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Platforms

Achieving bespoke design without compromising manufacturing efficiency

The industry wants and needs change

There are new pressures on the industry to maintain quality at lower cost, with less environmental impact. The UK government has set some key targets* for 2025 of 33% lower cost, 50% lower emissions, 50% faster delivery and 50% improvement in exports.

To help achieve these targets, the government will “use its purchasing power to drive adoption of modern methods of construction” (the 2017 Autumn statement). By channelling its investment into selected platform systems, state spending will help to give them critical mass. This will give construction the level of benefits that manufacturing enjoys - with procurement across sector boundaries, not just by project, or programme. The role of government is crucial because market forces alone would not achieve this transition, as no single programme of works is big enough to support it. 

* Construction 2025 - Industrial Strategy: Government and Industry in partnership

What are Platforms?

Platforms are a giant "kit of parts" - sets of pre-engineered components that go together in well-defined ways to produce products or structures very efficiently. Flexibility is designed in, so that a single platform can produce an almost infinite range of different structures in a manufacturing technique called mass customisation. Indeed, the term "platform" is taken from manufacturing. A car chassis, for example acts as a platform and may form the basis of every model in a manufacturer's range. The transport container and the iPhone app store are other examples.

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Why Platforms?

You'd never open a factory to meet one order, however big, only to close it again. Continuity and volume of demand is vital, and construction needs that to emulate the efficiencies of manufacturing. That's why the government's proposed adoption of platforms across its estate is so significant. By procuring, not by programme or sector, but by common components, it can help construction reach the volumes that manufacturing has. This is true for both buildings and horizontal infrastructure, the only difference being the digital applications needed.

Find out more in our e-books.

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Making mass customisation a reality

Mass Customisation offers custom-made products, at mass produced prices. Car manufacturers achieve it by building multiple models on one platform. Each can have a head-swimming choice of equipment levels, trim and colour. Computer manufacturing is another example. Products are tuned to individual taste and local needs at little or no extra cost. For construction to offer the same it needs:

  • Product assemblies - market tested to find the "baseline" configurations buyers want, plus popular variations for each. For the government's estate, this will be done with spatial design work and analysis of the existing buildings and structures.
  • Sub-assemblies - comprehensive understanding of relationships between component parts, such as their interoperability as of part of larger assemblies. This includes the details of the specific assembly processes that are required;
  • Component parts – the right parts to produce sub-assemblies and product assemblies. Detailed knowledge of performance, cost and availability is needed to inform their selection.

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Lowering barriers to entry

If platform construction is like a giant kit of parts, the selection of those parts must lower the barrier to entry and be capable of:

  • Manufacture at scale with existing skills, processes and tools.
  • A high level of repeatability
  • Rigorous quality assurance through manufacture, assembly and pre-testing to maintain consistency from construction through to operation
  • Manufacture with local, semi-skilled labour.
  • Use of materials that are already available in the UK.

Platform construction is not esoteric, but highly pragmatic. It will allow DfMA to be rolled out at scale, and create training programmes which, while much shorter than for traditional building trades, will facilitate the creation of new apprenticeships and skill-sets.

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Automated design for platforms

The use of automation in design is already having an impact. The "Rapid Engineering Model”, developed by Bryden Wood with Highways England, for example, contributes to the design of Smart Motorway schemes through automation, substantially reducing design time. 

This kind of automated design is perfectly suited to platforms, because just as components can be used across different projects, so can the technology that designs and uses of them. This is particularly valuable for high-performing assets, networks and systems because good design solutions can be reused on subsequent projects, driving up the efficiency and effectiveness. Better still, the data captured by sensors in smart assets could be used to inform the design and configuration of the next generation of components.

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Freeing up architects to spend more time on design

Architects currently spend around 90% of their time on documentation, and only 10% having creative ideas - yet ideas are easily the most valuable part of what they do. So the prospect of digital workflows is exciting. Machines can eliminate repetitive tasks, leaving architects and designers more time to understand outcomes and add value - by looking at a wider range of design ideas for instance. This would improve the quality of design over the estimated £600 billion of new infrastructure that the UK needs in the next decade.

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Creating a digital marketplace

Platform construction would create a much more consistent pipeline of demand because many construction programmes would draw on its set of components, not just one. Their aggregated demand would support the steady output of many factories. Some could even be multi-purpose, making a number of systems for different clients.  As a result, costs would be lower, productivity higher and overheads, in effect, shared, lowering barriers to entry.  It would also be possible to increase the resilience of the supply chain by setting up factories as temporary nodes. And, as with manufacturing, identifiers could allow components to be tracked through manufacture, assembly and operation with the option of linking payments to the arrival, or installation of a component.

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Prototyping

Prototyping is used to test, trial and optimise new designs and installation sequences. Its role in improving a design or installation before it is rolled out, is particularly beneficial for certain critical and highly-repeated elements. That's because improvements made through prototyping are multiplied across the programme, just as any issues from not prototying will appear again and again. This is why we have set up the Construction Platforms Research Centre.

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