The UK’s construction sector has been resisting more innovative approaches to facility builds in healthcare and biotechnology, but why is that, and what is being missed out on? Tony Wells from Merit gives his take
The UK’s ability to meet the threat of future pandemics is more pivotal now than ever before.
The urgent need to provide the country with access to cutting-edge vaccine research, medicines and improved healthcare has fundamentally changed and is one of the key lessons emerging from COVID-19.
As a result, what the construction industry must offer to support the country’s resilience is a more innovative approach to manufacturing facilities. These need to be delivered at pace, without compromising on quality, sustainably and most importantly, with productivity embedded into design from the outset.
A report by the National Engineering Policy Centre (NEPC) last year urged improvements to infection control in the UK’s built environment to minimise transmission of infectious diseases, suggesting that such enhancements could save up to £23 billion in annual societal costs for the UK if it was to face another severe pandemic.
Common perceptions of the construction industry, that it is lacking in innovation, fragmented and stuck in the past, can seem unfair
At the same time, market constraints including rising interest rates, high inflation, low economic growth and material supply issues have all pushed reduced operating costs and improved efficiencies to the top of the priority list for every market sector.
Effectively meeting the growing demand for healthcare and biotech facilities, like high containment facilities and cleanrooms, I believe requires projects that can be delivered three years faster than traditional solutions and that work with perfect certainty, at an affordable and guaranteed price.
Common perceptions of the construction industry, that it is lacking in innovation, fragmented and stuck in the past, can seem unfair. However, for many decades, onsite traditional construction has missed the mark, failing to deliver any increases in productivity, profitability or sustainability growth.
This is due in part to the UK’s ingrained resistance to change, and ultra-fragmented in-efficient business model which is a barrier to the introduction of new innovation and integrated products.
Productivity comes from innovation, which largely comes from R&D, yet the UK’s lack of investment in this area is well known, at only 0.48% for the UK construction industry. Traditional construction remains completely disconnected from the opportunities offered by advanced digital technologies, instead continually reinventing the wheel with unnecessary prototype designs.
There remains a vested interest in maintaining the status quo
We know that biotech is a key growth area for Britain’s economy. However, UK construction lacks the necessary level of capacity and innovation to deliver the technically complex facilities that will keep the UK at the cutting edge of international science. To truly deliver tangible and demonstratable productivity growth, which is crucial to accelerating progress in the healthcare, biotech and pharma sectors, we need to drive a step change in the UK’s fragmented approach to construction with new business models and disruptive technologies.
Offsite manufacturing has the potential to provide a new engine for productivity improvement and innovation
Across all sectors, there is a recognition that innovation in offsite construction and a transition to manufacturing has the potential to deliver the combined value and increased agility required in a post-pandemic era.
With the global cleanroom technology market expected to expand at CAGR of 8.57% between 2023 and 2028 to reach $9070.44 million, I believe that pivoting the construction industry away from on-site work to offsite manufacturing will play a crucial role in that growth.
With platform manufacturing techniques, more time is invested in the complex design of products and interfaces
The problem is that offsite construction has not become the mainstream delivery model for new construction models, there have been many high-profile modular business failures and losses and current solutions are based simply on transferring on-site work to an ‘on-site in a shed’ solution still using labour-intensive construction techniques which fundamentally misses the opportunity that digital manufacturing presents for productivity growth.
However, the approach of staying close to traditional building architecture and tinkering with moving some of the elements to construct them ‘offsite in a shed’ is still a long way from a true transition to digital manufacturing and what is needed or possible.
Bringing enormous advantages in terms of speed, quality and sustainability - all of which are critical factors for the healthcare, biotech and pharma sectors – the industrialisation of the construction industry has the potential to be far better suited to deliver complex high technology cleanroom and containment facilities.
Digital manufacturing through detailed BIM integrated platform designs and products enables containment & GMP facilities to be delivered in a third of the time compared to the traditional/modular construction model.
The importance of accelerating the time to use of these facilities cannot be understated, often playing a key role in the advancement of drug and therapy development and manufacture.
The time taken to plan, design, manufacture, assemble and validate the facility should be matched to the OEM equipment leads times so an ambitious target of 12 months or less for the whole facility project needs to be the ultimate goal.
Manufacturing in purpose-built highly automated and digitally connected factories rather than traditional construction site conditions significantly improves productivity, reduces the facility’s carbon footprint and results in a significant reduction in waste on-site and recycling of materials
By facilitating the implementation of best practice in a controlled factory setting to create precision-engineered solutions, digital manufacturing is ideally suited to meet the highly regulated biotech and healthcare sectors, such as the stringent quality standards for infection control that are demanded in cleanrooms. With platform manufacturing techniques, more time is invested in the complex design of products and interfaces so that each project design is simplified to an application of the platform, not the traditional ‘groundhog day’ bespoke solutions that is the norm today.
The platform also gives customers complete freedom to develop ideally configured process layouts, so the design is ‘process centric’ not a more limited ‘POD centric’ approach. This also ensures greater accuracy and consistently high quality, while minimising business disruption through reduced installation time on site.
With buildings representing a significant proportion of the NHS’ carbon emissions and impact, and with Net Zero commitments gaining increasing importance, advances in I4.0 design and manufacture can enable clinical, GMP and containment facilities with lower environmental impact from the onset.
Manufacturing in purpose-built highly automated and digitally connected factories rather than traditional construction site conditions significantly improves productivity, reduces the facility’s carbon footprint and results in a significant reduction in waste on-site and recycling of materials. Fewer vehicle movements on site also means less disruption to client operational activities and reduction in fuel and costs associated with plant hire and vehicle hire.
Comparing even Merit’s own experience of labour productivity field trials comparing site to factory (excluding automation), we see a 3x improvement, so on-site-based ‘kit of parts’ assembly can never deliver the ultimate productivity solution, so we actively look to eliminate such elements from our platform.
It’s a no-brainer that manufacturing is fundamentally a better proposition for delivering high-quality containment and cleanroom facilities more quickly and more sustainably than traditional and modular solutions. However, there is still a long way to go in driving real and quantifiable productivity growth in the construction industry.
There remains a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, with a deep routed resistance to change, and current MMC strategies that are not the silver bullet for delivering facilities on time, at an affordable level and with cost certainty.
I believe that fixing the UK construction industry’s well-documented productivity stagnation can only be achieved ultimately through Industry 4.0 industrialisation and digital manufacturing. That’s why we at Merit have re-invented our entire company around proprietary integrated product platforms designed and manufactured in our own factories to deliver disruptive innovation and productivity growth.
Our unique platform design and zero-carbon emissions approach means healthcare and biotech facilities are being delivered dramatically faster and more sustainably. In line with the urgent need to bring life-saving advanced therapies to the UK, we recently completed phase 1 of the UK’s first purpose-built CAR-T cell manufacturing facility for Autolus Therapeutics in a milestone of just 17 months, which is three years faster than the biotech industry standard of approximately 5 years. This included concept design and planning, manufacturing, site construction, assembly, commissioning and validation and only 12 months spent on site.
Disruptive innovation requires a complete transformation of the business model and requires significant investment. That’s why we’re continuing to make investments in R&D (currently 6% compared with the OECD 2.64% average), expand our factory space, progressively invest in automation, develop our people and transition away from construction towards digital manufacturing for productivity growth.
So far, our labour productivity has grown 71.9% since 2016 when we started this journey but there is still a lot more to come.
Three years ago the UK's resilience was tested in the face of a global pandemic and it would be naïve to be complacent as we look to the future. We must heed the lessons from the past few years and implement solutions which allow our collective readiness to be fit for future purpose.