Jon Shanks of the Institution’s Structural Futures Committee, discusses the small steps already being taken towards new means of construction, and how they might relate or contribute to the industry’s next Big Leap.

As an industry where is our next Big Leap coming from and what might it be? Will it be developments in materials, construction methods, or contractual relationships? The reality is that all these factors will probably need to work together to achieve a Big Leap - that is an innovation that fundamentally improves structural engineers’ expertise, capabilities, role or working method for the benefit of a client or society at large. It may equally be that a Big Leap is the result of accumulated small steps. To take an educated guess at where the next Big Leap is coming from we should consider:

Innovation Drivers

•    Rising labour costs - Factory-based construction reduces site based labour costs and allows automation of tasks. Reporting of productivity in the industry should be clarified to address this.
•    Site safety - Factory environments tend to be safer than site-based activities.
•    Quality - Tends to be higher in a factory-based process.
•    Reducing site time - Reduces cost, maintains neighbourhood goodwill, minimises disruption.
•    Academic research - Key innovation is often through research projects at universities or other institutions. Funding organisations play a significant role steering the direction of research and ensuring its relevance to industry.
•    Experimentation - Designers experimenting with new technologies like 3D printing and materials from other sectors (carbon fibre, gorilla glass) through research and development or exhibitions like the Venice Biennale. 
•    Environmental concerns - Increased demand for low carbon concrete, re-purposed materials and engineering with renewable materials like timber.

Innovation Impediments

•    Contractual relationships - Tend to favour avoiding conflict by mitigating risk rather than creating collective benefit through informed risks.
•    Cost-based decisions - Decisions often driven by cost rather than value e.g. dislocated decisions on capex vs use and maintenance.
•    Risk - Natural aversion to (comparatively) innovative approaches leads to industry inertia.
•    Project timescales - Often too short to allow big leaps of innovation.

Innovation ‘small steps’
            
There are a number of ways in which the industry is already innovating in small ways which may well develop further:

•    Prefabrication - Traditional timber framing and steel frame construction is already done in this way, but CAD-CAM allows for parametrically driven, customised prefabrication in in many materials.
•    Modular construction - Already exists at a certain scale in the construction of Hotels, and micro flats) while the “Stick and node” method is already commonplace for steel frame and timber frame structures. 
•    Adoption of engineered timber solutions - The rise of more ‘predictable’ timber products such as cross laminated timber (CLT) and laminated veneer lumber (LVL) combined with increased interest and use of CAD-CAM and computational design is increasing timber use.
•    Refinement of construction materials - Specialist concrete mixes and higher steel grades are being developed all the time. Self-healing concrete and road finishes.

What more can we do? 

To truly innovate and foster the next Big Leap we need to:

•    Promote sharing of risk and reward - To accomplish better connections through research, design, procurement and construction. We are limited by contracts but let’s imagine a move to more partnering and collaboration, perhaps through a world of block chain contracts and strategic collaborations. (A ‘Viewpoint’ article is coming soon on this topic in The Structural Engineer). 

•    Engage with researchers - The Structural Engineer does a great job at exposing us to research but designers can do more to engage with universities and researchers; setting aside time to attend conferences, meet the researchers working in areas that excite us, and helping to inform research outcomes. The Institution’s Research Award is a great way to work with universities to drive valuable research, while Structures can keep you up to date with cutting edge research underway by the Institution’s membership.

•    Look beyond structural engineering - Often innovation in form and system is driven by architects or other sectors such as material science, mechanical engineering, industrial design. The consulting engineer needs to stay informed about developments across the industry; by reading, attending conferences, networking etc but ideally by a long-term investment in strategic relationships.

•    Be curious - The construction industry is generally regarded as being slow to innovate. But we don’t need to be limited by this. The better we understand how our industry – and other sectors - work the more likely we will be to innovate the next Big Leap. 

What do you consider the most innovative work underway in the structural engineering profession at the moment? How else can we bring about a Big Leap? Share below.
 

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