Why don’t process industries make more use of offsite manufacturing for construction?

In process industries such as the pharmaceuticals, biotechnology and food production, modular build and offsite manufacturing for construction have been talked about for a decade. Yet serious offsite and modular construction is still not widespread. Why is this, when other industries have embraced this approach and the benefits that it brings?

Higher quality, less waste

My own background is in manufacturing and in particular the automotive industry. I know from experience that making things in a factory, instead of constructing on site, enables processes and systems to be implemented which ensure a repeatable level of quality. Manufacturing operations can be standardised (and therefore better controlled) and assembly activities are not carried out at the mercy of the weather conditions.

Avoiding the difficulties of working on a construction site also makes modular offsite manufacturing much safer. This is a much more significant factor when constructing facilities in the high-hazard process industries than it might be in housebuilding. Working next to hazardous operational facilities makes construction logistically complex, and so the more that can be done away from site, the better.

Reduction in waste is another benefit of offsite manufacturing and modular design. Inevitably, some of the material brought onto a construction site will have to be taken away as waste. It’s much easier to minimise, sort, process, reuse and recycle waste in a controlled, manufacturing environment. In addition, wasting less material will also help companies to meet targets for decarbonisation.

Who will lead the way?

Offsite manufacturing does see limited use in some parts of the process industries. Process skids and clean rooms are two such examples. For instance, a chilled water system could be brought to site as separate chiller, pump, reservoir and controls and assembled in situ. However, it is relatively common for the whole package to be assembled and tested in a factory before being shipped to site as a single skid unit. While such examples are encouraging, the approach seems to be limited to a few specific areas. Why isn’t it used more widely? What are the blockers?

Some barriers do exist around the way that process plants are designed and constructed. Facilities tend to be built area by area, but commissioned system by system with the complexity that many systems (site-wide utilities for example) may span several construction areas. With true offsite, modular construction, each building module would have to have all the systems needed – from power to high-pressure steam – installed and ready to connect to the adjacent modules. This would certainly require a change of approach, with modular thinking at the centre of design and construction from day one of a project. Yet it’s certainly not impossible, as other sectors (offshore oil and gas, for example) have shown.

Perhaps a bigger barrier is an inherently conservative culture in process engineering? In areas such as process safety, this is as it should be. However, for our industry to really make the most of offsite, modular construction, it will take someone to break the mould and disrupt traditional ways of doing things. Large pharmaceutical clients may be the ones to do this, as they seek to become leaner and faster in response to challenging market conditions and environmental pressures. AstraZeneca, for example, has committed to its capital project portfolio being natural resource positive by 2025. Reducing the amount of construction waste generated on site could play an important part in this.

With signs that attitudes are starting to change, and with an increased focus on reducing carbon and unnecessary waste, it seems that the time for process industries to embrace offsite manufacturing and modular construction might have come.

When it comes to offsite, modular construction, now may be the time to ask: “Why not?”