Building blocks: what the construction industry can learn from Lego

Alex Small, BIM & Digital Platforms Manager at Tata Steel, explains what the construction industry can learn from Lego to succeed in the near future

Over the past few years, the construction industry has seen many reports, from Latham in 1994, to Egan in 1998, to the most recent: The Farmer Report titled “Modernize or Die” published in 2016. While these reports have driven some initiatives, the industry has failed to change on the scale necessary to bring about any improvement in productivity levels in 25 years.

The ever-increasing skills gap, low margins and lack of innovation have been the cause of major losses for prime contractors in recent years. Carillion recently proved how shaky some entrepreneurs are, but Farmer thinks the issues are bigger than that, recently saying the industry is “standing on a burning platform and all other options are gone. it just has to change.”

So what can the industry do to avoid the flames? Well, Farmer thinks ‘manufacturer-led construction’ might hold the key – but what exactly does that mean?

Not so long ago, Lego was experiencing declining sales, losses and the failure of new business models. However, in 2003 Jørgen Vig Knudstorp was appointed as the new CEO to turn the company around. After analyzing the business and the varied and diverse new product line, Knudstorp discovered that its customer base just wanted Lego to produce bricks; they wanted Lego to be a construction toy.

As a result, available sets were reduced from 13,000 pieces to 6,500, and the company focused on producing themed-based sets, which it could support with add-on offerings. The reduced set of pieces was called Lego’s “palette” and was made available to everyone with a design tool called Digital Designer that allowed their fans to design new sets, with the best designs going into production. In 2015, Lego was more profitable than Apple.

“…we are slowly seeing modern design tools being introduced into the industry which will allow parties to design buildings based on their function and performance and then return to the products they would like to use for the These new tools lead to the development of completely new systems based on new products, including those that could be part of a new palette.

So, by generating a standardized kit of parts and a generative design tool, Lego turned its fans into designers and transformed its business – isn’t it a maker-led build?

With this in mind, perhaps the construction industry should come together to create a standardized palette of products (for standardized systems), which simply, quickly and easily fit together. For example, should Tata Steel start working with window and door companies, skylight manufacturers and M&E installers to develop a click and fix system?

Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) has been around for some time, which is the modern construction industry’s take on building from a kit of parts, with companies like Bryden Wood lead the charge. Unfortunately, however, it hasn’t taken off as well as it should because there simply aren’t enough standard parts available for the design; considerable fabrication and pre-assembly must be done to design a modular set of building elements. Although this is faster on site, it is not always cost effective, especially if there is no initial lead time to generate the assemblies. Additionally, DfMA, like BIM, requires a change in behavior on the part of all stakeholders in a project – and without this, a project could be severely compromised.

However, we are slowly seeing modern design tools being introduced into the industry which will allow parties to design buildings based on their function and performance and then come back to the products they would like to use to construct it. These new tools lead to the development of whole new systems based on new products, some of which could be part of a new palette.

It also offers the opportunity to sell construction products as the true solution to a circular economy (dismantle and reuse) – adding enormous value to building owners, developers and the wider environment. Additionally, expansions and build modifications are also simplified as the modular nature and standardized connections eliminate compatibility issues.

If Farmer is right and we need a manufacturer-led build to save us from the “burning platform”, how much revolution is needed? It’s fair to say that Lego didn’t succeed through disruptive innovation; he cleverly used new digital tools to maximize the value of his existing standardized system. As we don’t have this in the construction industry, disruptive innovation is needed to generate this standardized system and associated digital tools to make the construction process easier and more accurate.

construction industryAlex Small

BIM & Digital Platforms Manager

Tata Steel

Tel: +44 (0)20 7717 4444

[email protected]

www.tatasteeleurope.com

Twitter: @TataSteelEurope

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