When Deryl McKissack, the chief executive of Washington-based design and engineering firm McKissack & McKissack, learned that the electrical switchgear needed for the new Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport terminal had been delayed due to supply chain issues, she knew that the project would not come to a halt.
A plan to build components that would require site equipment to be installed later at the terminal, a concept known as prefabrication, would allow construction to proceed on schedule.
Working in parallel rather than sequentially “saved the project about six months,” Ms. McKissack said.
In conventional methods, base materials are transported to a construction site, where they are assembled in a specific order. Prefabrication of parts such as walls and stairs had gained momentum before the pandemic as a way to save money and time.
Now, shortages caused by global supply chain delays are accelerating the trend, as building off-site can prevent problems in one area from spreading throughout the project.
Factory prefabrication provides a more controlled environment, the ability to bulk order parts cheaper, and the ability to gather workers with specific skills in one place on a consistent schedule. The specialist approach makes production faster and more accurate, and technological advances have made it possible to create a variety of building elements, such as complete bathrooms with toilets and sinks and million-dollar HVAC and plumbing modules.
Prefabrication methods have long been used in the construction industry, but there are drawbacks, including high transportation costs and the public perception that the result can look homogenized. And there are other challenges, Ms McKissack said. Planning and organization must be done further in advance and must be more precise. It can be difficult to complete the process on a construction site when adjustments need to be made.
Understand the supply chain crisis
But the benefits of prefabrication have become more apparent as the coronavirus pandemic and rising inflation have choked supply chains around the world, and a shortage of skilled workers has left manufacturers struggling to keep up with growing demand, Alfonso said. Medina, CEO of Madelon Group, a developer in Brooklyn.
Standardization makes construction cheaper and more predictable, he said, adding that without it “every time you build a building, you’re reinventing the wheel.”
Components built off-site are typically complex to make, but easy to transport. For example, Overcast Innovations, a Seattle start-up, manufactures ceiling equipment in a factory and then ships them to construction sites for installation. Making the rectangular panels may require expertise in up to 15 specialties, including electrical, plumbing, HVAC, lighting, internet and sensor equipment, said Matt Wegworth, the company’s general manager.
“Buildings are getting more complex and we want to see which parts we can deliver more efficiently,” he said.
Companies like Overcast Innovations can buy in bulk, which lowers costs and, most importantly, safeguards against shortages. That’s important to construction managers because supply chain problems are “the worst we’ve seen in 10 years,” said Mr Wegworth. His company can move materials across a portfolio of projects based on customer needs, and he estimates that Overcast ceiling units deliver cost savings of 15 to 20 percent over site-mounted ceiling units.
In a traditional construction project, something as small as the delayed delivery of temperature sensors can cast doubt on an entire construction schedule, said Mr Wegworth.
Prefabrication also reduces waste generated on a construction site because additional materials such as copper pipes, electrical wires or steel frame components can be used for other customers. On a construction site, it may not be cost effective to hand in additional materials.
An example of a building element that can be made more efficient in another location is the ‘head wall’, an architectural element in hospitals that sits behind a patient’s bed and houses equipment to deliver oxygen, operate fluid collection systems, lighting and connect to the nurse call system. Building headwalls in a factory is faster than having an electrician going room by room on a hospital construction site, followed by a medical gas plumber and other specialists, said Scott Flynn, vice president of sales at Amico, which sells headwalls and other products for makes health. care facilities.
By including finished pieces like end walls, construction managers don’t have to source, order and manage every sub-part, meaning they can hire fewer workers with specialized skills, Mr Flynn said. During the first wave of Covid-19 illnesses, Amico main walls were used on field hospital grounds to speed up their construction.
How the supply chain crisis unfolded
The pandemic caused the problem. The highly complex and interconnected global supply chain is in turmoil. Much of the crisis has been traced to the Covid-19 outbreak, which led to an economic slowdown, mass layoffs and a production shutdown. This is what happened next:
Manufacturing components off-site can also increase their quality, Ms McKissack said, because a factory provides a more controlled environment without the dust, debris, wind and rain of a construction site. Precision manufacturing technology is also improving. All of this makes the process “faster, safer and more accurate,” she said, and can reduce theft and spoilage.
Labor shortages are another reason prefabricated components are gaining momentum, said Raghi Iyengar, chief executive of ViZZ Technologies in an Atlanta suburb of Peachtree Corners, Georgia. The company makes software that helps manage off-site construction, and it has been used in approximately 2,000 commercial buildings.
During the pandemic, many older, skilled construction workers left the workforce, exacerbating an existing shortage, he said. Some construction managers had to scramble to find job site specialists.
Prefabrication can help reduce staff shortages as building elements can be ordered from anywhere instead of requiring local expertise. A small factory could be realized in a strategic area; for example, “a facility in Pueblo, Colorado, could easily supply Denver and other nearby cities,” Mr. Iyengar said.
Bringing skilled workers together in production facilities, rather than individual job sites, is also more efficient. “Try to find five pipe fitters if your schedule changes,” said Mr. Wegworth.
He added that the prefabrication method also offered safety benefits: if you can “thin out the amount of activity on site, people don’t trip over each other and fewer bodies improve safety.”
Some skilled workers prefer the factory environment, where they can work indoors with a predictable commute, said Mr Iyengar, over on-site work, where they may face harsh weather, early hours and inconvenient locations.
Mr. Iyengar predicts that the prefabrication trend will be more widely adopted after the pandemic, regardless of supply chain and working conditions. “It now becomes more of an expectation than an ambition,” he said.