MARTIN SEARSON, Chair of the MMC Group that recently published the CIF report on Modern Methods of Construction, explains to Barry McCall that the Irish construction industry is in for some dramatic changes in the coming years, particularly with the importance of offsite construction to the sector
One thing that becomes abundantly clear after even a cursory readthrough of the CIF Modern Methods of Construction Report, prepared as part of the Construction Sector Group’s Innovation and Digital Adoption Subgroup work, is that this is about far more than digitising certain elements of the existing process or finding new ways to make traditional construction methods faster. Instead, true adoption of modern methods of construction (MMC) has the potential to transform the entire industry rendering it almost unrecognisable as the sector we know today.
Report co-author Martin Searson sums it up when he says: “It’s not construction, it’s manufacturing.”
In fact, if it didn’t sound so overblown, it would almost be fair to describe MMC as a philosophy rather than a collection of different methods of construction work. The whole point is to make construction as controllable as manufacturing with the same cost and scheduling certainties, thus reducing variability in the fabrication and assembly process.
That’s not going to be achieved through piecemeal solutions, and the Irish construction industry and its major clients will have no choice but to embrace this new philosophy if they are not to fall behind international standards.
Challenges of traditional construction methods
In that context, it should be pointed out that there is nothing inherently wrong with the Irish construction industry as it stands. Indeed, offsite manufacturers and Irish contractors can be found working across the UK and mainland Europe on some of the most advanced manufacturing plants and technology installations on the planet.
The issue is not the quality of the work being delivered by the industry, rather it is the industry’s ability to maintain that standard in the face of growing skills shortages, rising materials costs, and the need to embed the principles of sustainability and circularity into future built environment projects.
MMC report recommendations
This is the second report in a trilogy of MMC reports. It focuses on identifying the key market requirements to drive further adoption and implementation on a broader scale for both domestic and export markets. It also looks at barriers to adoption.
Among the report’s key recommendations is the establishment of an MMC demonstration park supported by a research and innovation centre (Construction Technology Innovation Centre).
In addition, the report calls for:
- The establishment of a national infrastructure of testing facilities for durability, acoustic, thermal, structural, fire and moisture;
- The creation of a living laboratory demonstrating multiple typologies – a demonstration of physical building types or specific uses to allow modelling and an examination of operational characteristics in a live environment;
- The provision of industry-focused advanced education and training facilities to deliver the human capital to meet the current and future needs of MMC;
- The development of certification systems for standardised typologies across sectors such as housing, education, and healthcare to actively drive national standards to enable scalability, repetition and growth in supply chains;
- Greater support for the requirements of insurance, funding, financial security, and investment decision-makers by providing regulatory, audit, inspection, and certification systems to alleviate client and building user concerns of MMC; and
- Support of design for manufacture and assembly (DfMA) installation and management of follow-on trades and to build the necessary skills in sufficient numbers to meet national construction demands for MMC.
A change of construction mindset
According to Martin Searson, the adoption of MMC will also require a change in thinking.
“It is about starting with a build offsite strategy and approach for building and assembling as much offsite as possible in an innovative way,” he explains. “This will reduce cycle times, allow for the introduction of Lean processes, and will address issues like sustainability and the labour shortage. Industry 4.0 is coming to construction, and that will require a change in mindset. With change comes disruption, and MMC is the future. Smart, modular construction carried out offsite using novel materials and innovative installation methods is the way forward. That will also enable a pathway to the circular economy for the industry.”
Unlike the shift back to the physical workplace, hybrid solutions won’t work when it comes to MMC. “You must have an off-site strategy in place from the very start,” says Searson.
“You can always go back to on-site methods, if necessary, but it is impossible to go from onsite back to off-site once started. If you start with offsite, you always have the option of changing, but if you go straight to traditional methods, time just evaporates.”
But there is a volumetric challenge. Ireland is a small enough market as it stands, but without a fairly wide scale shift by clients to embrace MMC, there will be insufficient demand to support the nascent MMC supply-chain and sub-supply sectors. “If a manufacturer gets an order for 80 bathroom pods for a client, that may keep them busy for 16 weeks, and when they deliver, the site may not be ready to accept them,” Searson notes.
“If they have to take them back, they will clog up the factory. Then they might get three similar orders at the same time and nothing else for months. You can’t have that sort of stop-start activity to a production process.”
He points out that no business can afford to run on those lines, nor can it be expected to scale up production for those few busy periods when the factory will lie idle for long periods of time.
What is needed is what he describes as a “rinse and repeat continuity approach”, based on standardised performance criteria or frameworks.
But there are hopeful signs with more clients seeing modular solutions, thereby adding impetus to the move to Construction 4.0 and increased demand for the MMC supply chain.
Offsite construction and manufacturing in Ireland
The report offers valuable insights into the offsite manufacturing (OSM) supply-chain system.
