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F1-style construction by end of this decade

Formula One-style virtual build and test simulators could be used in construction within five years, according to a key industry figure.

Adam Locke, partnership and innovation leader within the engineering excellence group at contractor Laing O’Rourke, said construction was only beginning to adapt to the possibilities of emerging technology.

He said modular, offsite construction would eventually become a far slicker process, allowing clients to virtually build bridges in the same way customers can currently specify cars.

“We need to industrialise construction to drive productivity and quality,” he said. “Cars are coming down in cost while introducing better technology, yet construction isn’t in that zone yet.”

Locke said Laing O’Rourke was about halfway through a 10-year journey to maximise the possibilities of modular construction.

“We have already taken a bridge and built offsite elements that would traditionally have been done insitu. Now we are looking at choosing components in building information models and assembling them virtually rather than guessing what will work,” he said.

“In Formula One, when they need new components for a car, they design and test them virtually before making them physically. This technology is available to us but we have to work out how to use it in our industry.”

The post-recession skills crisis engulfing construction heightened the importance of making the industry more manufacturing based, said Locke.

“We need to make the skills we have go further,” he said. “We need to invest in know-how.”

Attracting young people with cutting edge technology skills to the industry is critical to making offsite construction work and bridging the skills gap, according to Locke.

“Young people are the engineers of the future and they don’t want to be going into an industry stuck in the Roman era,” he said.

“Everything we want to do, from High Speed 2 to new schools, you will be able to look at projects on screen before you buy them. The process will be more dependable. There will be a digital masterplan.”

Dartford-based Laing O’Rourke uses a ‘design for manufacture and assembly’ (DfMA) offsite technique it believes has benefits including speed, safety and quality.

European Hub chief executive Paul Sheffield said in the firm’s annual report this month that early DfMA schemes had proved difficult coming out of recession.

“The issue [of cost inflation] was further compounded by the accelerated deployment of our DfMA approach, which placed additional strain on our project delivery resources and critical path activities due to the shorter build programmes, as we brought new products and processes to market,” he said.

However, he added that DfMA “once fully deployed and embedded” would help “insulate us from future external market pressures”.

Hear from Adam Locke at the NCE Future Technology Forum in London on 1 October.

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