Every now and then, disruption pushes a new technology to the front of the pack, bypassing the leading competition. This effect is called “leapfrogging.”
For example, in much of the developing world, absent the terrestrial infrastructure for landline telephony, the telecoms industry leapfrogged to mobile phones. Soon, mobile telephony was widespread in these areas, and more innovation followed. Mobile money, like M-PESA, leapfrogged another gap: inadequate access to financial institutions for everyday transactions.
What would leapfrog technology look like in the construction sector? It might look a lot like “industrialized construction” (IC), or the convergence of manufacturing and construction. IC encompasses the manufacturing of single-discipline components—such as MEP risers, timber, or precast-concrete wall and floor panels—as well as multitrade modular systems that include architectural and structural systems and complete MEP services. These methods require less labor, enable offsite construction and onsite assembly, help deliver against accelerated project schedules, are of equivalent or higher quality, and reduce waste—all while keeping construction costs more predictable.
IC neatly sidesteps familiar challenges such as flagging productivity and prolific amounts of waste by speeding up delivery and making better use of resources. “Speed, lack of resources, and lack of skilled labor are going to be growing issues, probably globally,” says Mike Eggers, vice president of product and innovation at Project Frog. “There’s a sustainability component in that: You just can’t build conventionally in the same way and still meet the needs of society.”
A New Way Forward
Moving construction processes into a factory setting seems like an obvious solution to boost productivity and relieve some of this pressure. McKinsey Global Institute predicts that moving to a manufacturing-style system could lead to a five to 10 times productivity boost in parts of the construction industry.
“Demand is now accelerating to such a point that there’s no way the current way of working will meet our needs,” says Michael Gustafson, Autodesk industry strategy manager for structural engineering. “The gap between demand and capacity is going to get so big that it’s going to change the price point for delivering buildings.”
Materials typically account for much of the overall project cost. And construction is voracious, consuming about half of all raw extraction globally and generating around a third or more of all solid waste. Industrialized construction promises to boost material efficiency and slash waste dramatically by getting the industry closer to using only what it needs.
Recent reporting from the Waste & Resources Action Program indicates a 90 percent reduction in site waste can be achieved by increasing the use of offsite construction, specifically volumetric modular construction. Other sources affirm the power of industrialized construction to reduce another huge source of site waste, defects, and rework by up to 70 percent.
What’s the Holdup?
Despite its clear benefits, industrialized construction isn’t taking off quite as fast as one might expect leapfrog technology to do. Projected to exceed $200 billion by 2020, the global precast/prefabricated-construction market is currently growing steadily at a healthy 6.5 percent annually. But it’s also encountering obstacles.
“When you start bleeding shared risk around, people get very uncomfortable in a risk-averse industry,” Eggers says. “It’s sharing risk that hasn’t been shared prior. So a fundamental shift has to happen in how contracts are structured and how insurance works. Even just bidding on jobs gets problematic because contractors now have to change how many crews they need to frame the building.”
Meanwhile, design practice has been slow to embrace design for manufacture and assembly (DfMA). An often-cited design challenge to broad adoption of industrialized construction is the perceived limit to customization. “We haven’t created enough business models where you can get mass-customized building solutions,” Gustafson says. “You can get very highly customized ones and then you can get highly mass-produced ones. But to get that in-between, the mass-customization at scale, which the automobile industry does so well, hasn’t been achieved yet.”
Lastly, regulatory frameworks have been slow to adapt to new construction technologies. “I think as much as we can leapfrog or integrate data flows and ways of working with the different stakeholders across the project, when it comes to regulatory bodies, there’s no incentive for them to change,” Eggers says. “It becomes a big impediment.” Project Frog can design a school in a week and build it in two months, but it might still sit in regulatory review for four to six months. Bureaucracy isn’t moving at anywhere near the speed of DfMA.
Accelerating Change: Three Innovations
These challenges are real but surmountable, and the future won’t wait. Contract structures, ways of designing, and bureaucratic frameworks all evolve under enough pressure. As demand for new buildings explodes, and contractors are expected to deliver high-quality results faster, cost-effectively, and under safe working conditions, the needle will have to move.
In the meantime, just as mobile money came on the heels of mobile telephony, there are signs of innovation on top of IC’s success thus far. Eggers identifies the following three innovations further catalyzing adoption:
1. Automation. “You need some amount of automation,” Eggers says. “And a lot of people are working on automating design processes, engineering, production processes, and robotics. Our approach is trying to work with [architects’] existing toolsets, integrate into their existing workflows, and augment it with more efficient ways of working. We automate building out [Autodesk] Revit models so we can hand back something they know very quickly and bring that back into their regular design environment and start working.”
At the same time, robotics are increasingly automating production processes. Gustafson anticipates the use of robotics in IC growing from single to complex multitrade applications. “Multitrade [prefabrication] right now is a very manual process because it’s complex,” he says. “We’re seeing robotics being used in component-based fabrication today with wood frame and precast concrete. However, once we can get assembly-based robotics to the point where it can assemble many different systems together. . .the cost will be able to go down.”
2. Data standards. The second innovation promises to speed adoption and growth of IC by connecting disparate pieces of the design and build value chain. “You need data standards so there’s a common way to integrate data across lots of different companies, constituents, and stakeholders,” Eggers says.
To bring different parts of the value chain together in an integrated process, Building Information Modeling (BIM) sets IC up for success now and in the future. “BIM is helping teams speak the same language, digitally,” Gustafson says. “BIM enables design to think about constructability, not just for one component at a time, but for all the disciplines together. And this is where Revit, as a multidiscipline BIM platform, which now extends design to fabrication, is unique to facilitate this.”
3. Cloud-connected tools. “To address the multitude of needs across this industry, you need thousands of applications to address lots of different workflows, some of which are extremely specific,” Eggers says. “It requires new, innovative ways of working. And then if you have a common platform to develop against, you’ll start thinking about new applications. I think people will naturally migrate to a cloud-enabled environment to develop those applications.”
Going back to the original question: Is industrialized construction leapfrog technology? Yes and no. It undoubtedly provides proven ways to circumvent key challenges facing the industry and is growing quickly, but established practices and players aren’t ready for a wholesale revolution in business processes. The potential for disruption is huge, but adoption of DfMA, prefabrication, and modular construction will happen through gradual evolution, not overnight. Nonetheless, the path forward is clear, and technology, as a catalyst, is paving the way.