation they are looking to assess alternatives on a holistic basis. For example, the rail and water sectors have been particularly interested in developing ways to consider lifecycle, performance and risk when assessing alternatives.

Over the last decade, Laing O’Rourke has developed many different types of components and these provide a platform for us to differentiate our solutions from the competition. From a structural perspective our products include twin wall, lattice slab, façade panels, shell beams and pre-cast floors. We are proficient in the use of steel, concrete, carbon fibre, lightweight, heavyweight or fibre reinforced concrete to create these products. From a systems perspective our products include smart wall, bathroom modules, accommodation modules, modular risers, modular wiring, modular service distribution, modular plant rooms and integrated building management systems.

The innovation ethos is to continually look for new perspectives and new combinations of products or ways to transfer ideas or technologies from one sector to another. For instance the twin wall system was originally designed as a way of quickly making internal structural walls off site.

It was then developed for basement retaining walls on several projects, before we proposed to use it for a water-retaining structure for a large tank assembly at Beckton Water Treatment Works. Our proposal was to replace a thicker cantilever wall with a twin wall assembly that was detailed to the rigorous requirements specified for water retaining structures. To convince our clients, we constructed a trial tank, at our manufacturing facility at The Centre of Excellence for Modern Construction where we also experimented with different ways of connecting the wall segments and assembling the tanks.

The massive 360m x 80m x 8.5m tanks at Beckton were therefore built from high-quality factory-made concrete components, where all reinforcement was machine cut and placed to the correct length and position, with the correct cover.

The tanks used less concrete and generated less site waste than the original concept, and therefore had a much lower carbon footprint. Since the on-site assembly could be carried out quickly by a small but highly skilled team, there was a much lower risk of accidents. Having developed the solution for Beckton, we took the lessons learned and proposed solutions for other projects. Our process of continual product improvement means that lessons learned allow us to simplify some details and connections in order to ease erection in the future.

We should not underestimate how much such solutions challenge the industry. As clients experience the many benefits of a DfMA solution like this, they become unlikely to choose a conventional site-built scheme in the future, with its higher risk of accidents and potential for site flaws that may only become visible years after completion. Site flaws are inevitable when building by hand, as labour in the construction industry is typically neither highly skilled nor able to achieve the highest quality standards, particularly when activity takes place over a wide area in all sorts of weather.

Using twin wall on 8.5m water tanks was an innovation, but it was also a natural development of the work done on projects in the past. We are now looking at using twin walls as beams and integrating them with prefinished platform units for the rail sector. In both cases this takes twin wall from a conventional product to a more sophisticated high-value offering.

Our façade system is another example of a sophisticated high value, highly engineered product that cannot be replicated by building on-site. We can create the high performing and elegant façade panels by casting onto sculpted metal forms in a large variety of natural or coloured concretes. Through this approach, we can create a range of façades that are only limited by our imagination. The results can look like stone, metal, tile or even brickwork and can deliver a level of detail that looks like it has been sculpted by artisans. However, while they are aesthetically pleasing, the key to the success of the façades is the panel’s energy performance. The buildings that use it are naturally better insulated and lead to structures that are much more airtight than industry best practice. The façades are typically connected to a structural panel by carbon fibre ties that extend through the insulation layer and are delivered to site complete with windows. This avoids thermal breaks or ‘cold bridges’ and ensures an exceptional envelope thermal performance.

An increasingly common result of collaborative project approaches is that construction and engineering companies are looking to work with the best consultants in the business, particularly those who understand bespoke and proprietary products and who can help develop them further and apply them effectively. Our desire is to combine this closer working with an ever deeper understanding of how our products are made and what they can do. For these reasons research, trials and testing of products are fundamental to how we can innovate with them.

While it is essential to be rigorous about research and continual product development, we also need to be careful how we deploy our products. There can be a major cost difference between a lattice slab that is designed to be manufactured at a controlled facility and a lattice slab that is not. Therefore one of the vital roles of our in-house business, Explore Manufacturing, was to develop comprehensive design guides detailing properties of the products and explaining how to optimise product design for manufacture. We use the design guides to help consultants understand our products and to enable them to quickly arrive at optimal solutions. Detailed digital engineering models for our products have also been developed to ensure consistency.

We believe that innovation through DfMA creates a new benchmark for value in projects as clients seek suppliers in an increasingly competitive economy.

This article has been updated since its original publication in 2013.