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Will robotics revolutionise UK housing?

April 21st, 2022

Will robotics revolutionise UK housing?

An unfolding housing crisis, uncertain supply chains, skilled labour shortages and the race to net zero – could modular housing and cutting-edge technology be the answer? We speak to Matt Evans, COO at TopHat, about the possibilities opening up, and how robotics could be revolutionising the housing crises

“Housing is a critical challenge,” says Matt. “It’s also a market in which technology has never really taken hold. Fundamentally, we still build houses in the same way we did 100 years ago. There’s a massive opportunity to drive productivity by figuring out what technology means for construction.”

With a background in the aviation sector – Matt spent five years at Airbus where he focused on the digital transformation of the industry – he welcomes the prospect of applying the principles of aircraft manufacturing to construction.

Cross-sector learnings

“When you’re building an aircraft, you have very mature assembly processes, but there’s also an element of the bespoke,” he explains. “Almost every aircraft that goes down the line is different.” Whilst he recognises that these differences aren’t as stark as they can be in the housing sector, he says there are learnings simply because aircraft manufacturing is not mass manufacturing on the scale of say an automotive factory.

“For an aviation manufacturer, the build process is not fully roboticised and completely automated. It’s actually a combination of well-trained people, robotics in certain areas, and the right smart tools in others. Lessons in building a very complex product with a high degree of variability are true in aircraft and housing.”

It’s one of the reasons why TopHat’s first factory is located in Derby, with a second also planned for the Midlands. “It’s close to other manufacturers like Toyota and JCB, and when we started, we were able to seed the factory with people with experience at Rolls Royce, Bombardier and other places, people that knew construction, people that knew architecture and people that knew manufacturing and all levels in the process.”

Technology-driven efficiencies

That production line approach, he continues, is “the best and perhaps the only way to increase the capacity of houses that can be built each year in the UK”, taking account of the skills shortages faced in traditional construction and the efficiencies of modular builds. TopHat breaks down the production process, simplifies the build and provides training to utilise a deep pool of employees alongside traditional skilled workers. Technology is a vital element of that process.

“We’re able to bring the right digital tools, the right data, the right human-augmenting robotics, and combine these with people in a way that makes them more effective and reduces the barriers to entry in terms of initial skills needed,” Matt says.

Innovation in pursuit of sustainability

With the government target of achieving net zero in the UK by 2050 fast approaching, carbon emitted by residential property, both operational and embodied, must be addressed. The Future Homes Standard aims to ensure that new homes are built with 75-80% lower carbon emissions from 2025, and Building Regulations are changing to ensure new homes produce 31% less carbon emissions than are permitted currently.

Such radical reductions are unlikely if the UK continues to build homes in the way it always has, asserts Matt: “We need to fundamentally change the way we build and deliver housing, using new processes, new technology, and new tools.”

While the timber-frame construction used by TopHat and the use of air source heat pumps means that they can build 27 houses for the equivalent carbon emissions of a single traditional-build house, Matt says that can be replicated by the wider sector. What really differentiates TopHat and makes modular housing key in the push to net zero, is technology.

“We’re able to check over 300 different data points inside the factory, so everything from insulation to joints is more precise and we can ensure rigorous quality control and continuous improvement,” says Matt.

The ability to deliver high-quality, energy-efficient homes quickly is driving interest from investors. “About a third of the homes in our order book will be going to housing associations and councils,” he says. “The other two-thirds are going to a mix of private developers for private sale and to private investors building to rent, who really want the speed of modular in addition to quality and sustainability.”

Future possibilities

Increased demand brings new opportunity, enabled through technological advances, which will personalise construction through customisation. “I think we’re just at the beginning,” says Matt. “Flexible robotic arms that utilise automation, machine vision and other technologies will accommodate variability. There’s also a big future for augmented robotics, combining even more the best skills of humans with the best aspects of robotics to achieve production efficiencies and higher quality. Bringing in data and AI will link together that end-to-end process and allow optimisation, traceability and continuous improvement.”

With technology firmly embedded in modular housebuilding, and the prize of both sustainability and productivity growth in scope, there truly could be a revolution in UK housing.

Read other articles in this area:

Partnerships, communities and private capital in UK housing

How build to rent is meeting the needs of residents, investors and developers

Adam Mahmood  Partner – Cities, Infra & Sustainability: adam.mahmood@draxexecutive.com

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