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Guest post: Faster, leaner, greener construction through offsite manufacturing skills

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Rob Francis is Director of Innovation and Business Improvement at Skanska UK.

The joint government and industry Construction 2025 strategy outlines some very ambitious targets for the sector. Over the next decade, we need to reduce costs by a third, halve construction-related emissions, halve project delivery time and increase exports by 50%. In short, we all need to be faster, leaner and greener.

We launched the Offsite Management School in March this year to help the companies in our supply chain learn the skills they need to become faster, leaner and greener. It’s a collaborative approach to skills development that relies on industry experts to deliver online and in-person training, and it will help our supply chain to understand and benefit from offsite manufacturing techniques.

The Offsite Management School

Inspired largely by the Open University model, the Offsite Management School is an online learning platform that is led by Skanska UK and jointly supported by the UKCES Futures Programme and CITB (the Construction Industry Training Board) with a number of the big names in construction - Carillion, Costain, Laing O'Rourke, Siemens and many more.

Drawing on our collective expertise, we’ve made a suite of skills development resources – online learning modules, videos, digital tools and much more – available to the suppliers and subcontractors we all work with. These resources specifically help to develop expertise in offsite manufacturing techniques. This is a construction approach where core components of the building or infrastructure are actually built in a factory and transported to the site when required. It’s a much a faster, safer, cheaper approach to construction that is very much in line with the ambitions of Construction 2025.

It’s not all online, self-directed learning though. Companies can also access workshops and one-on-one mentoring with a network of industry and academic experts. This is an important aspect of the programme because it ensures that everyone has the support they need to actually implement what they’re learning.

The future is offsite

Offsite manufacturing is a niche sector within construction, but it actually accounts for about 7% of all construction output in the UK and is worth £1.5bn to the economy. This makes it an excellent target for development training – we only have to reach a few hundred companies, not a few thousand, in order to enact a significant change across the industry.

While some companies have adopted offsite manufacturing, the industry generally does not have the skills and expertise required to manage the process in the most effective, efficient way. The car and aerospace industries have developed more advanced manufacturing techniques that further reduce costs, increase efficiency and improve safety.

There is also the challenge of coordinating design and engineering consultancies to think in this new way. They are really influential at the start of the project process. A number of stakeholders are required to design, construct, transport, install and maintain each component, and each have skills shortages that need to be addressed.

Driving and measuring skills improvements

Over 250 companies have signed on as members in the seven months since the school launched. The online and offline resources designed to address common skills gaps in project management, design and IT are proving very popular.

In addition to these training resources and expert advisor support, the school also provides self-assessment tools that members can use to track their development. We’ve developed an innovative dashboard that translates the results into a score against five key areas of industrialisation – design, offsite manufacturing, onsite processes, logistics and maintenance. It’s a simple way for members to identify strengths, weaknesses and opportunities in their skill set.

We’re using the combined outcomes of these self-assessments to get a better view of the current state of the industry. We’ll soon be able to see how the supply chain is responding to the challenges – are they actually becoming faster, leaner and greener? We’ll know the impact of the training and development resources and where further resources should be committed to address the gaps.

Facing the challenge together

The success of the Offsite Management School reveals a shift in thinking in the construction industry. Many major competitors have come together, contributing money and expertise, to ensure that the supply chain is best positioned for the future. This is a big cultural change in an industry that has typically shied away from knowledge sharing. It reflects a growing appreciation that everyone benefits when knowledge and expertise is shared with the supply chain.

There are big challenges ahead for everyone in construction. We need to work together to meet the cost, time, emissions and export targets outlined in Construction 2025. The Offsite Management School is one of resources that will get us there. It not only equips companies with the skills required to improve their ways of working and become faster, leaner and greener, but reinforces need for a collaborative approach to development.

Read the learning report for the UKCES Futures Programme offsite construction projects at GOV.UK.

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