Digitising off-site construction

In this article, David Clark, Head of Manufacturing and Innovation at off-site specialist the McAvoy Group, looks at the latest techniques for digitising construction and how the new technology is taking off-site construction to the next level.



IM has been the subject of much debate in recent years but the aim of driving greater collaboration across the disciplines of architecture, engineering, manufacturing and construction has to be the right approach.

Digital transformation is happening all around us, and the developing technologies, such as global connectivity, and new advances such as drones, satellite images, robotics and electric cars are set to accelerate and will continue to change the way we live.

The construction industry, however, has been much slower to adopt and benefit from the digital transformation. McAvoy’s view is that there is tremendous synergy between off-site construction and the latest digital techniques, which give us the opportunity to radically improve the way we design and produce buildings for our clients.

Building Information Modelling (BIM)

Our experience of BIM is much more than the creation of 3D models of buildings. It is about the process of how we deliver projects to our clients in the most efficient way possible. Harnessing the latest technology has allowed us to streamline processes at the earliest stages of a project, to deliver shorter design periods and buildings that exceed our clients’ expectations. It allows us to collaborate more effectively internally, with our supply chain and with the client.

Shorter design periods are critical for off-site construction. We need to start manufacturing buildings as soon as the ground is broken on site. To achieve that, detailed design information has to be released to our manufacturing teams at a much earlier stage than with site-based construction – and that necessitates earlier decision-making on the part of the client.

BIM allows a building design to be coordinated more efficiently and facilitates better quality decisions earlier in a project. There is better client engagement with the use of 3D models – teachers or healthcare professionals; for example, are not trained to read 2D construction drawings. If we use data-rich, fully-detailed 3D BIM models and walkthroughs, we can communicate a building design much more effectively, and present design options for discussion in a far better way.

Virtual reality in construction

Advances in virtual reality (VR) have allowed us to actually put our clients and end-users into their virtual building as part of the design process. They can feel and experience their working environments and are now able to validate instantly whether the layouts work for them.

VR takes client engagement to another level and works alongside BIM. It is another way to communicate with clients and stakeholders, allowing them to engage and review the design as it develops. It removes the potential for misinterpretation of drawings and data loss. Using a headset, you can be in the space in a building. Our customers simply love this. We used it for a recent project at Dublin Airport where the client wanted to assess ceiling heights. It provides instant and more informed decision-making.

In the US, VR is being used for planning, for example, allowing authorities to check if a building visibly overpowers a streetscape or not.

Mobile VR can now easily be set up, and remote multi-user sessions can be created. Permanent VR can be installed on site for our major projects, hosted at our head office. Our CAD designer can then be linked to the client who can tour the building in a collaborative but remote design workshop. This really enhances the way our clients and users visualise a building. Its design and functionality can be assessed with a view to producing better building designs, more quickly.

Award-winning VR in practice

McAvoy recently won a RICS award for ‘Best Virtual Reality BIM’ for its application of VR for a complex project to extend a special needs school.

Decision-making for the project at West Hill School in Surrey was facilitated by the use of 3D models and virtual reality. The school could see each room and experience the space, allowing decisions to be made at an earlier stage.

The technology also gave teaching staff the opportunity to assess how a training centre could work located as a second storey of the new classroom block, rather than as a freestanding building which was originally envisaged, adding further value to the project.

VR in manufacturing

McAvoy is now looking at building a VR experience for training manufacturing teams in the most efficient and safest processes.

With off-site construction, there are many repeatable operations to produce bespoke buildings in our factories. We can now take the highest risk activity – such as moving large modules – and build a VR programme around that process to help us continually improve health and safety.

Augmented reality – the next development

Augmented reality (AR) allows the projection of CAD data onto the world around us. For example, we could take AR onto a site and superimpose the building. This would be an excellent planning tool and offer a new level of client engagement. It could also allow us to deliver 3D data to manufacturing, potentially cutting out 2D drawings, which we are exploring and believe has huge potential for off-site manufacture.

As part of our commitment to digitising construction, McAvoy is now working with the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) on an advanced visualisation project to use AR in construction. This is a 12-month programme to develop construction-related engineering skills to address the needs of digital construction.

Our aim is to cut out the resource-intensive processes of 2D information. By removing the reliance on manual processes, there is less data loss and more informed decision-making, all driven by BIM.

As a business, McAvoy sees tremendous opportunities for digitising off-site construction. We were the first off-site specialist to achieve BIM Level 2 accreditation, and it is transforming the way we work with our clients.

As advances in digital technology continue to improve, we can only see even greater benefits to our customers, building users and stakeholders in the facilities we design and construct off site.

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