skip to content

Centre for Digital Built Britain completed its five-year mission and closed its doors at the end of September 2022

This website remains as a legacy of the achievements of our five-year foundational journey towards a digital built Britain

Off-site manufacturing (OSM) was introduced decades ago to improve productivity, consistency and quality. In production, OSM has seen success in the automotive and food and beverage sectors. In construction, OSM take-up has been far more limited.

OSM includes everything in the manufacturing process, from planning to design, fabrication, and off-site assembly under controlled factory conditions. In construction, OSM is a key component of Modern methods of construction (MMC), necessary—in combination with onsite MMC—to produce more and better-quality housing in less time. Yet those with financial interests in construction have been slow to support it. Uncertainty from mortgage lenders, insurers and other industry actors inhibits OSM progress.

In 2017, the UK government commissioned a cross-sector working group, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) Joint Industry Working Group, to develop an MMC framework with terminologies and categories as a means of overcoming these uncertainties.

CDBB’s inquiry into OSM focused on contemporary business models and the potential for innovation in each dimension, from production and revenue to customer experience and outcomes. What models can help bring OSM into the construction mainstream?

Big Picture

The case for use of OSM in construction is well established. The Off-site Manufacture for construction: building for change report by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee (2018) concluded that OSM can help to increase productivity in the construction sector while reducing labour demands, improving the quality and efficiency of buildings, and reducing the environmental impacts associated with traditional construction.

The number of dwellings being built in the UK has been rising since 2013, reaching 210,690 in 2019/2020 but the total is not enough to address the housing crisis. To balance supply and demand and secure sustainability, construction capabilities need upgrading. New approaches, such as modular and off-site manufacturing, need to be adopted at scale, with digital technology and new services generating additional value.

The case for change

OSM is widely used in the manufacturing industry. That industry is built on a strongly consolidated structure and automated environment with integrated information flow, long-term relationships and shared benefits. In contrast, the construction industry is fragmented, characterised by short-term relationships and a reluctance to share information between companies, especially about risks and benefits. Such a fragmented project management delivery model cannot support seamless digital transformation within the sector.

The Project

Researchers set out to explore the landscape of OSM internationally, comparing use cases with the UK, to develop a global picture. Looking at OSM through the lens of ecosystems economics and servitisation (the transition from one-off product sales to ongoing service provision), researchers sought to examine the appropriateness of OSM as a solution to construction’s productivity and efficiency problems. The researchers also aimed to identify how digital services might reposition OSM as a sustainable business model for the construction industry.

Industry partners (spanning both traditional construction and OSM) were enlisted to supply data for analysis. Researchers used this data to generate case studies showcasing successful and unsuccessful OSM deployment, highlighting enablers and barriers to OSM in construction. The overarching goal was to design a framework that could support organisational OSM decision-making and identify service-based business models and associated new digital services.

The project investigated questions such as: 

  • What new service-based business models and contracts are required to support and enhance current OSM business models? 
  • What are the supply chain challenges and how can they be overcome? 
  • What are the financial implications of investment in innovation? 
  • What are the attitudes and interests of different stakeholders and how do these influence OSM in construction? 

In partnership with others at CDBB, the researchers also explored data-driven business models, customer experience, and barriers to digitalisation in OSM, with the goal of producing guidance to aid companies embarking upon digitalisation.

The overall aim was to evidence the impacts of digital innovation in construction and whole life value beyond productivity, generating information to enhance the case for investment and innovation. 

Researchers sought to validate the emerging framework with industry partners, a tool to support organisations in selecting the best service-based business model for OSM, whether as suppliers or clients. The resulting guidance is summarised in industry-facing reports, and detailed in a range of journal articles. Case studies have also been disseminated in presentations, webinars, and working papers. 

Visit the project page for more detailed information about these outputs, core findings, benefits and active stakeholders.

Meet the research team

Lead: Dr Zakaria Dakhli, Research Associate, Institute for Manufacturing at the University of Cambridge

Team: Dr Mohamed Zaki, Deputy Director of the Cambridge Service Alliance, Institute for Manufacturing at the University of Cambridge

Collaborators:  Dr Erika Pärn, Research Associate, Institute for Manufacturing at the University of Cambridge; Faisal Rashed , Research Associate, Institute for Manufacturing at the University of Cambridge; Mark Farmer​, CEO & Founding Director, Cast Consultancy

“This research brings focus to tackling the OSM dilemma: how to innovate, build capabilities, and address the projected 300,000 new homes a year required while still being competitive? The answer lies in finding new ways of providing value: our research focuses on emerging digital services.”

Dr Zakaria Dakhli

More information

Find out more about this project, the research process and key findings, on the project page.

Ongoing research in this domain is documented by Cambridge Service Alliance. Visit CSA’s dedicated website for the latest updates and for partnership opportunities.