“There wasn’t much knowledge about the ecosystem before this,” Martin Searson notes. “There are actually 111 companies in the sector now with over €1bn invested in offsite manufacturing capacity and capability. They cover everything from programming to 2D-panelised and 3D-volumetric, modularised plantroom units and complex M&E modules for data centres, and they are supplying the commercial, industrial, life sciences, and semiconductor projects too. There is a wide range of skills and capabilities there. It’s a matter of tapping into that. We have developed a database of these companies and are planning to promote that to potential customers.”
With the advent of new materials and accelerating product innovation, a critical issue for the industry in Ireland is the lack of testing and certification facilities in certain key areas.
“There is no fire testing facility in the Republic of Ireland, for example,” he points out. “There is one on the Ulster University Jordanstown campus, but certification from UK bodies is no longer recognised in Ireland since Brexit. Companies now have to send products to Europe for certification. If there are significant changes in the technology or materials being used, they may have to go for re-certification.” The NSAI has recently published a Guide to Agrément certification for Modern Methods of Construction (MMC), which will be of great benefit to companies adopting OSM solutions.
A golden thread
When asked to name three key requirements for the MMC Demonstration Park and Construction Technology Innovation Centre, 28% of those interviewed by Searson and his team were keen to see some form of testing facility, particularly for fire, acoustic, structural, and thermal products. Twenty-seven per cent felt that education and training facilities were important for MMC to ensure Ireland stayed up to date on industry best practices. Developing and supporting a ‘golden thread’ concept in standards, regulations and certifications was a high priority, with 23% of stakeholders stressing that this is a key requirement. While 13% and 9% spoke about building collaborative partnerships and developing a new procurement route and contract for MMC, respectively.
Another aspect that needs to be looked at, according to Martin Searson, is the financial arrangements underpinning construction contracts in the new world. He explains that the switch to the manufacturing model will require upfront investment and the current method of monthly or staged payments won’t work for it. That speaks to the need for more close and collaborative partnerships and new risk-sharing models between clients and the industry.
Interestingly, when asked to name the key drivers for the adoption of MMC, time to market and cost certainty came out on top, while sustainability didn’t really feature at this early stage.
“That is likely to change over the next few years as sustainability becomes a more important factor for all of us and for the requirement to reuse, repurpose and for disassembly of modular construction solutions,” he notes. “Modular construction gives much greater control over the timing of a project, and the client gets visibility of this. It’s about taking variabilities out by moving to off-site processes.”
And then there is the not so small matter of skills.
“Clients are looking for more innovative solutions from the industry,” Martin Searson says. “That requires a much greater and deeper understanding of the type of skills needed and the education and training required to provide them for MMC. For example, among the key skills required by the industry in the future will be mechatronics, data analytics, gamers, smart city developers, etc. Once again, people have got to understand that this is manufacturing, not construction.”
That training can take many forms.
“Industry 4.0 is coming to construction, and we need to upskill people for that,” he continues. “We need to educate and train people for the new world of MMC. It could be one-day continuous professional development courses or discipline-specific courses on MMC for design staff, and we’ve been asked to develop programmes for those. Or, it could be second- and third-level courses, which have been requested too. We need much more training at third level. We also need to educate children at secondary level to show them the new opportunities the industry offers them in terms of apprenticeships, digitalisation, OSM and beyond, going all the way up to level-nine qualifications in universities and institutes of technology. There are exciting opportunities in the industry for everyone, and we need to get that message out.”
The type of training required is not merely to meet construction skills needs.
“We also need to build awareness of MMC solutions, technologies, risk-sharing mechanisms, new forms of contract, and emerging new materials,” he explains. “This is a disruptive process, and it will squeeze traditional linear supply chains. Companies will need to move to more collaborative models to address that. And that will require particular skillsets as well.”
The industry needs volume
Martin Searson believes MMC will have a pivotal role to play in the delivery of both the National Development Plan and the Housing for All strategy.
“The industry is growing substantially, and the people in it want to respond to housing needs. They want to help achieve the objectives of the Housing for All strategy. But again, it’s all about throughput. The industry needs commitment from clients that the demand will be there for their products and services.”
He explains that there are 25 offsite manufacturers specialising in housing solutions, including 3D volumetric and 2D panelised manufacturing.
“It’s not enough to go to them with 30 or 40 house schemes every now and then. The industry needs volume.”
And moving to modularised houses doesn’t mean dull, uniform design.
“Facades and other features can be changed. The industry can do a lot when it comes to offering different design choices. It is an exciting time for the industry. We see what’s happening in the United States, Europe and the UK. At the moment, 42 Irish OSMs are exporting. Hopefully, that number will grow. This is all associated with the European Green Deal scheme too, and the industry can make a contribution to Ireland meeting its Climate Action Plan targets for the built environment as well.
“We need to drive the industry forward and hopefully meet the ultimate goal of supporting the delivery of Housing for All and the National Development Plan, and MMC solutions can play a part in this.” Martin Searson concludes.
Martin Searson is CEO of Quality Positive Limited. He is also currently working with CJK Engineering is as a Quality & Innovation Manager supporting their continuous improvement initiatives across the company.
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