The current supply chain crisis could trigger a long-awaited change for construction


It looks a bit like the big toilet paper take of 2020 right now with dwindling supplies and our builders dealer limiting us to a pallet of cement a day.

* Dan Grimshaw is the founder of Beam Development

Granted, the so-called ‘perfect storm’ of Brexit, Covid and the Suez lockdown has left the UK construction industry in the midst of a supply chain crisis; prices are skyrocketing and activity levels are at their highest for seven years. Yet the current disruption, while hard to bear, could ultimately accelerate a long-awaited modernization of the industry and create a fundamentally different ‘new normal’. This could lead to a visible shift towards a more thoughtful, productive and planned way of working over the next five to ten years.

If we look at the prevalence of overnight delivery options today, we have to ask ourselves if this is the most efficient and sustainable way to do things. Where you used to sit and draw up a bill of quantities that would tell you the exact amounts needed to complete a project, now no one really needs it. These are all lagging metrics rather than advanced metrics. Suppliers have no idea what to expect because no one looks forward to enough; they just go back to what they sold last week and the week before and base the next week’s orders on that. For the industry to adapt and thrive, we need to coordinate information across the supply chain and embrace the use of new digital technologies, such as product configurators or cloud manufacturing.

Using a more vigorous project management process could also lead to a reassessment of geographic links and vulnerabilities. Each materials sector has its own story, but all of these stories are interconnected by Covid and Brexit. Until now, builders and contractors had no idea where their materials came from because they did not need to inquire about product allocation and traceability. But since we left Europe and the start of the pandemic, we have a better understanding of how and why a supply chain could be affected. There is an appreciation of where the materials come from and the challenges associated with their sourcing and transportation. All the architects, builders and engineers that I know have to adapt to new deadlines for everything. From depending on next day delivery options and taking it in small increments, adapting to new changes will ultimately make the industry more productive. Ordering 10 bags of cement for tomorrow, then 50 the next day or when you need it, is not necessarily the most efficient way of doing things. Thinking and planning a little more in advance is not a bad thing. And from a sustainability standpoint, the harder it is to get something, the more valuable it becomes. Rarity increases value, and in turn you attach more value to it. There is no effort required when after the click of a mouse there is an abundance falling right at your doorstep.

The future could see the decline of just-in-time procurement and the increasing importance of project management. This will also require training. The Eastern European wave has served us extremely well and will continue to do so, but it is obviously a fragile situation. Most have zero-hour contracts or are self-employed by choice and are often likely to leave for five weeks when August comes to see their families. For the sector to thrive, we urgently need to develop and nurture the people who work for us. We need more permanent local staff and build teams and keep them, rather than just recruiting people. The key to a vibrant future lies in training, onboarding and recruiting people into the industry from an early age who have a strong vision for their prospects and careers.

Without a doubt, the industry has a daunting task ahead of it that will require bold and agile movements and skillful navigation, but the size of the prize is enormous.

* Dan Grimshaw is the founder of Beam Development

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