Dave Cooper interviews Nick Coubray and Shaun Weston from British Offsite

How design and collaboration drives automation

This is the third episode in our “The Future of Construction” series, and part of Howick’s STEEL HORIZONS thought leadership initiative – our commitment to championing better ways to build and inspiring the construction sector. Hosted by renowned construction industry online talk show host Dave Cooper, this series explores the world of high-tech advanced methods using real world case studies.

In part 1, Dave Cooper went onsite with British Offsite Managing Director Shaun Weston to see their innovative UNI Panel system in action, before going behind the scenes in part 2, to see the streamlined manufacturing process.

In this, the final of the British Offsite site based interviews, Dave Cooper sits down with Shaun Weston and Howick CEO Nick Coubray in Braintree, England to discuss the next steps towards a highly automated process, the future of tech in construction and the secret sauce of all innovation: industry collaboration.


Perfecting production processes with prototyping

When British Offsite move to their new £37 million facility with its automated manufacturing process, it will be a huge leap forwards for the UK construction sector.

But for British Offsite it is a natural transition.

“This [the current facility] was only ever intended to be a live prototyping environment,” says Shaun.

“It has allowed us to progressively improve that production process, make sure the staff are well-trained and build a good culture.”

“When you go into a bigger production facility, you bring all the good habits with you, rather than having to figure it out along the way.”

Throughout this prototyping stage British Offsite worked with local engineering companies to build its own machinery, and used new technologies like digital twins to deploy lean principles and reduce waste and non-added value labour from the outset.

“I was worried the digital twin and VR would be a bit of a gimmick, but actually they are really useful tools.”

“I think when you want to achieve world class manufacturing standards, you have to use world class techniques.”

Getting it right from the start with Howick

“What underpins everything we do is actually the Howick machine. It is the light gauge steel, the click together system and the precision,” says Shaun.

British Offsite’s automation process starts with its Howick FRAMATM 5600 machine which sets the platform for other efficiencies. CAD drawings are turned into a machine ready design model and loaded to produce precise framing components, all in assembly sequence.

For Howick CEO Nick Coubray the idea is to give people accuracy, consistency and control of the process.

“Rather than just buying in lengths and cutting it by hand and relying on people, we can actually automate. The process that we use, which is the component - that allows  you to automate the frame. From the frame you can automate everything else.”

“The framing is really the skeleton everything is built on.”

“We are a small part, but we like to work with people to figure out what else we can do with the framing that then allows that next step to be easier, and the next step to be easier again.”

Designing a better future for construction

When looking towards the future of construction and automation both Shaun and Nick agree the focus needs to be on design and collaboration.

“The problem we have had is everyone backloads projects with lots of labour rather than frontloading it with thought and design,” says Nick.

“What we are seeing here at British Offsite is some real thought going into the process of putting the building up, not ‘what is the cheapest way I can do it?’ but, ‘what is the best, most efficient way I can do it?” which happens to then make it a cheaper construction process.”

This fundamental truth also became apparent to Shaun while prototyping their processes for their UNI Panel solution.

“You first start the system and you need more product out. So what do you do? You put more labour in production.

“It has taken us a long time to realise that actually we shouldn't invest money down there. We should invest money and time into design.”

“Making sure that we are able to transition people from the traditionally designed projects into MMC (Modern Methods of Construction) without having to re-engineer them, takes a really top-notch design team up front.”

Moving forwards together to build better

Collaboration is the other key ingredient for transforming the construction industry.

“It is all a kit of parts, and most people can go out and get that kit of parts, but it is how you put it together that really counts,” says Nick.

“You've got to work with people like Shaun to make that happen because if people are not interested in driving it forward, it is not going to happen.”

It is that need to move forwards together that saw Howick recently host the STEEL HORIZONS event in London, UK. Here the brightest minds in the offsite and modular industry gathered to collaborate together and inspire each other.

“The whole idea behind it is really to get people to come and sit down and discuss: ‘you are doing that. I am doing this. Maybe we can put these two or three things together and then come out with a better solution that everybody can use,”

“It is all about information centring and knowledge, and just generally having a chat with people from the industry who want to move forwards.”

For Shaun, Howick’s leadership and championing collaboration is the breath of fresh air the industry needs.

“I think it is very brave of Howick to try and pull together all these people throughout the industry and foster that thought-leadership about the right ways to take it forward.”

“Construction can be a little adversarial and closed-minded. We wouldn't necessarily be going outward to collaborate with other developers and, effectively our competition. So having people like Nick say, ‘No, that's not the right thing to do, let’s get together,’ changes it up.”

Click here to see the full interview with Nick Coubray from Howick and Shaun Weston from British Offsite


STEEL HORIZONS is a thought-leadership initiative launched by Howick Ltd. As a pioneer and world leader in light gauge steel, we are passionate about the possibilities of technology, automation and data; and about bringing together the brightest minds in the offsite and modular industry to collaborate together and inspire each other.

If you are interested in accessing videos and presentations from our recent UK event, simply click here and join us.


November 2022   #Features