Written by Damon Schünmann, Strategic Consultant at Barbour ABI
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Construction is a sector that’s all about overcoming challenges on a daily basis. In fact, so used is it to doing this that many examples of innovation are never formally captured and disseminated across even a single business, let alone pushed into the wider industry as best practice. But there are also good examples of the opposite, and Metek is one. It’s a specialist that focusses on panelised lightweight steel construction, design, manufacturing and site installation – in an industry where steel frames are traditionally built using lengths of studs and track, with these cut to size and assembled onsite. Moreover, it’s a company that has been pushing the envelope of the possible on a number of wide-ranging fronts, as MD Oliver Rogan explains.
“You can increase productivity through both offsite and onsite processes,” he says. “People talk about modern methods of construction and everyone’s dream then is to have modules. Modules are wonderful but they do take up space – you’re shipping air and also doubling up the size of the product to make the structure work.” Hence the business has gone down a different road and one which avoids inefficient transport. “[Instead], we strongly believe in panels,” he says, “and we’ve looked at the process of deliverables and reducing the labour required, which is obviously very important with Covid restrictions.”
One of the main drivers for Metek is design for manufacturing and assembly. “It’s an innovation our business has looked at,” says Rogan, “and one of the things I’ve always tried to do as an MD is to say, ‘can we build this with less pieces because you can manage less [components] easier. If you had a thousand pieces in your Ikea set, there would be bits left over. But Ikea has been great at reducing the number of pieces and the things you have to do to produce their products.”
In simple terms, rather than bringing 2m panels to site, the firm has started bringing 8m units in a system that he describes as being like a Meccano set for adults. “They weigh more and you do need a crane,” he concedes, “but the quality of that installation is improved because you’re not worried about panels moving and line and levels – you’re just putting one unit in. That increases site productivity, it’s a safer product because it’s being mechanically lifted, you have better quality and reliability and your overall production time onsite is reduced by about 30% once you’re putting these large panels in as a system of units.”
When the pandemic struck, the business made a point of talking to its staff to understand how it could best look after them and keep them safe. “Once we had a Covid plan, one of the things our teams said was that if we increase the size of the panels it would mean only two people were needed to install them rather than four,” says Rogan.
“That then allowed us to keep 2m distancing throughout the whole process. It was a key winner for us to be able to keep productivity up on the sites because we could reduce the labour needed and keep those 2m distances, but still be installing 300 square metres of framing a week. And during this pandemic we’ve managed to successfully keep every single site open,” he says.
Innovation with colour has played an important role in keeping teams safe at the factory side of the operation. “We closed down the manufacturing plant [at first] and got great ideas from [the staff],” says Rogan, “who became four different colours with green, red, yellow and orange hi-vis teams. Then we changed all our board rooms into canteens so every coloured worker-bubble had its own one, and we brought new toilets in so each team had its own designated room,” he adds.
“The team morale and what they managed to do was phenomenal, [particularly since] manufacturing was one of the areas that the government said you must keep open. As you can imagine, initially there was fear and worry about keeping themselves and their families safe, but words can’t tell you how much I admire what they’ve done and managed to achieve safely.” He says that the business monitors and tests each team, and in cases where one has come back positive, then that colour-coded group gets sent home. “Everyone understood what we were trying to do and it worked because we didn’t get a Covid outbreak and managed to keep the factory going,” says Rogan. “I’m really in awe of what they managed to do.”
In a nod to the simplest innovations often having disproportionate benefits, a Metek site manager suggested colour coding the various frame elements that arrive on site. Rogan explains: “He said ‘it’s really difficult when it’s raining and snowing and miserable. What we want to see is a bundle of [say] yellow frames arrive that we can then put in the yellow [set down] area and we can then build our yellow room.’”
While that wasn’t a recent innovation, Rogan says the idea has now progressed and been adapted to integrate with the firm’s digital designs. “The colour coding now is built into our REVIT model,” says Rogan, “architects say our buildings are like rainbows and they’re using that [colour reference] to call in their products for the rooms. Over the last few months it’s started being used throughout the whole model for the first time.”
Continuing with the technology theme, Rogan says the biggest digital innovation that has allowed the business to perform at a site level during the pandemic has been an advancement of the digital platform, which it’s been developing for ten years. “It was written internally and it allows our inspection test plans to be followed in a digital format,” says Rogan. “Every single building can be signed off by someone sitting at home. All it takes is for one of our site managers to go round with an iPhone or a simple camera and then we collate all the required information.”
He makes the point that it hasn’t been easy to get designers to building sites, and in any event, projects don’t want more people in attendance right now anyway. So Metek came up with a system that allows designers to sign everything off from home in a live environment.
“It’s allowed us to check fire and acoustic details,” says Rogan, “but also that the structure is being designed, engineered and installed to the engineered solution – such as how the decking is screwed together and how the rebar and mesh is tied. It’s all in a digital format and each week our designers ‘walk’ [virtually] round our building sites with our onsite managers and digitally go over the whole process so that they can sign off that inspection test plan, which is the foundation of handing over buildings.”
