My colleagues at Luleå university of technology have worked for a decade and a half with improving timber-based housing productivity by a systems approach. We (yes, I get to be in on this!) are now developing to also include general contractors and system-owners. The long-term aim is to be the first choice in this area of expertise as well as in our traditional area. The general direction of the industries is the same: increased con

trol of the product and production process. Paradoxically it is also diametrically different: the timber-based housing companies generally want to widen their scope to reach larger markets, and the more general systems-owners want to lower costs and increase their margins by limiting their product scopes where better control is possible.

From left to right

At the far left of the spectrum we find the traditional contractor, who asks the client to write a wish-list.  We work there with technology for each project. In the middle, we find the system-owner who works with a building-system adaptable for each client but with purchasing and key details standardised. We work there with technology for a process.  At the far right, we find the product developer who is in complete control over the product and the processes involved (including the business, contracts, production, product qualities and so on). There, the market prediction is the king and the product the crown-prince in an almost take-it-or-leave it approach towards every unique client. We work there with technology for process and product.  The general direction of the construction industry is from left to right. We even came up with a succinct description of this ongoing step-change. We call it going From Project to Product.

Sketch by Susanne Engström

From project to product. Sketch October 4th 2012 by Susanne Engström, PhD.

This move to the right is indeed a step-change. It involves new methods of doing business, designing products, logistics, production and what have you. As businesses, in order to make informed choices on where to establish ourselves, the whole sector needs to be able to understand our new environment. In many respects, even though practical experiments have been made, this is virgin, un-researched territory. There is the need for research and for innovation. And we’re in luck.

Europe and the technology platforms

Let me first take a short detour over the years 2004 to 2007. Before writing the seventh framework programme,  the European Commission asked all industries to come together in technology platforms. Each platform should write a vision, a strategic research agenda and an implementation plan for what needed to be done in the industry in question. The construction plans from the European Construction Technology Platform (ECTP) are here. After having received the plans from a number of industries the commission then promptly asked the industries to finance most of the work themselves, because they had pinpointed what was important to them. A bit of smart Divide and conquer  there by the commission. Well, it worked for construction, which was back in the seventh programme after having been almost completely left out of the sixth.

Sweden and the agendas

It is now 2012 and our step-change is well under way. Under the heading of Strategic Research and Innovation Agendas, Vinnova (Sweden’s Innovation Agency), have asked (in Swedish) for a similar document.  These documents are due in March 2013. Vinnova  are working actively to create an open environment for this, aiming for as much collaboration as possible between the industries involved. They are aiming for as much knowledge as possible should cross demarcations and be put to use in other sectors.

The plan is for all the agendas to be the compass for the industries for them to sustain and develop their competitiveness.  Vinnova have been gives substantial resources from the Swedish government to support this line of development, where competitiveness is based on companies working with limited business scope but at the cutting edge of knowledge and ability. It is logical that Vinnova’s goal is to increase national competitiveness by increasing the rate of innovation and increasing exports.

A handful of the agendas that are low-hanging fruit for that goal will likely be offered a major research and innovation programme. This is of course the big prize for the people developing the agendas. Such financial support is the one thing that would guarantee action within their sector. At Luleå university of technology, we’re developing the agenda for systems building in construction.

Based on our experience with the Lean Wood Engineering programme (supported by Vinnova and the companies involved), is that such support will only be useful for the industry if the industry is willing to act without it. Anything that is free you tend to accept but not really value. There is the risk that the national funding goes into the black hole of research reports gathering dust. But if you decide to invest in your future, the support from a national agency is very welcome indeed and can be the difference between success and failure of your investment. Protecting an investment is a terrific driver for projects to be successful. A vague possibility of a slightly brighter future is not.

Luleå and Swedish construction

Vinnova have realised this. They are therefore eager for all agendas to be based on contents that have the potential to have a sector-wide uptake and relevance to business. Like with the ECTP vision for 2030 the goals need to be formulated generically. From our viewpoint, systems building needs to be expressed as a means to an end, not the end per se. We need to focus on a more competitive national construction and property sector. Save jobs and increase margins, rather than eliminating the housing shortage.

The aim is to create the leading research and innovation platform in Europe in systems building. In our opinion, the integration of the value chain between the client (customer), industrial builders (manufacturers) and material suppliers is the key for improving the efficiency of construction. We must stop subject ourselves to lowest-price tendering in each project. The industrial housing approach contains features of both materials supplier process and build the project alignment. The goal of the project is to create an agenda that connects players in the value chain in common knowledge management where business, technology and processes are addressed in an integrated way.

This proposed approach challenges the existing structures of the whole construction industry. Therefore, the agenda aims to pave the way for better integration between small and large construction companies and suppliers in order to drive innovation through increased mobility. The participants are targeted persons from business and academic partners in LWE reinforced with new players in big construction companies, property owners and material suppliers. In short, we’re going to talk to everyone, from clients to the construction union and ask if they’re happy with how things stand and ask if they’re willing to give this a go. They might or might not agree, but we believe this is a matter of survival for many companies. I hope they say yes.


Image: Sketch photo by Dan Engström, Creative Commons by-nc-sa