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The Power of Digitization Propels Prefabrication Into the Future

Technology

By Satyen Patel, Construction Executive

The construction industry’s record of innovation and adoption of new technologies, tools and approaches lags behind most other sectors. In fact, according to McKinsey & Company, the construction industry is among the least digitized and struggles to embrace revolutionary, new technologies that require up-front investment, even if the benefits are significant in the long run. Many contractors believe every project is unique and that embracing new, obscure techniques and technologies is not only impractical but will also compromise a project’s outcome.

Far too often, traditional projects don’t meet scheduled deadlines and by the time they are actually completed, they are well over budget. Fortunately, digitization is beginning to allow the construction industry to drastically reduce production time and project costs while improving a project’s overall quality. In conjunction with these technological advances, prefabrication is today being utilized by construction crews to create jobsite efficiencies and improve a project’s bottom line.

DIGITAL CONSTRUCTION TECHNOLOGIES

The digitization of the construction industry is already underway. From the earliest stages of the design process to the finished structure, digital technologies are beginning to bring greater efficiency and scalability to the construction industry. Digital construction technologies such as Building Information Modeling (BIM) software, CAD to CAM manufacturing and robotics are disrupting the entire sector and paving the way for several advanced trends to gain popularity within construction.

While the concept of BIM has been around since the 1970s, the technology allows contractors to consider more than just a design’s geometry, and today, BIM encompasses geographic information, spatial dimensions and their relationships with each other and augments this information with time and cost dimensions. Advances in BIM technology allow the structure and engineering details that will eventually be built on site to be captured in a fully detailed, 3D virtual model during the earliest stages of the design process.

Today, for many cutting-edge construction technology companies, projects are seen as a connected network of people, ideas, resources and products converging on a single site, and advanced digital technologies are delivering cloud-based platforms that allow architects, engineers and contractors the ability to seamlessly collaborate.

Automated creation of the BIM model enables more effective value engineering, earlier access to hard pricing and far fewer revisions on the jobsite — all of which save time and ultimately money. By tying every stage of the construction process, from design to planning, manufacturing and finally installation, together with a “digital thread,” companies on the cutting edge are building structures that achieve their final form early in the build process, enabling turnkey installation.

MANUFACTURING

Many activities traditionally performed piece by piece onsite will be consolidated and moved to streamlined factory-like settings where safety and the availability of equipment are greatly improved. Advanced BIM software plugs the architect’s design in and automatically communicates architectural schematics to manufacturing robots that form and weld the parts. These lean manufacturing solutions are able to punch, dimple and cut building materials to precise measurements for sub-assemblies like wall panels and trusses. This process allows for final assembly in a fraction of the time and eliminates waste on site.

Once the building components are progressively shaped, each piece can be printed with a unique ink label, or a QR code, for easy identification and sequencing for the next phase of production. Additionally, this allows for ease and speed of assembly on the job site, further eliminating risk and delivering projects in record time.

Automated robotic welding systems are able to work directly from the architect’s model, eliminating guesswork, speeding throughput and ensuring high levels of precision and quality. By automating some of the construction process, projects are becoming easier and safer for crews in an industry suffering from a severe shortage of skilled labor.

The controlled environment of factories allows for precision and predictability unattainable in other structures that are cut and built on site. By precision manufacturing each component for exact fit according to the plans, a project’s material waste is greatly reduced as well — sometimes by as much as 20 percent.

Standardization is the key to the speed, efficiency and precision of manufacturing processes, but it’s crucial to know that standardization refers to the product process and not to the buildings themselves.

ADVANCING PREFAB

The growing demand for environmentally safe, quick-to-build, lower cost, stronger and non-combustible buildings means that traditional practices need to change. Prefabrication, or prefab, has reemerged due to the burgeoning popularity of these industry demands. In fact, according to a McGraw-Hill Construction report, a key benefit of BIM is enabling the increased use of prefabrication, which in turn improves worksite productivity and overall project ROI.

With digitization, assembly of prefabricated components proceeds according to engineered shop “drawings” created by the advanced BIM software that guides the assembler, highlighting parts by order of assembly. While standardization is key to the speed, efficiency and precision of manufacturing processes, these processes still yield diverse and unique final products. With the ability to accommodate different types of units in the design process, prefab still enables architects the flexibility and freedom to be as creative as they’d like in the design of the building.

What this means is that not every prefabricated project looks the same like cookie-cutter projects of years past. The digitization of the construction industry has unlocked the ability to create unique and architecturally challenging buildings using a prefabrication method.

Digital integration allows for components of a structure to be constructed remotely and to be easily assembled on the jobsite, unlocking numerous benefits.

First, with prefabrication there is little to no material waste, building materials can be recycled in the factory and the controlled environment unlocks a level of precision traditional building practices simply cannot meet. This allows for eco-friendly, greener construction.

Next, because there’s no material waste and components are built to tight tolerances, projects that utilize prefabrication often experience significant financial savings on building materials.

Finally, because structures aren’t built, but are instead assembled, prefab takes significantly less time to build than onsite construction. This is likely due to the improved planning up front, the elimination of onsite weather, subcontractor scheduling delays, unreliable contractors, unproductive staff and speedier fabrication as multiple pieces can be constructed simultaneously and MEP tradespeople can begin work as floors are completed. Speeding the time of assembly also reveals increased financial savings for project owners.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Many early adopters are confident digital technologies will grow to play an even more crucial role in the AEC industry in the future. Digitization is creating a fundamental shift in the way buildings are both designed and engineered and is even advancing construction techniques like prefabrication.

Prefab is being utilized to create jobsite efficiencies and improve a project’s bottom line while employing cost-effective and environmentally safe construction techniques that deliver a unique and high-quality project faster than ever. Digitization and prefabrication allow a sturdy product to be designed and constructed at a rapid pace, reducing production time and project costs while improving a project’s overall quality.

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