Digitizing Construction within the PropTech Landscape
Yang chen, Technical Director at CIMC Modular Building Systems and
Michael Crane Head Of Innovation at CIMC Modular Building Systems
In just about every region around the globe, the construction industry is in crisis. Productivity is low, material costs are high, and the ageing workforce is not being replaced by the next generation. Reports and headlines are being written around the world echoing this decline and so the time is perfectly ripe for disruption.
Change is not a word that is readily welcomed within the construction industry, especially amongst those who find themselves on site, beset with a multitude of obstacles every day in trying to deliver complex and challenging designs. The approach has been the same for generations; simply do what has been done before and your risk will be diminished. This reticence for change has stagnated an industry and is certainly a major contributor to the bleak scenario described above.
As this digitization of the manufactured construction industry continues to grow and evolve further, it is easier to look ahead and see the potential for wider and deeper positive impact
Enter the Digital Disrupters. Blazing their trails into the Built Environment with their Silicon Valley approach to all things. With bold claims and bolder actions these self-titled industry disrupters are looking to digitize all they see. Whilst it is true, in the main, that the construction industry needs to evolve, there remains significant scepticism around the voraciousness of this approach. Designing, delivering and maintaining our built environment is not easy; all buildings must be safe, secure, fit for purpose and inclusive to all users whilst at the same time being delivered within a set budget and often very ambitious timescales. Everyone within this industry knows of numerous successes but the failures resonate around the world and across all industries. Cautious growth, therefore, has become the mantra for even the most progressive of construction firms.
There is, however, hope. This hope is more than just a glimmer, it comes from many countries and has a pedigree dating back decades and it has a varied nomenclature. Offsite Construction, Prefabrication, Modern Methods of Construction, Modular, DfMA, PPVC and MiC to name just a few are all related to the same ethos, the same approach, the same belief that there is a better way to build. By taking as many of the “traditional” on-site construction activitiesand moving them to within a factory environment, the benefits are multiple and far-reaching. So much so, that many of these benefits are only beginning to be realised after decades of evolution.
Obvious benefits include easier and more effective management of construction activities and tradespeople. If all work is carried out at ground level, then control and supervision becomes easier and the working environment safer. The addition of a factory enclosure removes any risk of delays due to weather whilst adding a significant layer of security to projects under construction.
Along with these better management processes and improved working conditions comes an increase in both productivity and quality. The expense of running a factory soon looks to be an investment when the workers are happier, and the client is receiving a better product in a shorter timeframe and these are just the obvious benefits.
Once construction is moved from an open site to a factory, the real innovation work can begin. Parallels can be drawn (and often are) from the motor industry and principles such as Kanban and Takt Time are easy to introduce and monitor. This then starts to spill over to the design team with Poka-Yoke designs becoming more commonplace in order to ensure correct and speedy fitting of complicated systems. With a simplified and effective production line, more complicated designs can be introduced with the security they will be executed accurately and monitored closely. This closed-loop feedback from the design team to the production line to the design team is often missing on a construction site but is entirely essential with manufactured construction.
3D design tools can be used much more effectively. Not just BIM-type designs but the useof powerful AR and VR tools really add significant cost and time savings to design and management processes. The ability to manufacture a house which already has its digital twin is more than just a clever sales tool. It enables homeowners to better visualise how changes to their decoration or lighting will look, it also allows maintenance teams to “see” through the wall construction and locate electrical cables or plumbing fittings and prevent unnecessary exploratory holes. Heating, ventilation and plumbing systems can be controlled, measured and optimised all through the same single source of truth. This golden thread of design and product information is no longer shared only within the professional teams, it can now be handed to the occupants of these buildings for their use and benefit throughout the entire life cycle of their built environment.
Everything mentioned above is currently in use, to some degree, on projects now around the world and the interest is growing exponentially. Manufacturers can see the benefit to their organisations, designers are given the freedom to design and not waste countless hours detailing the same thing over and over, developersget to see their entire asset before the first spade hits ground and occupiers get a real sense of ownership of their spaces.
It is important to note that although this is possible and indeed it is happening right now this will not be an overnight change. It remains an evolution of our industry, not a revolution. For those stood on the threshold of this new dawn in construction and willing but unsure how to take that first step, use the mantra Standardize, Automate, Digitise
All manufacturers will tell you that it is best to produce the same product 1,000 times rather than 1,000 different products only once. This is the hardest concept for construction professionals to grasp but standardisation already exists, it just needs to be expanded upon. Once a standard library of compliant designs for set spaces can be established there is then a kit-of-parts that can be manipulated, configuredand customised into beautiful, inspirational, efficient buildings.
Once a standard product is designed the process into automation becomes much simpler. Whether this is through templates, jigs or through folding, pressing, cutting and punching machines or through the introduction of robotics, automation can only really be used to its best within a standardised framework of products.
Fabricating products by machine provides the ability to design to the most minute level of detail. A level that can only be achieved digitally. The materials, products and systems used in manufacturing can be more easily tracked and data stored within the 3D environment. Time and motion studies can give real-time feedback to the designers and the golden thread of data maintained for a cradle-to-cradle approach.
As this digitisation of the manufactured construction industry continues to grow and evolve further, it is easier to look ahead and see the potential for wider and deeper positive impact. No longer will construction be seen as a dirty industry, one which is unappealing to generation Z and beyond. Instead, we will be looking for tech-savvy engineers, designers and software developers to lead construction in the direction it is already headed. Work will be less site-based and more office or factory based with all the environmental and social value that brings. This is where the new generation will come into their own; to take what has evolved to date and catapult it into a better, safer, more consciously aware future.
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