How technology and manufacturing can bring new efficiencies to a mature industry.
The construction world is currently in the midst of its own industrial revolution, attempting to bring automation, improved machinery, and offsite manufacturing to speed production in a world where costs have skyrocketed while skilled workforces have disappeared. This Industrialized Construction (IC) approach is converging industrialization and software solutions to enable an end goal of mechanization and systemization in the construction industry. It’s combining off-site fabrication techniques and processes with manufacturing principles, similar to the automotive, consumer electronics, and aerospace industries, in a workshop or factory, then transporting and assembling the components at the job site.
The Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) industry is no stranger to technology or the implementation of software solutions for design, documentation, and construction management. Unfortunately, the integration of technology is often in the form of disparate point solutions that are more than likely incompatible, leading to a fragmented overall process. These varying and incompatible solutions can impact a portion, or even all, of the stakeholders and project members during any given project. Under these circumstances, there will be inevitable errors and omissions, forcing constant remediation of design and revision of project scope due to that lack of integration. In addition, the lack of communication within project teams and throughout the full chain can fail to follow agreed-upon or mandated standards or codes.
What’s missing is an overarching process with a comprehensive suite of software solutions linking design, engineering, and construction processes from the onset, to translate the content into a physical building successfully. The platform's integration with software services and tools creates an end-to-end solution that enables mass customization at scale across the global AEC industry.
That comprehensive suite of solutions that links the process from end to end and delivers scalability must begin with the seamless integration of a kit-of-parts platform and a technology platform. A Kit-of-Parts is a repository of building components that are pre-designed and pre-engineered, allowing architects to focus on project-specific design work, and it also facilitates the coordination effort with other disciplines. Additionally, that repository would wrap rules and constraints around each part or series of parts, which could then be shared with all stakeholders from design to build.
In this approach, buildings are treated as a product and must address the wide variety of market demands. The focus is on developing, iterating, and refining reusable components that can be mixed and matched to design and create a wide variety of buildings. These components are designed for manufacturing and ease of assembly on site.
Beyond the focus on the Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) approach, each component needs to be designed for flexibility, automation, and usability. As you might imagine, it requires data management to handle the range, scale, and scale complexity of a building. It must also allow for rapid design and engineering, provide immediate feedback on cost and schedule, and effortlessly manage that data flow through manufacturing and construction. Not a small feat.
To enable scalability, IC also needs a technology platform that allows all users to contribute to the data flow while simultaneously benefiting from other users' data. This data-centric connected workflow must start upstream and make its way from design through construction. With a data-centric workflow, data standards are required to make interoperability between all systems and components possible.
Such a workflow allows teams to automate the process, from design to manufacturing, eliminating manual effort wherever possible. This would include construction documents, shop drawings, engineering calculations, and detailing of repetitive building elements, all typically consuming tremendous amounts of time from highly skilled professionals.
By integrating these innovative techniques, processes, and technology, components can be manufactured in controlled environments, and, once manufactured, they are transported to the final location and assembled. By leveraging the many synergies of manufacturing, a notable increase in speed and scalability is achieved from design through manufacturing and construction. The upside of building this way is enormous – build schedules can be cut in half, key parts of the process are automated, and schedule and quality control are drastically improved when ad-hoc processes are removed.
Putting IC to the test
There are several examples where this approach to IC can significantly impact both cost and project schedules. An example is national build programs, where the major chain or franchise businesses expand into new markets or increase their existing regions. The increasing costs and risks associated with stick-built construction, coupled with a dwindling workforce, creates uncertainty around whether costs will skyrocket or labor will be available when it becomes time to build.
Companies can easily manage the design, development of shop drawings, and fabrication of building components with an integrated process. Implementing a systematic and holistic approach towards structural engineering and platform design allows for consistency across the program at a national level. This includes the development of building platforms broken into wall panels with integrated mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) components and panelized composite roofing systems along with unitized glazing. These can be easily shipped to each site, where businesses benefit from unlimited design options, shorter build cycles, and improved quality. This approach can also consolidate and optimize the network of suppliers and the number of resources needed, allowing the development of potentially hundreds of buildings more quickly, at less cost, with less waste and fewer mistakes, even as the skilled labor pool shrinks.
Schools are another sector that benefits immensely from the IC approach to construction. With long and rigorous review processes and very short build windows, school construction has become inefficient, expensive, and inflexible. Architects can create their own customizable library of parts, allowing them to design flexible learning spaces based on specific needs. Coupled with the ability to manufacture off-site and deliver the superstructure to the site, school buildings can now easily be built in the summer while students are off-campus.
For districts building across multiple campuses, structures can be designed for each school’s specific needs and have their own look and feel yet stem from the same building system. Utilizing an Industrialized Construction approach allows the development of a building system that provides consistency and efficiencies during design, engineering, and construction.
Finally, the construction of apartment buildings, condominium complexes, and even office buildings can benefit from an Industrialized Construction approach. While the cost for a unit or space in a building varies, the underlying design elements such as bathrooms and kitchens remain the same. It’s the finishing that differs at each price point.
General contractors utilize repetitive content, such as bathroom pods, in almost 75% of their projects. Yet, every time a new project starts, the bathroom pods are being re-generated within the design models from scratch. Because every project has unique stakeholders and design constraints, countless documents must be organized and updated, with changes applied whenever design guidelines are changed.
Often, changes are controlled by a combination of tools and functions in Revit or any other design and documentation software. Still, if there is no process to implement a feedback loop downstream during manufacturing and construction, teams resort to manual change management and documentation control. This approach is prone to user error and can result in significant delays, leading to inaccuracies and a lack of coordinated content management.
Going back to the bathroom pod example, by breaking pod options into a defined set of parts, GCs can create a repository of reusable components that can be mixed and matched to concoct almost endless combinations. This enables the bathroom pods, down to the component level, to be managed and tracked easily, all the way from design to manufacturing. If a change occurs to the pod itself, including, for example, changes in ADA requirements, teams can make the change within their library, allowing each project manager at the factory floor to refer to the latest content and be confident it matches the requirements coming from the product development team.
All this means a significant reduction in design time, immediate starts on new projects, reduced unnecessary loopbacks from the factory floor to the design team, all shortening the entire design/build cycle and cutting costs.
To truly industrialize the construction process, firms from design to manufacturing and construction must embrace technology solutions that will allow them to begin to automate the process wherever possible. A technology platform that connects and integrates a comprehensive Kit-of-Parts, along with the associated rules and criteria, is essential to drive us to a mechanization and systemization approach to architecture, engineering, and construction. While there are many software solutions available to the industry, the fragmentation and lack of integration are hurdles that must be overcome to reap the benefits of Industrialized Construction.
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