Industry development | Laing O’Rourke works to realise modern methods of construction’s full potential

Modern methods of construction are about more than modular components and Laing O’Rourke is working hard to realise the full potential of the approach.

The latest iterations of modern methods of construction (MMC) bring together a number of different themes and practices with the aim of creating a high productivity, high value solution that results in happy clients. 

MMC draws together a data-driven focus where analytics and artificial intelligence are used to augment product-led design with digital twins; factory-precise prefabrication; safe and simple assembly; and sensing and monitoring of production, assembly and operation. 

It's not just about components

In other words, MMC is not simply about construction components.

So proclaim engineers working for Laing O’Rourke. These professionals demonstrate the same resolve to improve their industry as that shown by their visionary chief executive Ray O’Rourke. When he founded the company he was determined that it should progress to become a leader in innovation and excellence.

“Against a background of industry insights including the seminal 1990s Latham and Egan reports that explored the scope for improving the quality and efficiency within our sector, we took the decision to act and re-engineer the approach to construction,” says Laing O’Rourke technical director Joanna Vezey.

“The market was ready to rethink traditional methods of building and engineering infrastructure, to challenge the rules and we were ready to invest in pioneering offsite production,” she says. “This we have done and are still doing.”

Virtual reality helps engineers to design more efficiently

In the belief that construction can be delivered differently, an operating model evolved that has subsequently become a staple of Laing O’Rourke’s approach to MMC. It is known as “DfMA with the aim of achieving a minimum of 70:60:30”. To translate, DfMA stands for design for manufacturing and assembly and the figures all represent percentages: 70 being the amount of construction taken offsite into a controlled environment, 60 the improvement in productivity and 30 the improvement in project schedule.

And the numbers are confirmed by experience. MMC as a concept is increasingly appreciated by public and private sector clients as a viable means of improving certainty and quality of outcome; creating attractive employment opportunities; and contributing to broad sustainability outcomes including carbon reduction. 

MMC can be transformational, Laing O’Rourke claims. It has the potential to accrue the same benefits in increased productivity as achieved by the automotive and aviation industries through their respective operational models.

Laing O’Rourke appreciates that it is not alone in developing MMC: that others have taken note of the need for change and are acting accordingly. A real sense is growing in the industry that if a company is failing to evolve, develop and innovate, then it will be unable to deliver value to clients and society and will certainly be unable to prosper.

Laing O’Rourke’s CEMC is key to the firm’s strength in MMC

Laing O’Rourke felt that way years ago. Despite the emergence of competition, Vezey believes the company is still ahead of the game and continues to innovate and evolve.

One big advantage Laing O’Rourke enjoys is its Centre of Excellence for Modern Construction (CEMC), created in 2010 in Nottinghamshire. Employing 400, the CEMC is claimed by Laing O’Rourke to be Europe’s most advanced manufacturing facility for concrete products. 

It allows the company to design and precision manufacture components for building and civil engineering projects.

We took the decision to act and re-engineer the approach to construction

Another advantage is Laing O’Rourke’s ease with digital advances, fostered not least by its group head of digital Adrian Spragg. Spragg was recruited from the aviation industry and brought with him a perspective vital to the company’s ambitions.

“Digitalisation is allowing us to join the dots up, to bring together the disparate elements of MMC to make an improved ‘whole’,” Spragg says. “It’s enabling us to design better and prepare for construction better.”

He speaks with great enthusiasm about two digital subjects in particular. One is the opportunity to use embedded sensors in structures and the built environment to manage production, assembly and operational performance and to collect data. The other is the use of digital twins to make best use of that data at all stages of the project lifecycle.

“Sensors embedded within buildings and infrastructure will become the norm,” Spragg says. “There are opportunities to go much further, mirroring their extensive use within aviation where they are used to monitor flight performance, for example.” 

Offsite bridges on West Coast Main Line

He points to the Staffordshire Alliance Programme, where a bottleneck in the West Coast Main Line was removed with (among other measures) construction of 10 new bridges. The programme was carried out by an alliance between Laing O’Rourke, Atkins, Volker Rail and Network Rail. The bridges were designed using building information modelling and Laing O’Rourke built them employing off-site construction methods. 

Two of the bridges have been instrumented with fibre optic analysers, to better understand the actual loads a rail bridge experiences in real time.

“In the context of MMC, a digital twin is a realistic digital replica of a structure to be built,” says Spragg. 

“It is then available during the structure’s lifetime to monitor and predict – via sensing and data analytics – performance, but this can only happen with strong collaboration and data sharing between parties across the structure’s lifecycle.” 

Bringing about change

Vezey adds that Laing O’Rourke through its academic partnerships, technology and innovation investment and approach, close links with clients, design and value chain partners is working to collaborate and bring about broad industry change.

To step change to the next level of MMC it is collaborating with industry and academic partners, including the University of Cambridge, the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Sheffield and many others to unlock the potential of product-based design and manufacturing capacity – otherwise known as product-based building solutions. 

This, the company says, is intended to optimise construction and extend efficiency throughout the delivery cycle – with the potential for enormous improvements in productivity. To this end, a product-based demonstrator building has been constructed at Laing O’Rourke’s CEMC.

“From how we are digitalising design and manufacture to the way we are turning our tradespeople into technicians, Laing O’Rourke is continuing to innovate and drive MMC forward,” says Vezey.

“I don’t think anyone can deny we are pioneers in thinking, determined to engineer better outcomes.”

  • Published in association with Laing O'Rourke

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