How product platforms can transform construction

What are product platforms and why should construction embrace them? Mott MacDonald’s Ben Carlisle, author of a new report on the technology, explains.

The Government’s GenZero schools programme uses a platform system (image: Mott MacDonald).
The government’s GenZero schools programme uses a platform system (image: Mott MacDonald)

Construction needs to take bold steps to overcome its decades-long issues with declining productivity, while improving value for money, addressing skills shortages and cutting carbon. We must seek out new methods and delivery models. 

The recent House of Lords inquiry into modern methods of construction (MMC) recognised its potential, but said the application in housing relied too much on circumstance and there was a lack of understanding of the technology’s capabilities. 

This is where product platforms come in. They provide a deliberate and strategic means of removing unwanted variability and enable the benefits of MMC and design for manufacture and assembly (DfMA) to be realised and continuously improved – eliminating the problems highlighted by the House of Lords report. 

For clarity, MMC is a range of methods for delivering projects more productively, while DfMA is a design process that seeks to remove nasty surprises during the making and assembly stage of projects.

How product platforms work

In essence, product platforms have core repeatable assets, which include stable relationships, repeatable methods, and standardised technical systems which are configured, adapted and combined with less standard assets to create mass customised buildings.

They focus on reducing technical complexity while also providing customer variety by using rules, parts, processes and supply chains that are as similar as possible from one school, hospital or prison to the next, but also deliver the differences needed by clients and demanded by different sites. 

Analysis Mott MacDonald undertook for the Construction Innovation Hub’s The Value of Product Platforms in Construction report last year showed that use of project platforms could translate to a potential saving to government of £1.8bn a year across social infrastructure. At a project level, that could reduce the cost of a prison by £124m or hospital by £147m. The potential gains are huge, but how can we get there? 

We need to understand the changes required to adapt a product platform approach – and quickly.

It cannot be seen as a ‘nice to have’ – it is in the Construction Playbook as policy and the Infrastructure and Project Authority’s Transforming Infrastructure Performance: Roadmap to 2030 targets mass adoption by 2030.

Sharing knowledge and best practice is key to empower everyone in the industry to deliver the change. This is why we have launched an essential guide to product platforms in construction, using the knowledge and economic cases put forward in the Construction Innovation Hub report. It aims to disseminate the leading role product platforms could play in finally solving construction’s productivity, cost, waste, skills and carbon challenges. 

Adapting to product platforms

The construction industry is cyclical, variable and volatile by nature, so presenting a super-efficient, optimised manufacturing approach and expecting that to flourish in such an environment is fanciful.

What we need from government is full clarity on long-term building programmes for facilities like schools, hospitals and prisons – a pipeline that goes beyond political cycles and embraces longer-term relationships as we see with economic infrastructure. The New Hospitals Programme goes someway to doing this but, as an industry, we need this level of certainty and forward planning across the board. 

This longer-term view will give the construction market much-needed certainty on the returns available if it responds to the changes needed for product platforms to succeed.

The continued prevalence of a project-based delivery model and a fragmented supply chain will mean that a wholesale shift to more productive delivery remains limited.

Construction is at a crossroads. Are we going to continue as before and continue to fail in delivering real improvements, or be brave and adapt to a better approach that could create transformational change within our sector, the buildings we create, and society? 

Understanding product platforms is a critical starting point and each player in the construction sector has a role in working out how and when to adapt to and apply them so that in 10 years our conversations have evolved, not stagnated. 

Ben Carlisle is global practice leader for industrialised design and construction at Mott MacDonald, and author of The Value of Platforms in Construction: An Essential Guide.

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