Introduction to Industrialized Construction (IC) -- Shifting from Traditional Construction to IC
Every day, I read and hear about our infrastructure crisis, and the skyrocketing costs associated with rebuilding our cities and developing housing for a growing world population. The demand for built space is exploding and there is no end in sight until we approach building from a different perspective.
The construction industry lags behind in adopting strategies first brought forth during the Industrial Revolution – things like automation, improved machinery, and a factory-like approach to building that speed production, while also reducing costs. While other industries mechanized and surged, construction remained static.
Today, technology touches almost every aspect of our lives, but the construction industry has been slow to embrace the potential technological innovation can offer. We must continue to adopt technology to address the challenges our industry faces – but that requires more integrated solutions that addresses the entire process of building – from design to manufacture to build.
Some advances in technology have been introduced, allowing the industry to grow, but for the most part, technology has been a point solution, addressing one small problem among a sea of others. While any innovation helps, throwing technology at our existing practices won’t solve these problems. What is missing is the convergence of industrialization and technology to drive us to a state of Industrialized Construction (IC). A path to a place that will allow us to realize the goal of mechanization and systemization.
So, what is Industrialized Construction? Essentially, it’s about applying manufacturing industry processes to construction. It’s the convergence of industrialization and software solutions to enable an end goal of mechanization and systemization in the construction industry. It’s combining techniques and processes and then manufacturing in a workshop or factory and assembling on location. #IC #IndustrializedConstruction
When you boil it down, the two most important differences between traditional approaches and Industrialized Construction are the lack of both reusable design components and utilization of manufacturing environments.
While our industry has been slowly incorporating manufacturing processes for decades, the recent entry of disruptive competition bringing improved technology to market has accelerated interest. Now, these new companies are mastering IC project delivery, while existing businesses with some manufacturing capabilities are expanding their capacity, product lines and geographies. What does that mean for the traditional construction firm? It means they need to understand and adjust their businesses to in order to remain competitive moving forward.
Regardless of your position on this continuum, it’s important to develop a strategy for developing and deploying an IC strategy. In this series, we’ll explore a wide range of related topics surrounding Industrialized Construction, drawn from our experience as both practitioners and advisors.
As we all know, it takes a tremendous amount of work and expertise to fully develop a design encompassing a wide range of requirements; usability, aesthetics, code compliance, performance, longevity, fabrication, assembly, installation and maintenance. Today, we typically divide responsibilities between designers and trade contractors.
Designers focus on how a component functions, how it looks and whether or not it complies with code. So, in essence, designers ensure the component can be built, but doesn’t address how it is built. Which means each project requires a “new” design.
On the flip side, contractors are most concerned with how the component is built, assembled and installed. In many cases, trade contractors have their own line of preferred, predefined components, so, in order to support a custom design, fabricators must either make modifications to these components or try to convince designers to use them as is. Typically, lengthy negotiations result in some combination of both. While the goal is to deliver some uniqueness to our world, we are constrained in our ability to deliver “uniqueness” to each product. In fact, we must adhere to ergonomics, codes, fabrication norms and standard products.
In reality, where we add uniqueness is not in the underlying design of the building, it’s in our product selection, their finishes and dimensions. Typically, this is where the building products industry jumps in with mass customization of materials , adding multiple options in a few dozen categories to produce millions of unique products. And yet, at the end of the day, even with all those choices, nothing is really truly made specifically for the customer.
So how does implementing an Industrialized Construction approach fix this problem? It means finding the right mix of componentized design elements, the optimal number of product lines, and the best set of finishes or dimensions for all types of projects.
This is where technology must be considered. Creating a library of standard components, or kit of parts (we’ll talk more about a kit of parts in a future blog), available to designers at the start of a project, streamlines the design process. And, by making those components customizable, you retain the uniqueness desired for each project. Those standard designs or components can be vetted by all stakeholders from design to build, ensuring they meet specifications, standards and codes, are structurally sound and can be manufactured and installed, and to some extent, maintained.
Creating an ecosystem where all stakeholders in the building process are able to contribute to process, while also benefiting from others input, enables an environment where components can be reusable and customizable.
Manufacturing of Components
The second major difference between IC and current construction approaches is how, and where, a building is put together. Most everyone thinks of a house or building being built on the site where it will remain. But why?
Truth be told, even with a method to their madness, construction sites can be a chaotic and dangerous place. Materials, equipment and personnel are all vying for working room in sometimes constricted spaces, and access to specific tasks can be awkward. It requires a highly choreographed dance, challenged by changing weather, schedules and late, or missing, parts to get the job done. In all honesty, it’s not the perfect scenario for something that requires highly demanding and accurate work.
Couple that with challenges associated with just managing the project and site. Plans are in paper format and can be difficult to interpret between many pages, sections, details and evaluations. Site managers are trying to keep all their plates in the air to avoid delays, mistakes or potential injury. Construction sites just aren’t great for constructing!
A factory on the other hand, is a controlled environment, specifically optimized for the work at hand, with limited or a controlled potential for danger or injury. Each person, or crew, has a fixed work area, with the specific, and often specialized, materials and equipment needed for the job at hand.
Typically, each area would include an appropriate work surface, optimized for that specific task, and only those needed are within the immediate surroundings. All of this makes for a much more productive environment. When up and running, a factory setting can be a highly efficient harmonious environment, leveraging practices that have been mastered over the last 50 years, a stark contrast to a construction site.
Coupled with efficiency, is quality. Eliminating weather, traffic, large equipment and bad lighting provides a very ergonomic environment, leading to a higher quality of workmanship, completed on time and on budget.
Keep in mind, we recognize the importance of site work – clearly there are components of building that can only be accomplished on the site, such as foundations and assembling larger-scale components. By leaving only those such activities on site, you’ve instantly reduced the number of trades and personnel on the job at a given time. This in turn reduces or eliminates site congestion, the number of handoffs between trade, and cascading delays. By using offsite fabrication, the work is more efficient in both the factory and on the site.
Of course, we know there are tradeoffs associated with shifting to a factory setting. Choosing the type and amount of offsite fabrication and the location of a factory requires an analysis of both needs and tradeoffs businesses are willing to make. In addition, things like shipping costs can be prohibitive, so each type of fabricated component will likely have a maximum shipping distance in order to provide an immediate cost benefit. Additionally, site conditions must match expectations to ensure factory-produced components don’t require on-site rework.
We believe these elements are two of the biggest hurdles standing between the traditional construction process and a truly Industrialized approach to construction. Creating a foundation for reusable components that can also be customized and moving fabrication of some components off the job site and into a manufacturing environment, is the first step in transforming the industry from the chaos of design and construction to a straightforward science.
Drew A Buechley, CEO
Drew is Project Frog’s Chief Executive Officer and brings more than 25 years of extensive strategic advisory, financing, and operational experience, in a wide variety of industries, including manufacturing, technology, and retail sectors. His expertise lies in directing companies through high growth and transitional periods. Follow Drew on LinkedIn & Twitter.