The Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) industry typically builds one building at a time. A project is defined upfront and is measured on its outputs: was the project delivered on time, was it within budget and did it meet the requirements/scope set out for it? There is minimal option to change the project’s scope as it progresses, even if solutions identified along the way add more value to the customer. Each is a unique project, with an individual set of variables and bespoke solutions for both design and construction. There is a start point and an endpoint for each project with little continuity between projects.
How can we bring greater efficiency and value to the current model? Paul Wintour, founder of Parametric Monkey and Matt Bishop, founder of BVT Engineering, discuss the concept of a Product vs Project mindset in construction.
A product-based approach
Paul explains that with a project-based approach, each solution is bespoke. You start with a blank canvas and create a unique outcome. But if you take an overview across multiple projects, there are often repeatable processes and elements. When harnessed correctly, these can provide economies of scale.
This longitudinal view is known as a product-based approach or mass customisation. The workflow is defined, but certain inputs can change. Where mass production sought to create standardised products, mass customisation combines the low unit costs of mass production with the flexibility of individual customisation. In other words, instead of designing numerous individual projects, you develop a system or workflow capable of producing many outcomes.
Comparing project & product approaches
The difference between a project and product mindset for construction is akin to the difference between construction and manufacturing. In manufacturing, the processes are standardised and repeatable, providing the economies of scale needed to be profitable. Moreover, the digital model is used directly to manufacture elements – a very different approach compared to construction, where often the Building Information Model (BIM) isn’t used to fabricate building elements. Some in the industry have turned to prefabrication as a means to change this dynamic.
With a product-based approach, the time frame is much longer. Teams are set up to make small, fast, incremental improvements to the product, known as Sprints, and this continues for the product’s lifetime. The focus is on delivering value to the customer. As the market changes, the product is iteratively adjusted to reflect this.
However, Paul questions whether AEC organisations are ready to embrace a product-based approach, as it requires an organisation to focus on processes rather than project-based milestones. Furthermore, it requires organisations to measure outcomes rather than outputs.1 The organisation needs to be structured to collect information, analyse data and produce outcomes for scalability. An organisation’s data strategy is therefore integral to success.
The value of structured data
Emerging technologies will be heavily based on data, says Paul. But the data needs structure. In product-based industries, structured data is relatively easy. However, structured data has been challenging to capture in the AEC industry due to knowledge silos and fragmented workflows caused by a project mindset. Organisations seeking to embrace emerging technologies need to consider how they can capture and use their data.
Matt is well aware of the importance of structured data:
When we first started working with Parametric Monkey, we had over ten thousand projects in individual folders, with individual excel spreadsheets, with different versions and different structures. We knew if we could clean it up, it would be an incredible asset. It’s a big job and one we are still working on.
Matt says there’s no magic bullet to becoming a technology-led organisation in the AEC industry. In his experience, it needs to be driven from the top, with buy-in from all stakeholders. Organisations need to be set up to collect, structure and analyse data to support a product-based mindset. They also need to set up teams to manage products over their lifecycle, with a culture of customer value at their core.
Both Matt and Paul believe a product approach will provide greater efficiencies for organisations. It also enables them to change faster and be more responsive to the market, delivering better value to customers. While the change from a project to a product mindset is not easy to make, the earlier organisations embrace it, the better placed they will be.
1 Mills-Scofield, D. (26 Nov 2012). It’s not just semantics: Managing outcomes vs. outputs. In Harvard Business Review.