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I want to talk about problems. Specifically, problems with prefabrication and off-site manufacturing. Pointing out problems with off-site manufacturing is a surefire way to get labeled as resistant to change and lacking vision. Many will think I just don’t get it.
I view it differently. Talking about problems gives you a better understanding, creates beneficial dialogue and, most importantly, better equips you to solve them.
Without visionaries, the seed for what is possible would not be planted. Realizing the vision requires visionaries and practitioners to work hand in hand. As a leader at a mechanical contractor, I often talk about the benefits of off-site manufacturing. We view prefabrication as a spectrum with field-built on one end and multitrade modular construction on the other.
Our goal is to move our current state one step toward the modular end of the spectrum. What are we building in the field that we can prefabricate? What are we prefabricating that we can skid? What are we skidding that can include other trades? And so on, all with a goal of moving labor off the construction site to a controlled environment.
I certainly feel like a leader and a progressive thinker when I assemble a project team and voice statements about off-site manufacturing:
Who can argue with these benefits? I wholeheartedly believe these statements.
Leaders need to listen
However, as a leader, I need to recognize the realities of today and listen to the experiences of our project teams. Below are some statements I have heard:
“I don’t believe moving one 25,000-pound skid into the middle of this building is safer than moving five 5,000-pound assemblies.”
“Two identical templates were made. One was sent across the country to prefabricate the headwalls. One was given to me to pipe the medical gas to the headwall connections in hundreds of patient rooms. Come to find out, the templates used by each were not identical.”
“I know where bypasses and drains for flushing need to go. I know where controls and TAB devices need to go. What I am receiving in the field does not take these components into account.”
“The connection locations of the bathroom pods made it nearly impossible to make the tie-ins, and the materials used did not match the project specifications.”
When we hear statements like this, many view our project teams and construction field partners as resistant to change. I view them as desiring to be heard. When they are shown evidence that the organization has learned from past mistakes, the majority readily get on board.
We must not conflate problems with execution with the vision itself. We have a golden opportunity to invite detractors to answer the question: What would it take for modular construction to be successful on this project?
I believe you will be surprised by the depth of insight that can be gained when detractors are offered this question. Many times, no one has thought harder about the problem than them.
Is the construction industry broken?
We have all seen the graph comparing construction productivity gains to manufacturing and other industries; it shows construction industry productivity lagging far behind. However, if the current state is so bad, why have new processes and approaches been so hard to catch on? Our current practices create an elaborate system where each player knows their part and, while far from perfect, does a decent job of dealing with complexity.
The bar for expanding off-site manufacturing is not compared to building everything piece-by-piece on-site. Rather, through the widespread adoption of building information modeling, we are already prefabricating significant assemblies and relying on our field partners as rapid installers of these assemblies.
Increased off-site manufacturing may add complexities of additional structural components, the logistics of multitrade prefabrication, and late identification of defects when assemblies are received on the jobsite. Furthermore, the full potential is not realized when the systems were not initially designed with prefabrication in mind.
Don’t misunderstand me; tremendous opportunities exist for increased efficiency at every turn in the construction industry, but off-site manufacturing may magnify problems if it is applied before underlying opportunities are addressed.
Technology does not solve problems
Prefabrication and off-site manufacturing offer tremendous benefits for high-performing teams. The potential for new technologies such as additive manufacturing, generative design and leveraging data is maximized.
Unfortunately, technology does not fix teams that have not been trained to effectively communicate and collaborate. Additionally, a lack of leadership skills to effectively negotiate competing objectives across companies hampers maximizing project value.
The current design process is largely constructed to reduce the need for collaboration and communication. Our multidisciplinary designs are untangled into linear processes. The architect outputs a floor plan. The mechanical engineer outputs electrical loads and structural weights. We have tried to make a conveyor belt of information.
Rarely are the information outputs from one step examined for defects prior to the next stage of work being applied. Optimization does not occur when the mechanical engineer simply reacts to the floor plan he is given.
True optimization occurs when teams approach projects with curiosity and open-mindedness to create processes and dialogue that encourage the full engagement of the vast talent and creativity our industry possesses. Every project is unique, and every team member must be aligned.
The team should ask, “What is unique about our project?” The unique aspects of the project are where the common solution may not apply and are a goldmine for developing innovative approaches.
As an industry, we should emphasize communication, collaboration and leadership skills. This is the foundational bedrock of improvement within our industry. Without it, other efforts to improve our industry, regardless of the promise of the vision, will be limited.
Off-site manufacturing changes traditional roles, adds new roles and mixes up the sequence of activities. Failures occur when team members do not understand their responsibilities in a new process. Having an expectations meeting where team members can articulate what they expect from each other creates alignment.
Leaders, myself included, sometimes expect the team to figure it out without creating a framework for accountability. I learned the hard way that this rarely works. Taking time in the beginning to have these conversations helps teams save time later.
Designing for manufacturing and assembly
When moving labor off-site, the target moves. We are still focused on building performance and lifecycle value, but the definition of lifecycle value is expanded to incorporate the value generated by off-site manufacturing and rapid field assembly. This can lead to the specification of different equipment types and changes to the construction sequence.
A simple example is the incorporation of vertical inline pumps where an end suction pump would traditionally be used. Vertical inline pumps do not require extensive shaft alignment and heavy vibration inertia bases, easing transportation.
Engineers avoid specifying means and methods, but means and methods are relevant to the formulation of the optimal solution. Inclusion of the construction team is paramount to effectively designing for manufacturing and assembly. The design/build project delivery method is the best way to enable and take advantage of construction expertise in the design process.
Prefabrication and off-site manufacturing have a problem, but it’s up to us to resolve it through an emphasis on collaboration, communication and leadership skills. Our industry is comprised of high-performing innovators and problem-solvers who, without a doubt, will find the best way forward to integrate design and construction. I am optimistic about where we are going.
Justin Bowker, PE, has been part of the engineering team at TDIndustries since 2001.
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