Augmented Future for Offsite Manufacture

4th December, 2017

One of the leading facilities in the UK helping manufacturers to become more competitive and attuned to advanced technologies and processes is the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC). What can the construction industry learn from this cutting edge institution in adopting innovative and exciting new ways of thinking?

When Rolls-Royce was considering building a £100 million manufacturing plant in the North East to make high performance jet engine discs, it turned to its partners in the AMRC to help in de-risking the venture. What engineers at the Sheffield-based centre did for the world-leading jet engine manufacturer may be cloaked in commercial secrecy, but the outcome was very clear: existing operating times were halved, productivity doubled and quality increased by 15%.

It is productivity gains of this magnitude that have reinforced the AMRC’s reputation as the go-to place for aerospace manufacturers and their supply chain. Indeed, the membership board in its Factory of the Future reads like a Who’s Who of the global aviation industry: Boeing, who jointly founded the AMRC in 2001, is there but so too is Airbus. And now, high end motor manufacturers like McLaren and Bentley are keen to access the materials’ magic of the AMRC’s composite team. 

More surprising, perhaps, the construction industry is also beating a path to its door. “They realise that the future has to be in smarter, offsite manufacturing where they can exploit digital technologies such as Augmented and Virtual Reality, along with robotics and automation driven by edge analytics and big data,’’ says the Allan Griffin Head of Construction and Infrastructure Strategy at the AMRC.

Laing O’Rourke’s David Brass agrees: “The construction industry can learn so much from the way the aerospace and automotive industries have embraced digital technologies.” Before taking on his new role as General Manager of Advanced Manufacturing, he was responsible for manufacturing capability acquisition processes globally across the Rolls-Royce manufacturing supply chain.

Working alongside a new breed of young engineers at the AMRC, David Brass and his colleagues are exploring how robotics and automation can make Laing O’Rourke’s proposed advanced offsite production facility as efficient and productive as possible. “We have been investing heavily in combining engineering excellence with digital platforms and offsite manufacturing,” says Brass, whose new factory will be able to supply at full capacity up to 10,000 high quality homes a year. “This will enable us to directly deliver smarter and more efficient products that generate economic, social and environmental benefits.”

Mark Farmer – author of Modernise of Die – the blistering critique of the industry’s business model, produced for the Construction Leadership Council at the request of the UK Government, what Brass and the AMRC are doing is set to be a benchmark for the future of construction. “I am convinced that the AMRC is playing a significant role in helping support the construction sector make the change to the smarter, offsite production methods outlined in my report. What really impresses me about their approach to developing technology is how they are making it is easy for the industry to adopt.”

The key decision for construction firms moving to offsite manufacture is which of the many digital technologies to choose from. “Laing O’Rourke are trailblazers when it comes to offsite production,” says Chris Freeman, who leads the Digital Manufacturing work-stream at the AMRC’s highly digitalised Factory 2050. “But they are keen to raise their game. Our role is to help identify and develop a range of technologies and processes to help make their new factory truly advanced. We are looking at everything from relatively simple quick fixes to the de-risking key of investments in digital technologies such as augmented reality, visualisation robotics and big data – that will drive productivity, performance and quality.”

One such quick win was identified on the semi-automated production line of the company’s Smartwall. This pre-fabricated element includes fire protection, sound proofing and insulation, along with mechanical and electrical services. “It was clear there was a bottle neck on the line where the process involved the manual mark-up of switch box locations from the drawing of the wall,” says, AMRC Project Engineer, Arthur Kershaw, part of the AMRC team who used the factory’s existing CAD data to develop a quick solution. “After translating the data, we took two laser line projectors, paired with a barcode scanner, which we linked up to the factory server to accurately project the required positions at the touch of a button,” said Kershaw’s colleague, Diego Aranda, the team’s systems and controls engineer at Factory 2050. Using this approach, the AMRC reduced the time it took to perform these tasks by 60%.

Laing O’Rourke is now part of a steering group – comprising AECOM, Doosan Babcock, Autodesk and Microsoft – overseeing a collaborative £1 million Innovate UK venture between the AMRC and private sector partners to pioneer the use of virtual and augmented reality for the construction industry. The ultimate goal is to help the construction industry realise significant value from Building Information Modelling (BIM) and will target a 25% reduction in cost, 25% reduction in waste, and increased productivity of 30% for projects.

Griffin is convinced that many of these savings will come from the construction industry’s adoption of advanced digital manufacturing technologies in smart offsite factory settings. “The AMRC’s role is to help them develop a roadmap to adoption. For many it will seems a daunting task. But as Mark Farmer said in his report, unless the industry embraces change the future is truly bleak. Industry digitalisation and robotics are a key part of the solution, not only for improving productivity but also in meeting the legacy challenges the industry faces.

“As the Farmer report noted, the construction industry could lose a quarter of its skilled workforce within the next decade. Digitalisation offers a solution to this challenge. The use of smart software and robotics, for instance, can capture the skills of an ageing workforce before they are lost. Augmented and Virtual Reality are also powerful tools that could be used to in training the offsite manufacturing workforce of the future and for upskilling the existing workforce to operate more efficiently in an advanced manufacturing setting.

“Our challenge at the AMRC is to help the construction industry get the maximum value out of industrial digitalisation and advanced manufacturing, driving improvements in productivity and quality along with improved health, safety and wellbeing, as we are doing with our aerospace and automotive partners. We may be part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult but high value does not mean high cost. Our solutions work as well for small offsite modular manufacturers as they do for the bigger players and need not cost the earth.”

Original Link - Offsite Magazine

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