How technology-enabled collaboration will streamline engineering economics

Technology-enabled collaboration will help fabricators streamline structural engineering economics.

engineering economics graphic

Michael Gustafson

August 15, 2017

min read
engineering economics stadium graphic
engineering economics stadium graphic

The work of fabrication companies forms the backbone of stadiums, skyscrapers, and cities. But the real challenge these businesses face isn’t just creating and installing the puzzle pieces of these increasingly complex designs. It’s also managing the peaks and valleys of multiple projects with factory throughput to maximize cash flow and streamline engineering economics.

Disruptions to supply chains and cash-flow management have always proven difficult for fabricators, and project changes tend to be the culprits. From the smallest installations to the largest interlocking engineering feats, fabricators know that when changes have to be made, they’re the ones on the hook.

However, applying the sharing economy to manufacturing will help fabricators big and small react more deftly to the design disruptions native to the construction process. Fueled by the adoption of the cloud and new advancements in information management, machine learning, and big data, fabricators and manufacturers will become more agile, gaining more control and predictability of their supply chain. Here are a few ways that the sharing economy can improve the future of structural engineering and fabrication.

Minimizing disruptions, maximizing profits

Aligning the schedules of trades that fabricate, install, and deliver materials to the job site can be difficult enough in the best of circumstances. Any slight design change means disruption, which can impact fabricator profits. Managers trying to maximize material purchases, minimize inventory, and pay their workers suddenly see small shifts altering workflows, leading to a fluctuating task backlog, unforeseen labor costs, and unexpected material deliveries. Even the extra fee that fabricators typically receive for design changes rarely covers the true additional cost of these interruptions that propagate throughout the supply chain.

When cash flow gets disrupted, small fabricators or those taking on multiple jobs are exposed to larger operational issues. Firms can’t refuse new jobs in a competitive economy. They need to do whatever they can to maintain their working relationships with valuable clients. It’s easy to feel stretched thin in these situations.

Minimizing these design interruptions doesn’t only mean that projects finish more quickly; it can also mean the difference between profit and potential loss. This is where the sharing economy can make a big difference. One of the most promising opportunities for fabricators is enabling design and manufacturing teams to better share common standards and best practices in a common data environment. Of course, companies can do that now. But cloud technology makes it that much easier for larger teams or greater numbers of collaborators—multiple factories, outsourced companies, engineering—to work in parallel to the same exacting standards while ensuring data continuity in project delivery.

Agile team management

engineering economics standardization graphic
engineering economics standardization graphic

In the past, a fabricator might have been limited by how much fabrication capacity it could assign to a certain project and may have been forced to outsource a portion of its work to stay on schedule. With access to more accurate, real-time collaboration, fabricators could dedicate a few of their team members to specific tasks, sharing manufacturing and engineering standards with outsourced teams while staying on schedule and budget. New hires could be trained and brought up to speed more quickly, too. Delegation of work makes it easier to handle an influx of new work (and share the risk). Managing multiple teams will always have a certain fixed cost; the advances of the sharing economy mean that investment can reap more rewards.

Imagine how this process can impact detailing work for the fabricator. Having multiple companies handle detailing on a single project without an elaborate standardization effort can be a major challenge. Now, with digitally connected teams and factories, standards—such as steel connection detail standards, fabrication standards, mark numbers, labeling and tracking methods, even procurement and logistics—can be shared more easily and consistently.

Computational design is already letting engineering and fabrication teams automate routine activities like internal QA/QC processes and overcome data-interoperability challenges. Sharing these quality-management standards will improve collaboration and make detailing faster and more focused.

In this new model, smaller fabricators can continue to take on work whenever it presents itself instead of tying themselves in knots trying to manage an unsteady project pipeline. They can easily add detailing capacity when they need it and still remain profitable.

These concepts can make a massive project like a stadium run much smoother for fabricators. Each large task—such as the fabrication of superassembly steel trusses and roof systems, conventional steel framing, and miscellaneous items such as handrails—can be more easily delegated, coordinated, and reviewed across multiple offices and shops. By using cloud technology to break down projects into smaller tasks, teams can parallel-process reviews so no one is waiting for someone else to finish. Installers can plan their work packages ahead of time, executing smaller jobs with the benefit of better digital information.

Cloud solutions connected to BIM can help fabricators improve their quality-control processes as well. For example, fabricators use technologies like Autodesk BIM 360 Layout to verify the as-built locations of column anchor bolts prior to installing the steelwork. Everything becomes easier to coordinate and share.

Lowering barriers to collaboration

engineering economics collaboration graphic
engineering economics collaboration graphic

As digitally enabled collaboration expands and project teams go global, the sharing economy comes up against cultural and generational gaps. Some believe this challenge will inhibit growth. But with the right perspective, it becomes an asset. The globalization of teams will enable access to a wider pool of engineering and detailing professionals. As technologies automate routine tasks and fabricators standardize best practices, barriers to collaboration will be lowered. Software will ensure that fabrication standards are upheld, acting as a first level of quality control and opening up a larger market to specialists.

Technology can also be a tool to attract a younger workforce into fabrication and manufacturing industries facing labor shortages. With better collaboration, a new generation of apprentices straight from vocational school or university can learn from veterans (and vice versa, as experts with decades in the shop pick up technological skills from a digitally native generation).

As the web of workers grows due to better digital collaboration, other disruptive technologies will impact the fabrication industry. Machine-learning devices will eventually take on low-level tasks, which many see only as a means to reduce workforce. But this technology also promises better workflow and efficiency and, consequently, more work for fabrication companies.

Imagine an engineering-savvy version of Amazon Alexa helping engineers explore more design options or letting younger detailers tap into decades of experience built up at one firm. That type of technological assistance frees up workers to collaborate, communicate, and focus on what’s important, as well as take on additional projects.

As projects become more specialized and complex, engineers and detailers will focus on higher-value tasks while using technology to automate or outsource lower-value tasks. Fabricators will have more opportunities but only if they become more streamlined, reactive, and fast moving to keep up with shifting designs without getting lost in workflow management. Technology can turn the ups and downs of fabrication and manufacturing into a steady, upward trend line.

Michael Gustafson

About Michael Gustafson

Michael Gustafson served as Autodesk’s senior industry strategy manager for structural engineering, responsible for establishing long-term industry strategy for structural analysis, design, detailing, and fabrication. He has a Professional Engineer (PE) status in several states and holds BS and MS degrees from the University of Minnesota, as well as an MBA from Michael J. Coles College of Business.

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