Anything found to be missing gets logged and becomes a non-conformist report which goes to Metek’s own phone application. This reminds the project manager that the NCR needs to be closed out. “Lots of people say a non-conformist report is a bad thing and shouldn’t have them,” says Rogan. “Obviously as a company, we work to not have them, but you shouldn’t be ashamed of having one. What you should be able to do is monitor them and make sure they’re fulfilled and have an engineer check it out. I believe we should look at things that don’t go right and be open about telling everyone – including all the way up to the MD – that this didn’t work on site,” he says. “Then everyone talks about it, rather than people hiding problems, because they’re worried that senior management might not be happy about it. We should be open with problems, because then we can sort them.”
Rogan says that doing remote virtual walk-rounds in real-time has had another subtle effect in terms of who specifies what gets covered. “These reports I get are so in-depth; the designers tell our project managers where they want them to go,” he says. “The project manager can’t take them on a journey that they’d like to take them; the designer says ‘I’d like you to go to this yellow room please’ and they walk round that room ‘together’. It’s a completely ad-hoc solution and we just go from room to room.”
He explains that the traditional way of doing things would see designers and engineers visit a job and then be taken round to the areas the site team had prioritised. “But what you want to be doing is going everywhere and you [as the designer or engineer] dictating what you’d like to see. In effect, by the designer controlling where the onsite managers are going it becomes a [better] way of policing the build. Our project managers are doing a fantastic job of delivering quality and I don’t want to take anything away from them, but it makes the system even more robust.”
“We’re still at zero RIDDORs on our building sites and it’s a phenomenal achievement,” says Rogan, putting this down in part to another digital advancement developed by the business. “The biggest innovation to health and safety for us is the [digital] model. If you produce a hole in it that someone could trip into or fall down, our software automatically makes it a hazard,” explaining that when operatives open their digital pads, it automatically informs them about any hazards. These digital elements automatically produce a method statement and a toolbox talk.
“The guys on site get their method statement that tells them they’re working in a room with a large riser that needs to be left open and they know that has to be grated,” says Rogan. “It also automatically tells them when there’s a hole like a stairwell and it says ‘you now need to talk to the client about putting a handrail up in the stairwell’. The digital element tells you about these health and safety measures and shows what you need to tell the project manager, to go and tell the client.”
It’s a step up from the previous digital alerts that Metek would have relied on. “We used to use a hazard control unit where a REVIT tool put a hazard on all our drawings. When anyone opened that drawing it would say ‘hazard’. The big change is that a hole now goes into our site matrix so that when someone opens their pad it will tell them ‘you’re working on level two and there is a hazard in a certain room and you need to do a site briefing’. They then upload that site briefing, which comes back to the office, and we make sure everyone is doing what they should, as they have to upload photos for that site process.”
Rogan says that while digital modelling has been great step forward for the industry, unless the site managers and the client are fully aware of what the various parts mean, then they aren’t getting a complete understanding. “All you’ve got is a beautiful spinning object,” he says. “What our senior design coordinator Hartland Ellis has managed to do is bring processes in so they automatically tell you about bundle plans, details, elevations, health and safety and also the loads of the frames. And that also makes it simple for a client to police us because they know that any red frame [for example], shouldn’t be being lifted by four people, it should be lifted by a crane.”
Metek faced a fiendish challenge when it recently built a lung hospital at Addenbrookes in Cambridge with main contractor SDC during the pandemic. “On that scheme, rather than doing a traditional 3m high frame, we were bringing them in all pre-boarded at nine and twelve metres high,” he says. “These massive frames were being lifted into place which allowed the scheme to have an amazing speed.”
He’s up front about the fact that not all innovations save on cost though. “These modern methods of construction do cost money,” he says. “If you did it traditionally with stick-build, arguably it’s cheaper. The problem is that every single bit of those studs needs screws, so you’re increasing the amount of pieces [and processes] that you’re doing onsite. But SDC and Metek together said ‘what is the safest way to build’ – what will give the best quality? And that’s when we came up with these massive lightweight frame panels. Lots of people will be looking at [projects] and saying ‘we need to cut costs’, but it was the opposite here – we actually spent more money to deliver a true innovation and that whole superstructure was completed in record time,” says Rogan. “We were building four-storey frames with an elevation done in less than a week.”
He says that from an engineering perspective, this made for one of the most difficult challenges the business had to tackle, not least when it came to lifting these giant panels in, at an angle, and with a wind. “We had a piece of hot rolled steel as a lifting frame and a counterbalance on one side, so that as you slowly lower it, the weight comes into play and the panel fits beautifully into the opening,” he says. Furthermore, he believes it’s changed the way such jobs will be done. “It was difficult – but it’s one of these elements that will revolutionise external panelling,” he concludes.