Transitioning to an Automated Supply Chain

Future scenarios for greater SME automation.

Last updated: 26th December 2021

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Innovation Lead: Jacqui Glass
UKRI funding: £52,480


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A team from Reading University's School of Construction Management and Engineering collaborated with SMEs and industry experts to create four feasible scenarios for automated construction supply chains. By better understanding the implications of future pathways to automation; policymakers, SMEs and larger businesses can consider the business model changes, industry conditions and skills requirements needed for greater adoption of automation.

Innovation type: Digital
Organisation type: Research centre

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Project pioneers

The University of Reading team, led by Dr Ruth Dowsett, Dr Martin Green and Professor Chris Harty from its School of Construction Management and Engineering, sought to establish how automation could best be utilised now and in the future. They wanted to understand the impact of robotics and automation on existing organisations, supply chains, and contracts. Importantly, the research set out to discover how to give SMEs an active part in and contribution to automated supply chains.

The problem

Alongside building information modelling (BIM) and modern methods of construction (MMCs), robotics and automation are seen by many designers, manufacturers and policymakers as key to solving challenges the construction industry faces around efficiency, quality, integration and productivity. Yet barriers such as the inflexibility of coping with product variation, lack of standardised processes, and high implementation costs, have slowed the adoption of robotics in construction, especially amongst SMEs in supply chains.


This project looks at the implementation of robotics and automation from the perspective of the SME. Where parts of supply chains would be based was a major consideration in the forecasts. Would automated supply chains be a geographically dispersed and nationwide network or very local clusters around development areas? The implications of different scenarios were then explored for SMEs, especially those in the South West of England. By exploring what business models might exist in different futures where the construction industry is an automated supply chain and linking these back to the present, potential paths of transformation can be considered and plans for action developed.

Key Insight

Tier 2 and 3 contractors and suppliers, already reliant on mechanisation to provide specialist work are, in theory, low-hanging fruit for automation. Yet at present, the value proposition for automating manufacturing processes is insufficient for SMEs to adopt robotics.

First step

Through a Delphi research approach (a systematic, interactive forecasting method that relies on a panel of experts), the team developed four evidence-based scenarios of robotic uptake for SMEs in the South West of England. More specifically, with this panel of SMEs, the team explored what conditions and actions would get them to the point of adoption.


A lack of standardised processes has led to many SMEs in construction supply chains finding themselves stuck in labour-intensive business models.

Process innovation

The Transforming Construction Challenge has stimulated a move towards greater standardisation in the industry. Future scenario planning is important in helping Tier 2 and 3 contractors and suppliers develop automation-based value propositions to meet this shift. 


The research focused on the co-creation of future scenarios with key collaborators. Industrial partners and participants were essential contributors, not only in the design and facilitation of the research but also in the creation of the scenarios themselves. Participants included organisations that work with SWMAS (the South West Manufacturing Advisory Service) and its sister company Exelin, and a number of selected professionals with experience of robots in construction supply chains.

  • Exelin
  • South West Manufacturing Advisory Service
  • University of Reading

Lead support

As well as funding the project, the Transforming Construction Challenge enabled the team to be part of the ICURe programme, helping them to identify the impact and commercial potential of its research. Support was also provided by Network Plus (N+) which unites construction’s academic and industrial communities to create a new research and knowledge base, dedicated to addressing the systemic problems holding back the sector.

Long Term Vision

By exploring what business models might exist in different future automated supply chain scenarios, the implications of different potential transformations can be considered and plans for action developed.

Human Stories

Industrial partners and participants were essential contributors, not only in the design and facilitation of the research but also in the creation of the scenarios themselves.

Powerful Processes

The research consisted of three phases:

  1. Scenario creation: Four initial scenarios were created using findings from the team's previous research into the adoption of prototype robotics. The initial scenarios intentionally included both incremental (such as support with capital costs) and dramatic changes (such as robot cooperatives). These formed part of an online scenario survey whereby participants commented on different aspects of the scenarios that stood out for them.
  2. Scenario adaption: Using the expert knowledge and foresight of our participants, the second stage involved exploring, fleshing out, and extending the scenarios in a virtual workshop. Themes that cut across all scenarios became apparent in these workshops. As the scenarios gained more detail, themes were dropped, adapted and created.
  3. Scenario development: Participants were interviewed to extend their insights, explore potential business model modifications, and provide fine-grained detail on how their company would operate in each scenario. For example, what organisational change would be needed to adapt to an industry in which the participant’s company were part of an SME collective, or where they worked with an industry characterised by 5 tier one contractors.

Fascinating Facts

The Delphi research method is based on the principle that forecasts from a structured group of individuals (such as a panel of experts) are more accurate than those from larger unstructured groups. [Rowe and Wright (2001): Expert Opinions in Forecasting. Role of the Delphi Technique. In: Armstrong (Ed.): Principles of Forecasting: A Handbook of Researchers and Practitioners, Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers].