Sunday 9 February 2014

Innovation begins with people

Innovation in the Building Industry.  

Innovation begins with people
A previous post looked at innovation in architecture.  The diagram above is a development of this, following discussions with a Client (a large building contractor and design consultancy).  The importance of people to innovation and industrial progress was quickly identified as the most important factor.  Innovation begins with people, their ability to see opportunities for improvement, and their ability to implement them.  This is illustrated when the diagram is unpicked to show how it works in relation to the development of innovation in the building industry.

Innovation development flow with People at the centre

Innovation is also about looking outside the professional structures of the Building Industry.  The recent Future Systems article in Building Design (BD) identified in 1984  that the aircraft industry as being 50 years in advance of the building industry.  To catch up we have to make adjustments to the way in which we work, change our professional structure in some way - make people innovation, not just focus on products.  Instead if working with the standard building design team (architects, structural and service engineers etc.) we need to engage with professionals in these other, apparently more progressive fields:

The usual precedents are to areas of the transport industry:
  • Rail 
  • Automobile
  • Aircraft
  • Yacht and boat building
From experience, economies of scale work often against the Building Industry.  Transport is a mass production industry and buildings are often about low volume production or single items.  Instead of targeting big players in the transport sector (eg Bombardier), look at instead smaller manufacturing companies or smaller suppliers to the big guys (eg Advanced Composite Systems).  These specialist manufacturers also have long established connections to their specialist design consultants.

It is still worth keeping an eye on innovations coming out of organisations such as BAE and Qinetiq.

BAE 3D printing parts for the Tornado jet

Qinetiq's developments in electric ion propulsion saves fuel and resources, manoeuvring objects in orbit 

To work more like these industries we should think more like them too.  Top Gear assesses cars partly on their power to weight ratio.  It's not very often we hear about buildings being designed with an optimised surface area to volume ratio, which is important to minimise heat loss and air leakage.

Some areas to look at for inspiration and innovation for the Building industry include:

3D printing
3D printing will revolutionise the Building Industry.  Where BIM is being dragged in to our industrial sector, 3D printing will hit it like a rocket.  The technology is developing rapidly and with this the bar for entry to this technology is dropping.  3D printers can be purchased from Maplin and ebay for just over £500 with software.  Once where the Building Industry had problems keeping up with the complex geometric design requirements of architects and designers, with 3D printing there will be no limit to the complexity of forms.  There will also be no limit dictated by economies of scale because each component item can be made bespoke.

This innovation and the freedom it potentially brings, could mean that we break free from our reliance on right-angles and rectangles, which for the past three millennia have been the basis for setting out buildings, floor plans, walls, fixtures and fittings (tables etc).  Instead the prime design parameters might be limited only to the vertical z axis, gravity and performance loads.  Buildings might look more like aircraft or boats, where design is dictated by performance, or become completely free-form.

Biological systems
Beyond biomimicry and biomutualism, buildings one day might simply be biological, able to generate heat and provide warm air and with minimal heat loss to the outside, purify water and manage light transmission as a controlled living organism.  Imagine one day buildings might be grown rather than built, have a life-cycle, be totally biodegradable or require a building medic.

Integrated components
In the future components might have several integrated roles.  For example FRP carbon components can act as structural members, have aesthetic value as visible items, and operate as fuel cells.  Thinking like this can potentially reduce the amount of material resources used to produce a building, but will require a much tighter integration of roles within the design team, where currently building envelope, structure and services are all produced separately: A people innovation.

The Lola-Drayson electric racing car experiments with cells integrated within the carbon
monocoque structure to power the car's controls

Control systems
Control systems to buildings are becoming more and more sophisticated and our lives becoming ever more reliant on smart phones and tablets.  Not surprisingly there are already apps which can manage a building's control systems from an app.

Beyond the building industry there are many innovations in materials to draw inspiration from.  As well as looking beyond our industrial sector or to nature, this too requires a greater integration between the working methods of design professionals, to combine their efforts on single components.

Plastic compound becomes stronger when stressed

Moving architecture
Where building design is considered more as an assembly of components with greater prefabrication and off-site production, combined with greater precision from CAD software and digitised production, buildings can potentially adopt more moving parts to enable them to move, transform or relocate with autonomy.

The hydraulic systems on a CAT digger.
It is possible to have hydraulic systems in a building, similar to those in an industrial vehicle

Electroactive polymers change shape with electric currents.  Combine this example with Buckminster Fuller's Cloud 9 project and we have cities in the sky!

Reliance on resources
Energy prices are increasing and government incentive is (partly) to economise on fuel use.  Innovative thinking can allow us to greatly reduce our reliance on the utilities with developments such as fuel cells, or free us from them altogether with self-sufficient buildings.

Buildings with feelings
Beyond BIM, buildings might be fitted with sensors to let owners and occupants know when something needs attention.  Sudden motion sensors (SMS) and Microelectromechanical systems (MEM) are the tiny devices found in games consoles (Nintendo Wii and Xbox) and smart phones.  Quantities of these sensors entering our environment is growing rapidly and there are moves to connect as many as possible over the internet, to monitor the status of our wider local, national and global environments.  Structural Health Monitoring (SHM), where many buildings are connected through their sensors, will offer greater accuracy in understanding the earth's seismic patterns and environmental conditions, including wind loads, rainfall and even air quality.  Detailed data will help us make the connections between local and global earth systems to assist our understanding of problems like flood patterns, for example.

MEM technology - microscopic

It's all out there and people make it happen.

How innovative is the Building Industry?
Chapter 11 in the Economics of Industrial Innovation examines the degrees to which businesses and industrial sectors are innovative.  It is very revealing and sets out four camps of business innovation:

Offensive innovators
These are often market leaders with new products and a strong reliance on science and technology.  R&D plays a key role and the organisation seeks new possibilities and opportunities to move in to.  Where a market opportunity is identified, it is actively moved in to.  The best key specialists and individuals are recruited and acquire their knowledge from multiple or diverse sources. Communication is critical across the organisation with clear professional structures and division of labour.  Often bottom-up communication (or reverse engineering) is used.  Often young organisations, but with lots of people innovation!

Defensive innovators
This sometimes applies to once offensive innovators which then rest on their laurels as the business or organisation matures and their target market share is achieved.

Imitative innovators
These follow up on the work of others.  They do not necessarily copy but maintain a market position working with or in support to the first two types of innovators.

Here the organisational structure of the business or industrial sector changes little.  This is partly because of low demand from the market to change the product.  It is essentially led by fashion (aesthetics and style), which it uses as it's greatest strength and selling point.  The organisational structure is fragmented often with poor communication between parties.  It can rely a lot on craft based skills with minimal scientific input.  QA is used to regulate and control, with the greatest influences to innovation and technological shift coming from legislation and government policy.

General levels at which businesses and their industrial sectors innovate

This might read like the life-cycle of industry with younger organisations at the top and the oldest at the bottom, but how many similarities are there between the Building Industry and the traditionalist camp?

Within this camp though, there are innovators working away.  An old(ish) article from BD lists some of the movers and shakers.

This analysis of innovation camps also offers suggestions of how the Building Industry and businesses within it might revitalise and break free of the traditionalist set, to become more vibrant.  It's all possible, it just takes people.

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